On Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 a total eclipse of the sun will make its way across America. The last time the contiguous United States experienced one was in 1979. But it will be the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years and the first to be visible only in this country since before it even was a country.
The track of the Moon’s shadow will cut diagonally across America from Oregon to South Carolina, traveling at speeds ranging from almost 3,000 miles an hour when it appears off the coast of Oregon, to about 1,500 miles an hour where it says goodbye to Charleston, North Carolina and then trails off the edge of the earth.
Its cross country trip will take 93 minutes.
All of the continental United States will see at least a partial eclipse. But only those in the 68-mile-wide path of totality will see the disc of the sun completely blocked out by the moon.
How big a difference is it to see a partial versus a total eclipse? Its been compared to watching a sparkler versus an aerial shell exploding across the 4th of July night sky; or enjoying a beautiful local waterfall over trying to get one’s mind around the majesty of Victoria Falls.
For most locations along the 68-mile-wide path of totality, the beginning of the eclipse to full totality will take about 90 minutes.
Inside this path, the Moon will completely cover the Sun. The earth’s landscape will be plunged into an eerie twilight, similar to the amount of darkness that occurs about 20 minutes after sunset. Temperatures can drop by 20 degrees or more. Birds will go to roost, dairy cows will return to their barns, and frogs and crickets will begin their evening choruses.
The corona is an aura of plasma that surrounds the photosphere, the visible surface of the sun. From the sun’s surface, it extends about five millions miles out into space. For reasons scientists don’t yet fully understand, the corona is much hotter than the sun itself, up to 450 times hotter. But it’s also a million times less bright than the sun.
And this why the corona it is not visible to us except during an eclipse or by the use of a coronagraph, a telescope that employs a disc to block the sun’s bright surface. But even the best coronagraph can’t provide as clear a view of the corona as what the moon drops into our lap during a total solar eclipse. And this is why astronomers go crazy over them and why so many will be eagerly coming from all over the world to photograph, film, map, measure, study and explore every facet of this awesome astronomical phenomenon.
For there in the corona, and particularly its inner ring, lie the keys to understanding many other things about the universe, the sun and even our own planet.
In that sense, the corona is the Rosetta Stone of astrophysics. For once fully deciphered, scientists can then turn and unlock many of the other mysteries of a universe the Psalmist declares
“….pours out speech and…reveals knowledge.”
But here we come to a very interesting and even peculiar aspect of a solar eclipse, one that makes an extraordinary event even all the more extraordinary: Why should the moon so perfectly block the disc of the sun and make the corona to visible?
For if the moon was a bit larger in size or was closer to the earth, its shadow would block out both the sun and the corona.
Or, if it was smaller or further away, the much brighter disc of the sun would drown out the corona’s radiance.
And again, its mysteries would be locked away.
Why should the moon, which is 400 times smaller than the sun, when in the right place in its elliptical orbit around our planet, be 400 times closer to us than the sun, thus making a near perfect total solar eclipse with a visible corona possible?
To scientists under the spell of a purely naturalistic view of creation—meaning there is no Creator, that the universe just happened and just happens to be the way it is—it’s all just a coincidence, a happy—for us—accident.
But mere happenstance transforms into glorious design for those who believe that,
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their speech goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
The Hebrew word here translated “speech” means literally a “measuring line” or a ruler, echoing a theme that is stated in several other places in the Bible: that the cosmos was designed and constructed by and through a singular Wisdom of infinite precision and complexity. From a purely rational human perspective, this cosmic blueprint yields the laws of science and the beautiful symmetry and surprising effectiveness of mathematics, and further explains why modern science, as historian Edward Grant observed,
But along with this rational, scientific dimension, there’s a prophetic or symbolic—one could even call it artistic—aspect to all of this as well. For the Bible declares in the Book of Genesis that the Creator set the sun and the moon in the sky not just to illuminate our world, to regulate seasons and mark the flow of time—for astrophysical purposes in other words. They are also for signs; to point to key truths regarding God’s eternal plan.[ii]
Like any great playwright or theatrical producer, God designed our world and its surrounding heavens to not only serve as a physical stage upon which the drama of redemptive history would unfold, but to also reflect: to provide shading, greater meaning and nuance to this drama.
And there are no more important stage props in this regard than the greater light that rules the day and the lesser light that rules the night.[iii]
There isn’t the time and this is not the place to explore all the wonder to which these two great lights point. Stay tuned for the documentary, “All the World’s a Stage” where we will examine the redemptive/historical aspects of each of the six stages of creation.
For now, we’ll close with two last thoughts.
First, a tangential one that may or may not mean anything. As we’ve seen, the number 400 looms large over a solar eclipse. Totality happens because the moon is roughly 400 times smaller than the sun but is 400 times closer to the earth.
Well, it also so happens that the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, from which the sign of the Christian cross is in part derived, has both a meaning and a number associated with it. Its meaning is “sign” or “signature.” And its number value is precisely 400.
