Unexpected eclipses

"Aunt Chel," called my youngest niece as she bounded through the front door of my dad's house, "it looks funny outside."

About midway to the peak of the eclipse. Note the lens flare to the right of the sun. (I did not look through the camera to take this!)

I got up and went to check. I agreed, something was off. The sky was dimmer than it should be and an odd color, not the desert blue I expected late on a Sunday afternoon, but tinged green. Thunderstorm incoming? No, not a cloud in the sky. And I'm in the desert. Right. Fire? This is more of a worry, there is only one road out from my dad's small farm. We don't smell smoke, but still, I'm uneasy. And then there are the trees....something is just not right.

We go back inside to check if there is anything on the Cal Fire site about nearby fires. My dad and sister-in-law have worried looks on their faces as I describe the sky, will we need to evacuate? As I'm opening up my laptop , my stepmother mentions in passing that she'd heard something about an eclipse coming next month. Next month? "Or perhaps today?" I wonder aloud. I hadn't heard anything, but I live on the other side of the continent, and I'd been on retreat for the last week, staying in a hermitage in a spot even more remote than my dad's farm, and before that, spinning around in the end of semester chaos.

You can see the "bite" the moon has taken out from the sun in the lens flare!

I type "eclipse" into the search box. We are indeed in the middle of an annular eclipse of the sun, the moon's shadow will sweep over California, but not reach the East Coast. 80% of the sun's disc will be obscured by the sun at the peak. This is not an insignificant loss of light, enough for my 9 year old niece to have noticed immediately when she went outside.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and take my niece and nephew out to show them how to observe the eclipse by making pinhole cameras with sheets of paper, and by looking at the crescent shadows on the ground (the leaves on the trees serve as ad hoc pinholes, or you can make your own grid with your fingers).

Fast forward five years.  I know there is an eclipse tomorrow. The reports on the radio, TV spots, news reports are hard to ignore. I am prepared. I have glasses to watch with, and a pair of binoculars with the appropriate filters on them.I have a good sense of what the sky will look like; outside Philadelphia, where I live the sun will be just under 80% obscured.

The crescent shaped images of the sun are visible in the grid made by my niece's hands.

But I wonder if being so prepared will change the experience. Will it be as viscerally disturbing, or just a fun science-in-the-neighborhood day, much like the Wallops' rocket launches we gather at the school field to watch? What do I miss when I am not sitting uneasily on the edge of uncertainty?

The mathematics and science that let us predict eclipses, not only their time and track, but also the phenomena we ought to observe, take my breath away, but I confess I don't long for a universe that I can completely predict. It reminds me of a line from one of Alice Walker's poems (Before you knew you owned it): “Live frugally on surprise.” Surprise is part of the delight of doing science, the interesting questions for me come when molecules surprise me, in their structures or or in their behavior.

Similarly, my heart and soul are not captured by an utterly predictable God, a clockwork deity. I long to be surprised by mercy, ambushed by God, caught in a whirl of life and love beyond my comprehension, just as I was caught by surprise by that eclipse.

Profile photo of Dr. Michelle Francl

About Dr. Michelle Francl

Michelle M. Francl, Ph.D. is a Professor of Chemistry at Bryn Mawr College, where she has been on the faculty since 1986, and an Adjunct Scholar of the Vatican Observatory. She is a quantum chemist who has developed theoretical methods for computational chemistry and who is interested in the structures of molecules that behave in ways that chemists might not predict they do. She is interested in the philosophy and history of chemistry, and her essays on science, culture and policy appear regularly in Nature Chemistry. She was elected a Fellow of the American Chemical Society in 2009.

Michelle is also a theologian who writes a regular column, Catholic Spirituality, for the Philadelphia Archdiocese's news site, CatholicPhilly.com. Her reflections living a contemplative life in the midst of the everyday chaos that comes with being a teacher, wife and mother can be found in a number of print and online venues. She gives the occasional retreat, and blogs on life, laundry, prayer and God at Quantum TheologyNot By Bread Alone.

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