Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tonight - Total Lunar Eclipse

"The Eclipse That Saved Columbus"

On the night of Feb. 20, the full moon will pass into Earth's shadow in an event that will be visible across all of the United States and Canada. The total lunar eclipse will be made even more striking by the presence of the nearby planet Saturn and the bright bluish star, Regulus.

Eclipses in the distant past often terrified viewers who took them as evil omens. Certain lunar eclipses had an overwhelming effect on historic events. One of the most famous examples is the trick pulled by Christopher Columbus.


On Oct. 12, 1492, as every schoolchild has been taught, Columbus came ashore on an island northeast of Cuba.

It was on his fourth and final voyage, while exploring the coast of Central America that Columbus found himself in dire straits. Because of an epidemic of shipworms eating holes in the planking of his fleet, Columbus was forced to abandon two of his ships and finally had to beach what was left on the north coast of Jamaica on June 25, 1503.

Initially, the Jamaican natives welcomed the castaways, providing them with food and shelter, but as the days dragged into weeks, tensions mounted. Finally, after being stranded for more than six months, half of Columbus' crew mutinied, robbing and murdering some of the natives, who, themselves grew weary of supplying cassava, corn and fish in exchange for little tin whistles, trinkets, hawk's bells and other rubbishy goods.

With famine now threatening, Columbus formulated a desperate, albeit ingenious plan.

Coming to the Admiral's rescue was Johannes M von Konigsberg (1436-1476), an important German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer. Before his death, Konigsberg published an almanac containing astronomical tables covering the years 1475-1506. After it was published, no sailor dared set out without a copy. Columbus, of course, had a copy of the Almanac with him when he was stranded on Jamaica and he knew that on Feb. 29, 1504, a total eclipse of the moon would take place soon after the time of moon rise.

So three days before the eclipse, Columbus asked for a meeting with the native chief and announced to him that his Christian god was angry with his people for no longer supplying Columbus and his men with food. Therefore, he was about to provide a clear sign of his displeasure: Three nights hence, he would all but obliterate the rising full moon, making it appear "inflamed with wrath," which would signify the evils that would soon be inflicted upon all of them.

On the appointed evening, as the Sun set in the West and the moon started emerging from beyond the eastern horizon, it was plainly obvious to all that something was terribly wrong. And, just over an hour later, as full darkness descended, the moon indeed exhibited an eerily inflamed and "bloody" appearance: In place of the normally brilliant late winter full moon there now hung a dim red ball in the eastern sky.

According to Columbus' son, Ferdinand, the natives were terrified at this sight and ". . . with great howling and lamentation came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions, praying to the Admiral to intercede with his god on their behalf."

If Columbus achieved that much with a 15th Century almanac, imagine what he could have done with our modern scientific research. For example, from

On a large scale, the Milky Way is considered to be a vast cold region punctured with isolated hot clouds and star clusters. While much of this space is cold and empty, researchers have recently discovered the phenomenon of funneling hot plasma. Flowing plasma may funnel from one region to another through empty space, connecting otherwise isolated clouds and clusters throughout the galaxy. The Milky Way as a vast plasma mass?

And you thought you had a huge flat screen TV? Next year, let's use the Hubble to reflect the Sugar Bowl on some giant space cloud.

Enjoy the eclipse - another of God's many wonders.....


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