In addition, as we saw in Genesis 1:14, functioning as signs was part of the Creator’s design for the sun and the moon. The Hebrew word for “sign” here is made up of three letters. Each has a numerical value, as the ancient Hebrews used their letters to represent numbers as well. When you total the value of the three numbers you get…well, we’re over 98% of the way there: 407.
But finally, there should be no dispute from a Christian perspective as to one key aspect of a solar eclipse. In revealing the corona and the astrophysical Rosetta Stone it represents, can there be any question that the Creator God intended men to be scientists and understand the universe; to, in the words of the Johannes Kepler, the devout Christian who is often called the Father of Modern Astronomy, “think God’s thoughts after him?”
This is something wonderful to chew on, particularly as we watch the moon slip across the disc of the sun and throw our world into a temporary darkness but for the mysterious, hot light bleeding around its edges.
In what is very likely a line from an early hymn of the Church, we are told that Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity who stands outside of time and space, created both time and space.
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…”
And now time, space and, yes, eclipses show forth His handiwork.
On August 21, remember that He choreographed this cosmic dance. That He did it to show forth His glory as well as to teach and awe His earthly audience.
For it all points to the Omega Point, the Singularity to which all of creation groans and moves.
And this day will be yet another total eclipse for the Son.
[ii] Genesis 1:14
It is not a stretch to put Charles Darwin near the top of the list of people who have changed the world. His theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection is viewed by most academics as providing the foundation for understanding the origins of life and biological diversity. Perhaps even more significantly, it supposedly eliminates any need for a divine Creator that give rise to it all. As a result, evolutionary theory has become a key foundation and article of faith for atheists and atheistic movements around the world. As renowned god-denier Richard Dawkins famously declared in his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
Not as well known, however, are Darwin’s opinions of the primitive, indigenous peoples he encountered during his voyages aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. Upon reaching the southernmost tip of South America and encountering the native Terra del Fuegians, for example, he wrote that these “miserable, degraded savages” were “the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld.” They lived “in a lower state of improvement than in any part of the world. … These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world.” (Charles Darwin, A Naturalist’s voyage round the World, (Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy), John Murray, London,1845)
Such observations no doubt played a part in inspiring the subtitle for his 1859 landmark book, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection:
or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life
Two years later, in his second book on evolutionary theory, The Descent of Man, Darwin made it very clear who “the favoured races” were and where the indigenous people inhabiting much of the non-European world were to be placed on his theoretical tree of life: somewhere between monkeys and modern (read: white) men. In addition, his new naturalistic faith had, like all good religions, a vision for the future (eschatology) and man’s ultimate destiny: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, John Murray, London, p. 156, 1887.)
As time went on, however, Darwin softened his opinion of native people, allowing that they may not be as far from white Europeans on the evolutionary ladder as he once believed. What brought about this change? The work of Christian missionaries among tribal people. Darwin was amazed, for example, to learn of the impact that Allen Gardiner, Thomas Bridges, Waite Hocking Stirling and other Gospel ministers had on aforementioned Feugians. During that last half of the 19th century, hundreds of the them were converted, educated and in other ways civilized. So impressed was Darwin by the transformation that in 1867 he sent a donation to the South American Missionary Society and then continued to contribute to the Society for the next 15 years until his death in 1882.
Darwin became acquainted with similar transformations that took place among “savages” in the South Pacific, Africa and other parts of the world. All of this inspired him to write in his Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle Round the World (London: 1852):
“On the whole, it appears to me that the morality and religion of the inhabitants [of Tahiti] are highly creditable. There are many who attack, even more acrimoniously than Kotzebue, both the missionaries, their system, and the effects produced by it. Such reasoners never compare the present state with that of the island only twenty years ago; nor even with that of Europe at this day; but they compare it with the high standard of Gospel perfection. … In as much as the condition of the people falls short of this high standard, blame is attached to the missionary, instead of credit for that which he has effected. They forget, or will not remember, that human sacrifices and the power of an idolatrous priesthood – a system of profligacy unparalleled in another part of the world – infanticide, a consequent of that system – bloody wars, where conquerors spared neither women nor children – that all these have been abolished; and that dishonesty, intemperance, and licentiousness have been greatly reduced by Christianity. In a voyager to forget these things is base ingratitude; for should he chance to be at the point of shipwreck on some unknown coast, he will most devoutly pray that the lesson of the missionary may have reached thus far.” (p.414)
“All this is very surprising, when it is considered that five years ago nothing but the fern flourished here. Moreover, native workmanship, taught by the missionaries, has effected this change… The lesson of the missionary is the enchanter’s wand. The house has been built, the widows framed, the fields ploughed, and even the trees grafted by the New Zealander.” (p. 425)
“From seeing the present state, it is impossible not to look forward with high expectations to the future progress of nearly an entire hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity, through the South Seas, probably stands by itself on the records of the world.” (p. 505)
And Darwin is not alone among skeptics and champions of modern atheism in having the intellectual integrity to acknowledge the fitness – the salutatory benefits – of Christianity as a meme or great, tipping-point idea.
