Solar Eclipses: Design or Coincidence?
This is a rebuttal to Live Science’s article, “Why Total Solar Eclipses Are Total Coincidences,” so that readers can make up their own minds.
Many Americans are planning their summer vacations around the total solar eclipse on August 21, the first one for Americans in 99 years. The line of totality crosses from Oregon to South Carolina, providing millions of Americans their first chance to see one of the grandest spectacles in nature. What is the significance of total eclipses that have fascinated humans for thousands of years?
At Live Science, Tom Metcalfe argues for the secular materialist view that total solar eclipses are purely coincidental. They may well be; nobody knows. However, there are aspects of the phenomenon that, considered within the context of other “coincidences” about our planet, deserve more careful reflection than outright dismissal as products of blind chance. Rather than just declare a position as fact and be done with it, as Metcalfe does, we give both sides. Go ahead; start by reading his article, then come back and read our rebuttal.
Metcalfe uses the word “coincidence” 9 times in his article, as if by repetition he will make his point. He also rests his case on the authority of experts he chooses to quote. Although not openly aimed at intelligent design advocates, Metcalfe’s focus and repetition of the word coincidence seems targeted to nudge his readers away from any thoughts that our planet was designed for human life.
It’s a beautiful coincidence — life has been on Earth for about 400 million years, and we’re living in this little window of time where this is happening, which is pretty amazing.
Metcalfe agrees that total solar eclipses are special in the sense of their emotional impact on humans. They are beautiful and awe-inspiring, he agrees. Quoting UK astronomer Mark Gallaway, he makes this concession:
“It’s a beautiful coincidence — life has been on Earth for about 400 million years, and we’re living in this little window of time where this is happening, which is pretty amazing,” Gallaway told Live Science.
A look through the article shows five reasons for the coincidental view: (1) the match is not exact, wavering between annular and beyond-total coverage; (2) the match only existed for a brief time in the history of the earth; (3) the obliquity of the moon’s orbit makes its shadow not touch the earth every time; (4) advances in science brought about by eclipse observations would have happened anyway, and eclipses are no longer important to science; (5) human psychology makes us think they are more significant than they really are.
Update 7/24/17: On point (4) above, recent news shows that eclipses are still important for science. NASA/Goddard “looks to solar eclipse to help understand Earth’s energy system,” says Science Daily. Goddard has also used Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter data to predict where “Bailey’s Beads” will occur, according to another article on Science Daily. More evidence of the continuing scientific value of eclipses comes from Phys.org, which says, “Leading U.S. solar scientists today highlighted research activities that will take place across the country during next month’s rare solar eclipse, advancing our knowledge of the Sun’s complex and mysterious magnetic field and its effect on Earth’s atmosphere.” And if that isn’t enough, Space.com reports, “NASA Wants YOU to Be a Citizen Scientist for the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse.” They’ve produced a smartphone app that allows citizens to report their scientific observations whether in total or partial eclipse locations. “NASA will certainly benefit from the plethora of data it is hoping to receive from citizen scientists across the continent,” reporter Doris Elin Salazar says. It appears we can cross off that objection to Gallaway’s list. [end of Update]
In the book and film The Privileged Planet, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez shares his experience watching his first total eclipse, and how it led him to question the view that it is purely coincidental (see the whole film on YouTube). He decided to calculate all the shadows of all the planets and moons in the solar system to see if any other combination of bodies produces a perfect total eclipse. Beside Earth, he only found one: the moon Prometheus at Saturn. There are several problems with that eclipse, though: it would only last half a second, and Saturn has no solid platform from which to view it. The Cassini spacecraft found that Prometheus is potato-shaped, not circular, so not even it has perfect eclipses. Gonzalez commented about this “amazing coincidence: the one place that has observers is the one place that has the best eclipses.”
That fact alone is not enough to rule out the coincidence view, but it started Gonzalez and his friend Jay Richards down a sequence of inquiries about Earth that showed it to be ideally located for making scientific discoveries. It orbits the right star, has the right atmosphere, is located in the right position in the galaxy, and much more. Some of these factors are detailed in the film, and more in the book. Evaluating the significance of eclipses, therefore, needs to be considered not in isolation, but in context of twenty or more other coincidences about our planet that vastly decrease the probability of them all occurring simultaneously on one planet. The combination of factors could well be unique in the universe, even with the vast number of stars astronomers count.
Added to the work of Gonzalez and Richards, the findings of Dr Michael Denton should be considered in his videos Privileged Species and Fire-Maker. Denton lists additional coincidences that seem designed not just for simple life, but for human life. In combination, these factors make the “sheer coincidence” view highly suspect. Metcalfe should at least take these evidences seriously and not simply dismiss them by assertion.
