Upcoming Solar Eclipse: a Stellar Time for Art & Science
By: Corrie Hendricks
In case you haven’t heard, those of us in the United States are a week and a half away from a super-important-once-in-a-lifetime celestial event—a total solar eclipse. On the morning of August 21st, 2017 our precious moon will glide past the sun, blocking its rays for just long enough to produce a stunning visual spectacle and send a chill across the country (physically and metaphorically speaking). If you’re not yet stoked on this upcoming cosmic happening, I get it. There seems to be a super-important-once-in-a-lifetime celestial event every other month, whether it’s a rare meteor shower or a super harvest blood moon eclipse (Yes, that happened, and it was dope.) So why should you get excited about this one, you ask?
1. Astronomers Are Jazzed
A total solar eclipse has not been visible from coast to coast since 1918. That’s right, the contiguous United States has not been graced by a total solar eclipse in almost 100 years. In fact, this particular solar eclipse has been eagerly anticipated by astronomers since 1932. Just before a solar eclipse on August 31st 1932, professor of astronomy Samuel Alfred Mitchell was quoted in the New York Times, stating, “…there will not be an opportunity to view a total eclipse of the sun from the continent of the United States, under conditions that are really favorable and promise scientific success until August 21, 2017; 85 years hence.” To say that this event has been long-awaited is an understatement.
Not to mention, solar eclipses are exemplary times for scientific discovery. The ring that is exposed when the moon overlaps with the sun? That’s called the corona. The corona is the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere, and it is only observable when the sun’s blinding light is obstructed. As it turns out, an eclipse is the only time scientists can accurately examine the innermost part of that ring. This means two things: 1.) An eclipse is our only chance to examine the innermost part of the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere and 2.) You should stock up on Corona if you are having an eclipse-watching party. Stay on theme people.
Still not impressed? Maybe take a second to consider how surreal a solar eclipse is. The moon is approximately 400 times smaller than the sun. The only reason it blocks out the sun is because it is approximately 400 times closer to the Earth. How god damn serendipitous is that?!
2. Historically, People Have Been Jazzed.
For millennia, people all over the world have gazed in awe at eclipses, attributing the moon’s blocking of the sun to everything from an angry god to a famished star-beast. With such fascinating mythology surrounding the event and a natural beauty that is both ethereal and minimalist, it is unsurprising that artists throughout history have explored the subject of eclipse in their work.
If you are interested in the history of eclipse-related expedition, documentation, and art-making you must visit the Princeton University Art Museums’s online exhibition, Transient Effects. In a union of art and science, Transient Effects explores the visual history of the solar eclipse through a myriad of fascinating images and educational resources. Delving into the science-y side of the things, Transient Effects examines human perception of eclipses and explains how the solar eclipse helped prove Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. For all my wonder junkies out there, this is total binge-worthy material. For my art purists, you're going to want to head to the tab titled “Eclipses in Art”.
As the name suggests, “Eclipses in Art” showcases artwork influenced by the solar phenomenon. The collection spans various styles and times periods and includes work by artists such as Egon Schiele, Alma Thomas, & Roy Lichtenstein. The eclipse is artistically depicted through a number of lenses, expressing everything from the intensity of spiritual experience to the excitement of natural observation to the silliness of outer-space cartoon characters. The eclipse as religious calling is made manifest in Cosmas Damian Asam Bavarian’s Vision of St. Benedict (1735), while George Méliés’ 1907 film, L'Éclipse du Soleil en Pleine Lune depicts the eclipse as a charmingly funny romantic relationship between the sun and moon. Ultimately, this collection provides a snapshot of the endless ways we may choose to creatively express such an event.
Transient Effects is an all-encompassing presentation of the numerous aspects of the eclipse-viewing experience. What I found most captivating, however, is the biography and work of the exhibition’s shining star, Howard Russel Butler (1856-1934). Butler, an artist I was unfamiliar with before this exhibition, is an essential name in the history of visual representation of celestial events (a.k.a. Space Art). Most importantly, he created some of the most significant depictions of eclipses in history. Not only are Butler’s eclipse paintings visually stunning, but at the time of their creation they were a valuable scientific tool. Photography was not yet able to capture a detailed image of an eclipse—at least not one that did much justice to human perception of the event. With his paintings, Butler captured some of the more nuanced visual effects of an eclipse such as subtle lighting and color. Butler’s Eclipse paintings of 1918, 1923, and 1925 were eventually mounted as a triptych above the entrance of New York City's Hayden planetarium, depicting a beautiful celestial event and serving as an homage to the union of art and science.
3. Artists Should Be Jazzed
The solar eclipse is a stellar (pun intended) opportunity for scientific and artistic observation, and an even better time to explore the relationship between the two. If you are unsure where to start in your celestial art making journey, NASA has initiated six eclipse-inspired art projects, appropriate for artists of all ages and skill levels. You can decorate a pair of eclipse glasses, produce a video of an eclipse-inspired interpretive dance, or use your painting skills to predict the corona of the eclipse.
And just in case that isn’t enough inspiration for you, there’s more! Be on look out for other eclipse-related happenings while making your art, doing your science, or simply appreciating the experience. Cool things to look out for include: shadow bands, confused animals, crescent images in the shadows of trees, and the diamond ring effect. Visit Astro Maven’s blog for more info.
In conclusion, eclipses are cool. Celestial events are cool. The moon is cool. Enjoy it.…and if you happen to do any cool documentation or art-making be sure to send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to gush about it on an upcoming episode of the podcast!