Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice | Election 2020

How Eclipses Changed History

Photo caption:

Photo by Adam Cole NPR's Skunk Bear

Eclipses aren't just natural marvels - they're still teaching us a lot about the universe.

In July of 1878, Vassar professor Maria Mitchell led a team of astronomers to the new state of Colorado to observe a total solar eclipse. In a field outside of Denver, they watched as the sun went dark and a feathery fan of bright tendrils — the solar corona — faded into view.

But the expedition wasn't just about catching a rare and beautiful display.

Maria Mitchell was one of the earliest campaigners for equal pay. Her entire crew was female. They weren't yet allowed to vote, but they were more than capable of adding to the scientific discourse.

Plus, there was patriotic pride on the line.

Since colonial times, Europeans had derided American contributions to astronomy. Yankee eclipse chasers were out prove they were as keen-eyed and insightful as any Brit or Frenchman.

But this wasn't just about America flexing its mental muscles.

This eclipse, like all eclipses, was a window into the workings of the universe. Eclipses had — and still have — a lot to teach us. Pointing their telescopes at the sky, Mitchell and her colleagues were learning about the laws of physics, the chemistry of the sun's furnace and the size, shape and distance of celestial bodies.

For millennia, those brief minutes in the moon's shadow have brought moments of brilliant discovery. They're still important to scientists today.

Skunk Bear's latest video explores the history of eclipse science, from the earliest astronomers who began to take the measurements of the solar system, to the great thinkers who saw their wildest theories proven, to the modern scientists who still rely on eclipses to probe the sun's secrets.

____

You can watch more science videos on Skunk Bear's YouTube channel. Learn more about the current scientific investigations into solar eclipses here.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.