What about Metcalfe’s objections to design? Even if the match is not exact, it is often very exact. The fact that it is so precise as to allow us to see the chromosphere and Bailey’s Beads is quite astonishing for a coincidence, even if it doesn’t occur that precisely every time. As for its brief appearance in the history of the Earth, the point is that that time is now when humans walk the Earth: what Gallaway admitted is a “little window of time… which is pretty amazing.” As for the obliquity of the moon’s orbit, the same rebuttal holds: the fact that exact total eclipses occur at all is the issue. How many lotteries does one have to win before conceding there’s more going on than luck? The advances in science, furthermore, have been significant (such as the discovery of helium and confirmation of Einstein’s theory of relativity), and continue to be significant to this day. Eclipses have also played a major role in helping historians date key events in ancient history. And for human psychology, well, great: we have the intelligence and emotions to enjoy these rare phenomena, and they only happen here. That’s the point. They’re not happening on Enceladus or Io where nobody lives.
In sum, it is not possible to disprove the coincidence view by considering solar eclipses in isolation, but when considered in context with all the other coincidences that converge to make human life possible on this one planet, the intelligent position should be taken seriously. We think Metcalfe could have done a much better job for his readers by considering these arguments and not dismissing the design view by fiat. Here at CEH, we take Darwin’s position (ironically): “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.” We challenge Live Science to do that.
Update 8/06/17: Live Science defends the coincidence notion again. Laura Geggel asks, “Do Other Planets Have Solar Eclipses?” and says they do; “Total solar eclipses can happen on other planets too, as long as they have moons that are big enough to cover the sun’s disk from the planet’s perspective and orbit the planet on the same plane as the sun, astronomers told Live Science.” And yet she provides no detailed evidence like Richards and Gonzalez did in The Privileged Planet, where they produced a chart of all eclipsing bodies in the solar system based on actual scientific measurements, and only found one that qualifies: the Earth. Geggel suggests that the Galileon moons of Jupiter can have total eclipses, but admits there is no place to stand on Jupiter to see them, and she provides no measurements to confirm they would provide exact matches. She suggests that Charon might make total eclipses from Pluto, again, with no measurements—only assertions. Even if she were right, those eclipses would be brief, and there would be no sentient observers. The timing of her article seems odd; is she responding to ours?
Now go to the path of totality if you can and don’t miss the big event on August 21st!
According to http://curious.astro.cornell.edu/about-us/127-observational-astronomy/lunar-and-solar-eclipses/general-questions/772-are-there-eclipses-on-other-planets-intermediate
“All four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) can experience eclipses, since they all have substantial moons and the Sun appears small from them.”
I’ve just embarrassed myself and the Creation/ID camp by publicly posting a link to this CEH article to four or five Facebook groups, only to seemingly be shown that it’s incorrect. Perhaps there’s an adequate rebuttal to the cornell.edu claim?
DebianFanatic: Thank you for your comment.
No need to be embarrassed. Maybe we should have clarified that no other planet/moon combination has perfect “total” eclipses, where the disk of the eclipsing body just covers the sun, allowing the chromosphere and corona to be seen. Certainly there are many cases where the shadow of a moon crosses a planet, but the shadow is too big, like holding a beach ball overhead, or too small, like a transit, where the brightness of the sun overwhelms the viewer.
In Figure 1-4 of The Privileged Planet (page 11), Gonzalez and Richards show all the cases of eclipses in the solar system for 64 planet-moon combinations. Only one–the Earth–falls on the line for perfect total eclipses with a 1:1 match between angular size of the eclipsing body and angular size of the sun (as we mentioned, Prometheus at Saturn is on the line, but being potato-shaped, Prometheus cannot produce perfect eclipses, and its eclipses are only about a half-second long). All the imperfect eclipses at the outer planets tend to be quite brief because of the smaller angular size of the sun. Only on Earth are eclipses long enough (up to 3 minutes) to allow for scientific observations.
In chapter 7 of the film The Privileged Planet (watch here), Gonzalez also points out the strong overlap between Earth’s perfect eclipses and the requirements for habitability. I encourage you to tell your Facebook friends about “The Privileged Planet” film on YouTube to get the whole story of how eclipses fit into a design argument.
Thank you for your reply. I think you covered that in your original article, but for one unaccustomed to talking/thinking about eclipses, the detail was easily glossed over without recognizing the significance of “perfect ‘total’ eclipses”. Your follow-up helped clarify that; thank you.