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Have You Seen This? How eclipses shaped our understanding of the universe
On Aug. 21, the moon's shadow will totally cover the sun in parts of the world. While it's somewhat of an oddity in our time, eclipses have an incredible history of shaping our understanding of the universe. - photo by Angie Treasure

THE UNIVERSE The impending solar eclipse is a big deal.

On Aug. 21, the moon will position itself between the sun and the earth, creating a total solar eclipse in parts of the world and a highly visible eclipse here in northern Utah (lucky us!). What we may not realize, though, is how important eclipses have been in shaping scientists' understanding of the universe.

According to a video released by Skunk Bear on YouTube (NPR's science channel), cave drawings and similar records dating back to 1300 BC show people in the Americas, Scandinavia and India writing about the sun "being eaten," which was their understanding of eclipses at the time. Many people thought the event signified some impending doom, but what it did was ultimately begin man's fascination with and the invention of astronomy.

Fast forward to 130 BC, Hipparchus was able to use a lunar eclipse to calculate the distance between the earth and moon without the aid of telescopes. In 1715 AD, mathematician Urbain Le Verrier was trying to uncover why some planets had an uneven orbit namely Mercury. Le Verrier surmised that there was another planet (Vulcan) present that was causing Mercury to orbit off kilter. However, an eclipse in the 18th century allowed scientists to observe what was surrounding Mercury and the sun, revealing that Vulcan didn't actually exist.

So what was causing this imperfect orbit, scientists continued to wonder?

In 1919, Albert Einstein postulated that Mercury's orbit was being altered by its proximity to the sun, a body so massive that it warped space and time surrounding it. An eclipse that year allowed scientists to see stars near the sun and how their starlight was thrown off course, validating Einstein's theory.

We're still learning from the sun, as evidenced by the Skunk Bear video and the word of countless scientists. Eclipses, including the upcoming total solar eclipse, give us a unique ability to observe that fascinating ball of gas 93 million miles away.