The People, The Science, The Eclipse

A sunspot stands out in the lower section of the sun’s orb.

Having never experienced one, I’m looking forward to the eclipse on August 21, 2017. 

Totality is said to be a life-changing event. Some claim to find spiritual renewal, while others report it leads them to new or renewed interest in understanding the natural world, cosmology, and a broader appreciation of science.

In a day when science is under assault from the religious right–and some corporate and political leaders–it’s worth recalling how science helps us to understand the universe and our place in it.

In his wonderful account of the American eclipse of 1878, David Baron assesses the unique role of the people in a democratic society in support of the advancement of science.

Baron reports that Simon Newcomb (an American astronomer in 1878) wrote, ‘“In other intellectual nations, science has a fostering mother,…in Germany the universities, in France the government, in England the scientific societies…The only one it can look to here is the educated public.”’ 

Baron concludes: “In a democratic and egalitarian America, the citizenry was in charge of the nation’s destiny, and therefore advancing science in the United States required convincing the populace of the value of research—that it was worth promotion and investment.” 

The support and curiosity of citizens made it possible for scientists to mount expeditions to observe the eclipse of 1878 in the western territories, and many of those expeditions experienced great hardship.

In this light, the debate about science and religion today is even more vital.

The science of global warming, genetic intervention, evolution, and the potential for a sixth mass extinction, makes it critically important to reflect how we approach scientific curiosity today, and how we view our place in creation. 

Father Richard Rohr makes a key point when he writes, “The first act of divine revelation is creation itself. The first Bible is the Bible of nature. It was written at least 13.8 billion years ago, at the moment that we call the Big Bang, long before the Bible of words.”

The dichotomy between religion and science is false. Father Rohr says, “The basic ‘sacramental principle’ is this: we can know spiritual things through the physical world and bodily actions.”

I’m looking to the eclipse with both spiritual and scientific curiosity. Annie Dillard says it best for me: “We are here to witness the creation and to abet it. We are here to notice each thing so that each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but, especially, we notice the beautiful faces and complex natures of each other…Otherwise, creation would be playing to an empty house.” 

Sharon and I will be watching with friends on a hillside in Tennessee. I’m waiting with great anticipation for the illuminating darkness.


When I look up at your skies,
    at what your fingers made—
    the moon and the stars
    that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
            that you think about them;
        what are human beings
            that you pay attention to them?

Psalm 8:3-4 Common English Bible


One Response to “The People, The Science, The Eclipse”

  1. Rebecca Lo Kohler August 13, 2017 at 7:09 am #

    Truly a thought provoking piece! Science and religion intersect at the point of humanity. We humans are creatures of both the physical and the metaphysical exploring both deeply with a relentless search for understanding. The eclipse represents both the wonders of nature and the awesome power of the supernature. As we gain more understanding of nature, there is a feeling that we “lose” the mysteries of the supernatural. As if the supernatural were an unchartered territory that explorers diminish by mapping it. Quite the opposite, as we gain understanding of nature, we become more appreciative of the complexities of nature and gain respect for the Creator, the supernatural, and the details that clearly were not left to chance.

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