Earlier this year, Science was under attack by the new administration. Gag orders were issued to scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal departments who might wish to air “inconvenient truths” about climate change and more. Severe budget cuts were proposed for not only the EPA but also the National Institutes of Health and other scientific agencies. In response, thousands took to the streets in cities and towns across the country and around the globe to March for Science. That science needs protection in the country which first put a man on the moon (and dropped the first atomic bomb), the country that is the birthplace of the iPhone and the Google search engine seems ironic, if not surreal.
Of cours, there are those who refuse to believe that we are the cause of climate change even as they comment on the weird weather, those who refuse to vaccinate their kids out of fear or paranoia even as they spray disinfectant everywhere, those who insist that their religion’s creation story be taught alongside Darwin, even as they take medications that would not exist without the theory of evolution. There are even those few who, like the Amish, largely abjure technology altogether.
And yet, science is still embedded in and entwined with our civilization, even if we disagree with or are frightened by some of its discoveries and applications.
To see this, we need look no further than the upcoming eclipse.
Nicknamed The Great American Eclipse, the August 21, 2017 event will be the first total solar eclipse in decades to be visible across much of the continental U.S. An estimated two-thirds of Americans live within an easy drive of the path of totality, that diagonal swath from Oregon to South Carolina, while those outside the band should be able to witness a partial eclipse, weather permitting.
News media as diverse as The New York Times and Fox News are putting out eclipse guides and gearing up to cover the event. Amazon, Loews and others are doing a booming business selling, or in the case of libraries and science museums giving away, disposable eclipse-safe eyewear.
Not even the White House is questioning NASA’s eye safety instructions.
By contrast, the early colonists would have seen an eclipse in an altogether different light. Living as they did on the border between the medieval and the modern, the Puritans would have seen the Great American Eclipse as part of the cosmic battle, as well as a direct message, from either God or Satan to their community. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to have been any solar eclipses visible in New England during the 1600s, so I can only imagine the dire warnings of ministers and magistrates that the end was near. Their reference point for eclipses would have included the Biblical account of the sky darkening during the afternoon of the crucifixion, as though the hand of God was showing His displeasure by momentarily obliterating the sun. The fact that the story is set during Passover, a full moon holiday, and that a solar eclipse requires a new moon-- and a lunar eclipse only happens at night-- would not have fazed them.
Needless to say, they did not have eclipse-safe eyewear.
That most Americans view this solar eclipse as an exciting, if not quite rare, astronomical event (the next Great American Eclipse is only seven years away after all), one to be observed with appropriate precaution, rather than feared as a sign of the apocalypse, is just one example of how the scientific revolution and its technological applications have shaped our minds, our nation and our future.
Just don’t forget your eclipse-safe glasses.