What happens when a solar eclipse coincides with the first day of spring?
On whimsy, wonder and the size of the universe
Objects in the sky move in mysterious ways
March 20, 2015 is the vernal equinox, the first official day of spring in the northern hemisphere. This year, it happens to coincide with a new moon and a full solar eclipse, when the moon will completely cover the sun as it shines over the Arctic. A partial solar eclipse will be visible to much of Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia. This unique occurrence is the beginning of a series of four March Equinox/Solar Eclipse occurrences that will happen at 19-year intervals this century, for the first time since the 1600s.
A personal essay about transpersonal phenomena
What is the shape of the universe?
When I was a kid growing up in Indianapolis, I would spend summer nights outside on the swingset my dad built in our backyard. I remember lying on my back on the wooden platform, looking up at the stars, marveling at so many points of light in the sky, wondering what they were, how they got there. Wondering who I was, how I got here. Sometimes my dad would be outside with me, too, and we would talk about the great wide expanse of the universe. I would ask him about it, because I couldn’t quite fathom it all. I learned the basics in elementary school — mnemonic devices for remembering the order of the planets, creating mobiles with brightly painted cardboard to simulate their rotation around the sun — but this information seemed pathetically limited to the wonder I experienced when I looked up at the night sky.
The biggest question I couldn’t untangle was about the size and shape of the universe itself. Did it just expand out, infinitely? I couldn’t imagine that, there always seemed to be some invisible barrier in my mind. Try as I might, I couldn’t contemplate the universe without imagining an edge. I’d see it as a sort of giant balloon, with us being the tiniest prick of dust somewhere inside. But if the universe were a balloon, what was on the other side?
My dad would listen as I posed all my curiosities, and encouraged me by confessing he had the same. He didn’t know the answers, but he valued the questions. He would share ideas he’d heard, perhaps from scientists, perhaps from science fiction. I remember trying to wrap my seven-year old mind around the idea he told me one night, that the universe was like a giant curved creature (an endless glowworm?) that wrapped around itself — at every edge it was merely folding back onto itself. I could both understand this and not quite fathom it at all, but it only increased my wonder as I stared up at the sky. Years later in high school math my class constructed mobius strips out of paper and I remembered these summer conversations with my dad.
Bigger than randomness
This wonder hasn’t gone away. In college, I took an astronomy course with the great Richard Berendzen (who has a series of audiobooks if you’re interested in learning more astronomy). Every day I’d leave class with my friend John and I’d implore him, “Can’t I go to grad school for astronomy?” He’d remind me that we were taking astronomy for non-science majors. Oh yeah — all that calculus I never learned might be necessary to go further in the field. So much for that.
It was one of those jokes that hints at a wistful longing. It wasn’t that I wanted to be an astronomer, per se, it was just that I felt so lit up and alive when learning about what we think we know about the universe. Since before wifi became ubiquitous, Astronomy Picture of the Day was my favorite website. Thinking about the planets, stars and galaxies tickles my imagination. Pictures of Saturn’s rings, of supernova, of galaxies far away fill me with the sense that there is a meaning and purpose to life bigger than me, bigger than an accident, bigger than randomness.
Patterns within patterns: The upcoming eclipse/equinox cycle
Here’s an example of how patterns work in us, around us and through us. Last month I began a daily blogging experiment on my personal website, planning to blog from new moon of February until the new moon of March. I was partly inspired by what seemed to me a happy coincidence, that the March 20th new moon also happens to be a solar eclipse AND the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere, the vernal equinox. The spring and fall equinox are the two days of the year when the sun rises exactly in the east, and spreads its light evenly (equinox = equal) between the northern & southern hemispheres. Musing with a group of friends the other day, I guessed that such an occurrence must be rare — that it might be hundreds of years before it happens again. That evening, I figured I should research that claim, so I began reading about the upcoming equinox eclipse. Turns out I was both right and wrong.
It is true that for a new moon/solar eclipse to occur on the same day as the vernal equinox is quite rare — the last time a full eclipse was on the same day as the spring equinox was 1662, I learned from this helpful piece in Universe Today. The last partial eclipse on the spring equinox was 334 years ago, in 1681. Long before the United States was a country, before my ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean, in the same century as the English Civil War, the death of Shakespeare, the beginning of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Great Plague in London and Isaac Newton’s experiments with gravity — that was the last time a solar eclipse coincided with the spring equinox.
But it won’t be hundreds of years until the next one. Just as this year will have three Friday the 13ths (last month, this Friday and again in November) occurrences in the sky also work in patterns and cycles of ever expanding scales.
