Sunday, March 04, 2007


The lunar eclipse last night was fantastic. The skies over Leeds were totally clear for much of the time and so we could watch as the Earth’s shadow gradually crept across the face of the Moon, until finally the Moon became a reddish colour when it was completely covered by the shadow. The red is because of dust in the Earth’s atmosphere, apparently.

What really struck me was how, as the shadow covered the Moon, the Moon stopped looking like a flat shiny disc in the sky, and began to look like a sphere. We could see this really clearly through binoculars. My camera’s not good enough to take photographs but many people did, of course: John took some great ones and you can see them here.

The last lunar eclipse that I saw so clearly was in September 1997 – ten years ago! – and it made a big impression on me then, too.

Five hundred years ago, apparently, give or take a week or two, Christopher Columbus was stranded in Jamaica just before a lunar eclipse. The Jamaicans had been friendly to him and to his crew but the crew kept robbing them and treating them badly and finally the Jamaicans cut off Columbus’s supplies.

So Columbus told them, just before a lunar eclipse, that unless they agreed to start providing the provisions again, he would make the Moon disappear - - which of course it did, and the frightened islanders restored the food supplies. I think this story is supposed to make us admire Columbus’s cunning: in fact it makes me think how sad it was that explorers went off creating mayhem and conflict in other people’s countries.

It’s awe-inspiring to see an eclipse, especially a total one. I think that anyone who can look at it and be unaffected by it must be deeply unimaginative. Here’s to clear skies for the next one.


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