Galactic “Snap!”

eclipse diagramJust two weeks before the solar eclipse of 11th August 1999, I decided to investigate the possibility of making a trip to get the best view of it. In theory, Cornwall would have done, but I was conscious of the implications of the phrase “British Summer Weather”. I was right, as it turned out.

The NASA web site had a very useful chart which combined the location and duration of the total eclipse with the probability of unclouded sky. On the coast of the Black Sea, right on the Romania/Bulgaria border, there was almost the longest duration combined with “Bulgarian Summer Weather”, that is, constant clear blue skies.

It seemed improbable that I would be able to get flights and accommodation at such short notice, but that was just my geeky assumption that everyone in the world would be as interested in eclipses as I was. In fact, I was easily able to get on a cheap package holiday to the “Golden Sands” resort on the outskirts of Varna, Bulgaria. You might think that a package holiday to a purpose-built resort would be exactly the sort of thing I would hate, but it was actually OK.

On the day of the eclipse, I hitched a ride with an astronomy club who had hired a bus to take them North, nearer the border with Romania, to increase the time of totality they would see. It made a difference of several seconds. The whole thing was over in two minutes, but believe me, you can have a lot of fun in two minutes.

Total eclipses only occur because of a strange coincidence. The Sun is about 400 times further away than the Moon, but it’s also about 400 times larger. When they line up, the Moon fits exactly in front of the Sun and blocks the light.

But that’s not the only coincidence. The spinning Earth-Moon system isn’t quite perfectly frictionless (energy is lost through tides and movement in the crust) causing the Moon’s distance to increase slowly, currently at 3.8 cm per year. When the Earth is about 12% older than it is now, the Moon will be too far away to cover the Sun. We exist at a very specific point in time.

If those two “coincidences” don’t make you suspicious, consider an additional inhabitant of our Solar System, Venus. How come the neighbouring planet to Earth on the sunward side is so similar in size and mass? Venus is almost exactly 95% of the diameter of Earth, giving a surface gravity of a comfortable 90% of what we experience here. Although Venus probably had oceans and a moderate atmosphere at one time, now the thick, poisonous smog keeps the surface at over 400 degrees celsius. It’s like a warning of what happens when Global Warming goes bad.

Mercury Venus Earth Mars

Zoom out a bit and bring our neighbouring star system into the picture. Our Sun is a medium-sized, medium-brightness model; but that statement might be a bit misleading. Small, dim stars are so much more common than the medium types that only about 15% or so of all stars are as bright as our Sun. You wouldn’t really expect another similar one to be in the immediate vicinity. Or would you? Yes, our next-door neighbour, Alpha Centauri, which appears as a single bright star in the sky, is actually two Sun-sized stars in orbit around each other.

Alpha Centauri vs Sun(Well, to be exact, our very nearest next-door neighbour is the third star in that system, Proxima, one of those small, dim jobbies. But it’s only temporarily closest to us because it orbits the other two at such a large distance. Its orbit will bring it closest to us in 26,700 years, after which it will move away again.)

Now, coincidences are coincidences, but don’t you think it’s all a bit much? I’m beginning to suspect that it’s all deliberate. Powerful, trans-dimensional aliens probably. Or else it’s a simulation. The Matrix.

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