Omen of Doom - Science and Mysteries (Part 2)

Continuation of Part 1 - - - So what's really going on during a solar eclipse? A solar eclipse occurs when the moon goes exactly, or nearly exactly, between Earth and the sun. So the moon's disc blocks part or all of the sun's disc. And the sun is so important in our lives that the idea of something going in front of it and blotting it out would be just a remarkable event. So you can imagine this would create fear, or perhaps it would be interpreted as a sign of something terrible to happen. But none of this would matter. Eclipses on Earth wouldn't be possible without an amazing coincidence. One that isn't duplicated anywhere else in our solar system.

The sun and the moon just happen to be the same apparent size in our sky. That's because, while the moon's diameter is about 400 times smaller than the sun's, the moon itself is 400 times closer to us. It's a celestial accident that the disc of the moon just covers the disc of the sun. And so these eclipses have fascinated astronomers for thousands of years. The perfect fit of Earth's moon makes eclipses possible. But will that always be the case?

Year by year, inch by inch, the moon is moving further away from Earth. Someday in the distant future, the moon will no longer completely block the sun. The moon continues to go away from the Earth, appearing smaller and smaller in the sky. That means that in about half a billion years, total solar eclipses will no longer be possible. So we've lived in a special time where we can enjoy the beauty of what the ancients thought were bad omens, and we now understand them and can appreciate them for how beautiful and rare they really are.

Our ancestors also saw lunar eclipses as a d omen. A lunar eclipse foretold famine and disease, according to the Chinese. In Japan, lunar eclipses were associated with earthquakes and meant disaster was on the way. But does science support this superstition? If the sky turns dark, will the ground roll and roar?

The ancients looked warily on the night sky, where sudden changes might foretell impending doom. The disappearance of the moon in a total lunar eclipse struck fear into our ancestors. But did it also, as some believed, cause earthquakes. Some people in Japan, in particular, have thought that total lunar eclipses cause bigger or more frequent earthquakes. So lunar eclipses were bad omens for that reason.

December 21, 2010-- for only the second time in t last two millennia, a lunar eclipse takes place on the day of the winter solstice. In Japan, a massive 7.4 earthquake triggers tsunami warnings along the coast. 30 years prior, a 7.7 quake killed 25,000 people in Iran, just a few hours before the start of a total lunar eclipse. Could it be that when the sun and moon are in perfect alignment, their combined gravity has enough influence on the Earth to trigger killer quakes? The truth is that if you look at long-term statistics, you don't see this. And physically, we can't think of a reason why a total lunar eclipse or a partial lunar eclipse would lead to more earthquakes. It's bunk, basically. A lunar eclipse happens when the Earth's shadow covers the moon. If the disappearance of the moon wasn't frightening enough to ancient eyes, during some eclipses, the moon actually changes color. When our moon passes through Earth's shadow, it can turn blood red.


To the ancients, that was a bad omen. From the moon's perspective, during a total lunar eclipse, the moon is receiving the sunlight of all the sunrises and sunsets on Earth. And that light is predominantly orange or red, having traveled through all of that air and dust and whatnot in the atmosphere.

As frightening as they were, some sky watchers eventually realized that eclipses were predictable. Omens in the sky are something that you can make use of. If you have superior knowledge of eclipses, you can use it.

One person to take advantage of that knowledge, the famed explorer Christopher Columbus. In 1502, Columbus and his crew were stranded in Jamaica and running out of food. And the natives, basically, were no longer thinking that there is something special and God-like, you know? They were losing their oomph.


Columbus is said to have access to a perpetual almanac that contained more than 300 pages of sky tables, charts, and eclipse forecasts. Columbus happened to know that there was a total lunar eclipse coming up the next night, and he told the natives that if they don't continue to provide food, the moon will go away. Sure enough, the next night, a lunar eclipse did occur, as predicted by Columbus. And so this raised him, his stature, in their eyes, and the next day they started providing goods and services once again

It's been said that all warfare is based on deception. And some of the world's greatest military leaders have used deceptions based on lunar eclipses. The famed T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, is said to have timed his assault on Aqaba to a lunar eclipse. Muslims Turks holding the town were distracted on the night of the eclipse. As was their tradition, they were busy making noises, firing rifles and banging pots in an effort to rescue the moon. Using his knowledge of science and superstition, Lawrence and his Arab fighters were victorious, taking the town without losing a single man.

September 20, 331 B.C. Alexander the Great is outnumbered and headed for defeat at the hands of Emperor Darius of Persia. Alexander the Great was very smart. There's a lunar eclipse. You know it's an omen of something. You don't want our own army to become disheartened, so he used it as a propaganda coup. As the moon glows blood red, Alexander's secret weapon goes to work and the great leader launches a desperate plan to save himself, his men and his empire.

In the ancient world, bad omens from the heavens were exploited to change history. On a battlefield in Mesopotamia, Alexander the Great turns a lunar eclipse into a weapon of fear. Alexander the Great spread word via his astrologers that the lunar eclipse meant that the Persians were going to lose. His men take heart, they make sure they spread this message to the enemy army... They lose heart. It's a fantastic coup in terms of undermining the enemy morale. Of course it helps them win the battle.

The bad omen, paired with Alexander's tactical superiority is a devastating blow against the Persians as Alexander romps to victory and into history.

Nearly 300 years later, another omen would play a part in history's most notorious betrayal and assassination. From a hilltop in the mountains north of Rome, observers gather and watch with trepidation as an unblinking red dot rises in the night sky. The date, March 15, 44 B.C. The Ides of March. Julius Caesar is dead.


