Total Eclipse

My wife and I went to see the total eclipse on Monday. I’m not one for bucket lists, but I’ve always wanted to see a total solar eclipse in person. I was not disappointed. The only complaint I have about the experience is that damn song running through my head all week.

We had lunch at 17th Street Barbecue in Marion, Illinois – best brisket I’ve ever eaten – and we watched the eclipse from the parking lot.

The first thing I noticed about the eclipse was … not much. We were still inside eating lunch during first contact, but that was okay. The first forty minutes or so of the eclipse was cool enough to watch through our eclipse glasses, but very little changed on the ground. It was only when the sun was 70% occluded or more that we noticed the temperature dropping, and it was well over 80% before the bright afternoon really seemed to dim. Think about that for a second – our human visual systems can scale up and down between full daylight and just a fifth of that, and they can do it so effectively we don’t even notice.

As totality drew nearer, the changes grew more drastic. The sun shrank to a crescent, and the light level dimmed to something like dusk. The local Harley dealer made a light show with their sign. Then the crescent sun narrowed to a smudge and disappeared altogether, and the totality was upon us. The nocturnal insects came out (grasshoppers, I think), and the earth was engulfed in darkness. Not middle-of-the-night, out-in-the-woods darkness; more like suburban lights and a full moon, but still. We were surrounded by a 360° sunset, which I should have expected but didn’t. And up in the sky, where the sun should be, there was a black disk surrounded by a bright ring.

The partial eclipse was cool enough, especially as the sun got really occluded. But the total eclipse was something else entirely. The difference between 98% and 100% is literally the difference between night and day. For the next eclipse in the US, seven years from now, if you have any reasonable chance to get into the path of totality, you should take it. As usual, XKCD is exactly right.

The most amazing moment of the whole experience was the instant when totality ended. A single bright point of light appeared in the ring surrounding the black disk of the moon, and in just a few seconds it bloomed into the brilliance of daylight. The phenomenon is called the diamond ring effect for good reason. The image will be burned into my memory (though fortunately not my retina) as long as I live.

Even more than the beauty and strangeness of the experience, a total eclipse is a window into nature at its most awesome. We are beings clinging to the surface of a big ball of rock, whipping around a much larger ball of gas and fire, inside a swirling collection of many more such systems, which in turn group together into clusters and filaments. The universe is unfathomably vast and unfathomably old.

And that brings me back to the first part of our trip, our visit to the Creation Museum, and how limited the creationist view is of the universe. In their tidy little world, God created the Earth six thousand years ago, put the sun and moon in the sky, divided the land from the sea, and created each and every kind of plant and animal, until finally creating us. And that’s it. God is a gardener. Everything is arbitrary – it is the way it is because God wills it to be so.

The story science tells us is far more interesting. Thirteen and a half billion years ago, give or take a few weeks, a single bright spark (created by God, or Nature, or nothing at all) burst forth from the void and a universe came into being. The closer you look at the universe, the weirder things get, but almost nothing about it is arbitrary. Everything works the way it does because it couldn’t work any other way. Alter the rules even a tiny bit – maybe increase the mass of the electron by a few percent – and everything is different. Stars never form. We are here because our universe is perfectly tuned for our existence.

Given those two visions of the universe, which do you find more awe-inspiring?

The Creation Museum

As part of our trip to see the eclipse, my wife and I went to visit the Creation Museum in Kentucky. It was fascinating, in a rather depressing sort of way.

The basic premise of the museum, and creationism in general, is that the Bible says that the Earth was created in six days, in the spring of 4004 BC, and the Bible is the inerrant, literal Word of God, so that must be how it happened. From there, creationists attempt to build a coherent framework to explain how the world works, and to make that framework consistent with all the observations scientists have made about the world thus far – fossils, layers in rock strata, underground coal deposits, etc.

The result is … interesting. There are exhibits showing humans interacting with dinosaurs (the entry surmises that’s how we got the legends of dragons), and there is a great deal about Noah’s flood as the basis for a lot of geological phenomena would otherwise take millions of years to come about.

Many of the museum exhibits also discuss the conventional scientific view, placing it next to the creationist equivalent. This looks like an attempt to be fair-minded – see, we’re showing both sides! – but it’s not about fairness at all. The placement implies an equivalence between actual science and creationist pseudo-science, as if they’re of equal value. And given two choices of equal value, which are you going to choose – the word of man, or the Word of God?

Creationism isn’t science, despite the scientific veneer the museum and places like the Discovery Institute lend to it. Science is the process of making the theory fit the observations. If an observation contradicts the theory, then the theory has to change. Sometimes it’s just a little tweak; sometimes a theory gets thrown out and replaced with a brand new theory. Creationism is the opposite of science – making the observations fit the theory. The theory is the Word of God, so it cannot change. Any observation that contradicts the theory must be manipulated until it fits.

Creationists have invested an awful lot of time and into their Biblical pseudo-science, and the whole thing is an impressive intellectual edifice. It provides a way for fundamentalist Christians, who believe in the Bible as the literal, inerrant Word of God, to reconcile their religious beliefs with the world they live in. Lessons for the cool kids in Sunday school, so they know the Truth while they’re learning geology and evolution in science class during the week. It seems like pretty harmless stuff.

But it’s not harmless. An exhibit toward the end of the museum tour makes it clear that, despite the side by side displays earlier, science is not to be trusted. Any deviation from God’s word, as laid down in the Bible, can only lead to chaos and destruction. That undermining of science in the eyes of the faithful hurts us all.

When the creationists attack evolution, or geology, or cosmology, they’re taking aim at the whole idea of science. When they question established theories, not based on the evidence but in spite of it, they render all of science suspect, with real-world consequences. The rejection of science encouraged by creationism makes it that much easier to ignore climate change, to overuse antibiotics, to opt out of vaccinations. That sort of willful ignorance must be resisted and corrected.

The Bible isn’t a science textbook, and it shouldn’t be treated as one.