And it so happens that the March equinox/eclipse of 2015 is the first in a series of four spring equinox solar eclipses that will repeat themselves this century, at 19 year intervals. 2015, 2034, 2053 and 2072 — each one of these years will see a solar eclipse — a process whereby our moon temporarily blocks the light of the mighty sun — coinciding with the first day of spring, the day when the sun evenly distributes its light across the planet’s hemispheres. This pattern will repeat itself again, but not until 2387, when there will be a series of five Vernal Equinox Solar Eclipses at 19 year intervals, lasting until 2463. Wow. Learning this fills me with awe.
In other words, we’re not just experiencing a one-off event on March 20th, we’re experiencing the start of a series which will shape the course of the 21st century, and won’t recur again until for 315 years. Through some grand geometric rhythm I can only begin to grasp, we are entering a new pattern of rotation (one that has happened before; one that will happen again) that will last the next 76 years, or about 3 generations, then disappear for three centuries. How often do we even consider things that far distant in the future? And yet what was happening at the time of the last spring equinox eclipse has profoundly shaped our reality today.
Navigating the stars
My father’s father, like most of his generation, served in WWII. He served in the Navy, in the Pacific. As the ship’s navigator, he learned how to navigate by the stars. When I was a little girl he taught me how to find them. Orion. Big Dipper. Little Dipper. North Star.
In our own lives, we’re called to make observations of the world around us, and navigate accordingly. Living in cities, in suburbs, in populated places, many of these observations are related to the world of human affairs — to our social constructions, to the built environment. Yet there is much wisdom to be gained by observing areas beyond the scope of human relations. Take the concept of our solar system, our galaxy, our neighborhood of galaxies. To contemplate even one of these for very long is to be astounded, to be filled with awe. It’s not that I’m advocating for any particular religious point of view, but it’s not difficult to imagine how humans across the ages have looked up to the heavens and found traces of the divine. In the metaphorical sense of the word, it’s hard to believe existence is anything short of a miracle.
It so happened that in early morning insomnia, I came across this video, and excellent example of illustration of scale:
I love the way this animation provides a sense of scale to celestial bodies. But the final statement “you are not the center of the universe” gives me pause. It strikes me as paradoxical — it is both true and not true. We humans are nothing in the face of such vastness, and yet we are something, too, and it is something that matters. I can look at a star and a caterpillar with equal wonder, if I simply open my mind to doing so. While our egos might benefit from a reality check, it seems to me that rather than emphasizing our smallness, emphasizing our interrelatedness is a more effective way to address the irrational and harmful behavior by so many humans have towards one another.
Long journeys of learning and meditation have taught me how much we are all microcosms of the larger planet, solar system, universe. This can be seen in philosophical concepts from multiple traditions, from the Quaker concept that “there is that of God in everyone” to the Hermetic phrase “as above, so below”, and across so many other philosophical and spiritual traditions.
While no one person, place or thing is the “center of the universe”, on the other hand every thing is in its own way the center of the universe. More astonishingly, when we dive deep below the surface, we discover that within each of us is a universe unto itself, both in the material realm of atoms and subatomic particles, and the psycho-spiritual realms of our thoughts, feelings, memories, imagine and subconscious.
From the vast expanse of galaxies to the vast expanse of sub-atomic particles
All this contemplation leads me to another film, Charles & Ray (a woman!) Eames’s marvelous Powers of Ten. It is a film you should watch without introduction from me, but please believe me that it is worth all 9 minutes of your time.
Marvelous, isn’t it? From the farthest away galaxies to the smallest atomic pieces, the universe is pulsing with patterns and rhythms that we can only begin to grasp.
There is real magic and power in focusing our attention to observe our world at different levels, whether through a telescope, microscope or through the patient, daily work of sitting in silent meditation.
Whether observing faraway galaxies, minuscule particles or the pattern of your own breath as it moves in & out of the tip of your nose, there are discernible pattens, discernible differences. Yet it is in the observation that it becomes possible to reach a point of transcendent communion with the underlying oneness of all of creation. Just hold the idea in your heart for a moment: A solar eclipse on the first day of spring, which will return again in 19 years, and again twice more after that, and then the same phenomenon won’t be observed again until a 3 century rest. And so it goes, like all things, in a cycle. The steady dance of the stars in the night sky, the growth of a child, the budding of leaves in the spring and their fall to the ground in autumn.
What happens when a solar eclipse occurs on the first day of spring? It gives us a moment to pause in wonder, and marvel at the glory of the cosmos.
Edited from an earlier draft published at emilyjacobi.com.