Journalist H.L. Mencken – arch skeptic, fan of “God is dead” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and champion of Clarence Darrow and the theory of evolution at the famous Scopes trial – nevertheless admitted, speaking of Christianity:
“No heritage of modern man is richer and none has made a more brilliant mark upon human thought, not even the legacy of the Greeks.” (Treatise on the Gods. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930))
English novelist, journalist, sociologist, and historian H.G. Wells said this about Jesus in an article he wrote on the “greatest men in history” for American Magazine (July 1922):
“He left no impress on the historical records of His time. Yet, more than nineteen hundred years later, a historian like myself, who does not even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this simple, lovable Man… So the historian, disregarding the theological significance of His life, writes the name of Jesus of Nazareth at the top of the world’s greatest characters.”
More recently, veteran British politician Roy Hattersley and self-described atheist was interviewed by the BBC. (Saturday 2nd January 2010). The interview centered in part on a biography he had written on William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army. When asked about the relevance of such organizations today, Hattersley replied:
“I can only look with amazement at the devotion of the Salvation Army workers. I’ve been out with them on the streets and seen the way they work amongst the people, the most deprived and disadvantaged and sometimes pretty repugnant characters. I don’t believe they would do that were it not for the religious impulse. And I often say I never hear of atheist organizations taking food to the poor. You don’t hear of ‘Atheist Aid’ rather like Christian aid, and, I think, despite my inability to believe myself, I’m deeply impressed by what belief does for people like the Salvation Army.”
Matthew Parris, another British politician, author and atheist (apparently the UK is awash with them) wrote an article in The Times (12/27/2008) entitled “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” Among his observations:
“I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”
Facing the ire of atheists, skeptics and “Do What Thou Wilt” moralists in the battle for the soul of western culture, I have at times wished that God would allow them to experience for just one day the “Bedford Falls” (think It’s a Wonderful Life) that would result if their desires were granted, if the meme of Christianity was removed and completely replaced by philosophical materialism. I have no doubt that if they were still capable of rational thought (which is unlikely) the one cry that would erupt from their blighted souls as they drink in the virtual hell now surrounding them would be “God have mercy!”
(I should note here that one day this Bedford Falls will, in fact, exist. And it will last a lot longer than a single day.)
Skeptics, atheists, and follow-your-hearters can rejoice that Darwin’s theory is absolutely true when it comes to the world of ideas. Cream in time does rise to the surface – and the fittest ideas survive. And one day the knowledge of the Lord will cover this earth like the waters cover the seas. (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14)
In physics, the Fine-Structure Constant, also known (significantly I think) as ALPHA (α), is a fundamental physical constant characterizing the strength of the electromagnetic interaction. It is also mysteriously related to a number of other fundamentals in physics: e.g. the square of the ratio of the elementary charge to the Planck charge; the ratio of the velocity of the electron in the Bohr model of the atom to the speed of light; in Quantum Electrodynamics as the probability of interaction between Light and Matter.
Shades of the anthropic principle, ALPHA is one of those finely-tuned constants that describe the fundamental structure of our cosmos. And if it was just the slightest bit different, stars, planets and we would not exist.
Like Pi (3.14) ALPHA is commonly referred to by the first 3 numbers of its inverse: 137. (More precisely it is 137.03599173(44)). 137 is made up of three prime numbers and moreover is a unusually beautiful prime (some numerological speculation here) in that it consists of Unity (1, God) and a prime division of Ten (10 = 3 + 7), with echoes of the Trinity and Perfection, Fulness, and the Seven Spirits of God.
Here is what Richard Feynman, Nobel prize-winning physicist, one of the originators and early developers of the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED) and an atheist had to say about ALPHA
“It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. Immediately you would like to know where this number for a coupling comes from: is it related to pi or perhaps to the base of natural logarithms? Nobody knows. It’s one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics: a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by man (by corey jefferson). You might say the ‘hand of God’ wrote that number, and ‘we don’t know how He pushed his pencil.’ We know what kind of a dance to do experimentally to measure this number very accurately, but we don’t know what kind of dance to do on the computer to make this number come out, without putting it in secretly!” (Richard P. Feynman (1985) QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton University Press. p. 129)
Feynman died in 1988, sadly with no evidence of ever having embraced the Author (the Alpha and the Omega) of α. What a tragedy! For there can be no question that living in God’s presence and having eternity to know Him and plumb the mind and heart of the One who “pushed the pencil” would be a joy unspeakable and full of glory.
I will close with this observation concerning ALPHA from Max Born, another renowned physicist and a man who saw “religious professions and churches as a matter of no importance.” (Greenspan, Nancy Thorndike (2005) The End of the Certain World: The Life and Science of Max Born. New York: Basic Books, p. 61-62)
“The fact however that alpha has just its value 1/137 is certainly no chance but itself a law of nature. It is clear that the explanation of this number must be the central problem of natural philosophy.” (Max Born, A.I. Miller (2009) Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung. W.W. Norton & Co. p. 253)