Western Slope Skies - Astronomy and the Human Spirit

May 29, 2020

Total eclipse of the Sun, June 8, 1918. Print of eclipse painting by Howard Russell Butler. Public Domain.

Millions  of people globally have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from schools to states and countries have shut down to limit the spread of the virus. National parks have been temporarily shuttered in many places to protect visitors, staff, and surrounding communities. With all this going on, it’s hard to remember what day it is much less remember what is happening in the night sky! Why should we care about astronomy during a worldwide emergency? Shouldn’t we be focusing our energy elsewhere?

This isn’t the first time the world has faced challenges. In 1918, pandemic and world war gripped the globe. In their review, The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada stated “At the commencement of the year the prospects for astronomical progress did not seem very bright. Even the most optimistic had to admit the extreme gravity of the situation.” Astronomers were called on to teach navigational astronomy to militaries. Observatory staffs left to meet the demands of war. And yet, great achievements occurred and astronomical events took place despite the crisis and shortage of astronomers. A total solar eclipse, following a similar path to the 2017 eclipse, occurred on June 8th. Much like 2017, astronomers lamented that clouds obscured the view in many locations. Even so, some  photographs of this eclipse resulted in discoveries. Observers recorded  strange curved rays resembling the petals of a flower - the corona. Work on planetary science took place in 1918 as well. Mars was at opposition in March. Astronomers noted the view of the Martian Northern Hemisphere and what they observed as “seasonal succession and climatic conditions.” The existence of water was believed to be the only way of explaining many of the observations. Decades later, space agencies would send rovers to Mars in hopes of finding evidence of water and life.

Despite the huge challenges facing astronomers in 1918, the search for answers drove the human spirit. This is still the case today. Scientists and amateur astronomers alike continue to look to the sky for answers and hope for the future. As we navigate this pandemic, astronomy may seem frivolous. Yet the search for knowledge is what makes us human, what unites us as a species and maybe that's exactly what we need right now. As astronomer A.F. Miller put it in 1918: “although elevated to the heavens by their studies, astronomers are after all, merely human.”

Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society. This episode was written and recorded by Nick Myers.