And now, it appears Mars is angry. The Romans had whole colleges of priests who were responsible for interpreting the omens. Omens in the sky, omens from the birds, omens everywhere. They were the guys you went to. What does it mean?

On the night of Caesar's death, it was said that Mars was especially bright and red, as though marking a triumph over the emperor. More than 2,000 years later, we know Mars isn't red because it's angry. Mars is red, literally, because it is rusty. There's leftover water on the surface of Mars and below the surface. Leftover from when Mars formed. And it rusts or oxidizes the iron in the surface. But why would Mars be brighter on certain nights, giving it extra power as an omen?

The distance between Earth and Mars varies as the two planets orbit the sun. Earth circles the sun once every 365 days. Mars takes 687 days, meaning that at some times during their orbits, Earth is getting closer and closer to Mars. Finally, the planets reach the phase astronomers call opposition. That's when Mars and the Sun are on opposite sides of the Earth. It is during opposition that Mars is closest to Earth and shines its brightest. When the sun is directly between Mars and Earth, the planets are farthest away from each other, about seven times farther than they were during opposition.

Ancient observers often saw omens in the bright celestial objects we know today as planets. But could a planet be responsible for an ancient mystery buried in the jungles of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula? For years, archaeologists studying the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza wondered why twin staircases on one of the buildings are out of alignment. Could it be somehow connected to the astronomer priests who wielded tremendous power in Mayan culture? By offsetting the stairs, what message were they trying to send across the centuries? We do know this... the Mayans called Venus the great star. Mayan leaders would always account for the position of Venus in their calculations for battles and raids. When Venus is close to the horizon, it can shimmer, it can change colors. Venus has been reported as a UFO more times than any other object in the universe. You can imagine, to the ancients, when it was doing those weird things, those twinkling and changing colors, that could be seen as a bad omen.

The Mayans would actually block their chimneys, so what they feared as the evil light from Venus couldn't get into their homes. If you look at Venus, orbit after orbit, month after month, you'll notice that it traces out a pattern in the sky. These different patterns are actually reflected in Mayan architecture. And so, the mysterious message is revealed. The misalignment of the grand staircase atl Caracol, an ancient Mayan observatory, actually matches perfectly with Venus's most northern appearance in the sky. Bright lights in the sky always attracted the attention of our ancient ancestors. And while some were merely ominous, others crackled with the threat of imminent attack.

 In the desolate northernmost reaches of Alaska, darkness reigns. Polar bears are common here. So, too, are elk and other dangerous creatures that serve as both predator and prey for the hearty few who make this land their home. It is dark and scary and potentially deadly. Suddenly, a man out hunting sees it, a threat known to his people since ancient times. So he does what comes naturally, what generations of native Alaskans have done before him. He draws his weapon and prepares to defend himself from the swirling electrical madness he sees in the skies. Blazing lights. A mysterious and ever-changing symphony of color.

Today, we know this phenomenon as the aurora borealis, the Northern Lights. And for many cultures, like the Eskimos living near Barrow, Alaska, the aurora is a bad omen. Auroras, the northern or southern lights, have often been seen as bad omens because there are these ghostly lights in the sky and they're flickering and they're of unknown origin to the people watching them. Are the gods angry or something?

So what causes this sparkling show in the sky? Aurorae are fascinating examples of the interaction between the sun and us here on Earth. The sun has what we call space weather. These are solar flares or other phenomena associated with the sun's magnetic activity that shower our planet with not only high energy radiation but also energetic particles. Earth has a magnetic field. Now, if that magnetic field was in isolation, it would look sort of like a cored apple. But it's not in isolation.


The solar wind charged particles streaming out of the sun impinges upon Earth, flattening the nearside and extending the farside of that field. It also has holes at the north and the south called polar cusps. Solar wind can flow into the polar cusps, creating the aurora borealis and the aurora australis. As they excite the gases in our atmosphere, depending upon the gases that get excited, you get different colors. These different gases are exactly what are used to make the neon signs that we see down at the deli. When you see that green palm tree or that red open sign, those are different gases being energized and it's the light escaping as the electrons change energy levels that we perceive as these different colors.

The spectacular light show an aurora provides isn't the only way to experience one. As it turns out, you can actually hear an aurora too. There have always been stories of people hearing sounds associated with the aurora. Popping and whistling noises. But it was unclear if these were just stories or real, until recently when scientists were finally able to record that, under very certain circumstances, you can hear whistling and popping noises associated with the sun's energy interacting with our own Earth's atmosphere.

What causes the sound is still a bit of a mystery. Researchers think the same solar energy waves that generate the spectacular lights in the sky are also responsible for the sounds closer to the ground. The phenomenon of auroras is an ancient mystery that stretches across the cosmos. Jupiter has amazing aurorae that we see on a regular basis. Saturn has aurorae. And even Venus. Omens, portents, and signs are how ancient people made sense of their universe.

Today, astronomers are making remarkable discoveries that help explain the science behind these once terrifying events. - One of the things that's really amazing about the time that we live in, is that all of these things that were very scary for our ancestors we now understand through the lens of science.

Humans always want to know about the future. Whether you're an ancient Roman, an ancient Chinese, a person living in America in the 21st century, we want to look for signs in nature, signs in the heavens, that can help us understand things, can reassure us that we know what will happen in the future. - As we learn more about the universe, knowledge is replacing fear. People go north to see the aurora. They take eclipse cruises. Yesterday's bad omens are today's tourist attractions. This, then, is humanity at the dawn of the 21st century, striving to understand and experience first-hand what men and women through the millennia formerly saw as bad omens.   

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