An eclipse of the mind?

NOTE: I am getting a lot of hits on this post from searchers who are trying to determine whether eclipses have any effect on pregnant women and whether or not they (and others) should fast during an eclipse. In case it is not clear from this post and my replies in the comments thread, I DO NOT believe that eclipses are harmful to people unless you look at them with the naked eye, in which case, you can be blinded.

Now to resume the regular service (i.e., the original post)


There was a total eclipse of the sun today, which was seen in many countries across the world. An eclipse (Greek verb: ekleipĂ´, "to vanish") is an astronomical event that occurs when one celestial object moves into the shadow of another. Such a simple explanation, isn't it? We can predict eclipses, not only when they will happen and where they can be viewed, but the precise timings of each phase of the eclipse. A total solar eclipse is something that everyone must experience at least once in thier lifetimes. It is one of the few times when we can actually see the cosmos in action, outside of planetariums, observatories and the National Geographic channel.

But there is another aspect to these occurences. A shadow of fear that falls over the minds of people. It has to be seen to be believed. That people can actually assert that there is a scientific reason for believing that you should throw out all the cooked food in the house because the eclipse (as shadow of the moon passing between the sun and the earth) will somehow contaminate them. Or that pregnant women need to be shielded from eclipses because their children may otherwise be born blind or deformed.

When I was very young (not sure, I think about 5 years old), there was to be a total eclipse of the sun. My mother scared me and told me to lie in bed quietly till it passed. I did as I was told, of course, as she had told me that a "rahskas" would come and gobble up the sun (and who wants to see something like that!)

Then someone gave me a book for my 7th birthday, called "The Sun, the Moon and the Stars". That's when I figured out that the sun is a huge ball of hot gas, and started wondering how would a rakshas every gobble it up. I was a much wiser 12 year old, when I experienced my second total solar eclipse in Indonesia. Our schoolteachers had dark filters for us to view it through and were walking us through the whole eclipse with lots of valuable gems of information. It was an experience I cannot compare with anything else. The moment of totality, when everything goes dark, and then suddenly the corona of the Sun appears around a seemingly black hole, is a moment of gasps and wonder.

That's why, when I hear a senior and respected colleague of mine tell me that he has been fasting all day because there is an eclipse and he wasn't supposed to eat anything all day, or when someone says that a solar eclipse causes a lot of "germs" to come out and infect the food, then I am filled with a different kind of wonder. I wonder at how such rational and reasonable people can be blinded by fear and tradition so much that they refuse to stop for a minute and use their own brains, the most important organ that thier so-called "God" is supposed to have given them.

ETA: For fun
Running Around in (Elongated) Circles

Newton said as he gazed off afar,
"From here to the most distant star,
These wond'rous ellipses
And solar eclipses
All come from a 1 over r."

25 comments:

Funde said...

The reasoning behind fasting staying indoors etc is not understood by us that should not be the reason alone to say that the reasoning is wrong. We know that there is a Law of Gravity and that things fall when thrown up. Laws of Gravity existed before we learnt of it from newton. There are some reasons given out by some schools of thinking on the bad effects of eclipses. They are entitled to have their opinions as you are entitled to have yours. And terming that they are not using their brains is not correct.

Tanushree said...

No, my dear friend. The reasoning behind staying indoors, etc. is perfectly clear. As a friend remarked, how do you prevent a villager from rushing outside and looking at an eclipse without adequate protection? You make something up to scare him, that's how.
The grouse is not against these ignorant folks, who don't even have the implements to observe the eclipse without going blind and are better off indoors. The grouse is against people who should know better, with their education and things, that there is no reason to blindly follow something just because it is "tradition". If you use your "brain" you will see that a lot of these are no longer needed, and can be discarded.

I have viewed eclipses, eaten during eclipses, and have friends who have actually done this in a group, just to prove the superstitions wrong.

Aparna said...

And we are still safe and sound after that!!!

Aparna said...

@Funde:
'To each his own', or 'everyone's entitled to their opinions' can be said for choice of religion, goal of life, choice of field, etc but never ever for a person's level of enlightenment or ignorance, because in this case these are not 'opinion's but hard facts, and the fact that it is disturbing you means that you hate someone questioning your ignorance. Maybe it is time, you questioned it yourself....

Anshuman Ghosh said...

well i think most of the things which we classify as "supersticious" are actually been put in place, very cleverly, by the chanakyas of history, so that the comman man heeds to them - simply cause fear works when persuance doesnt.

Anand said...

You had pointed out 2 "traditions".
One was staying indoors.
Other is fasting.

In your comment you yourself have successfully
defended the tradition of "Staying Indoors".
You cannot give a common man a sceintific
explanation that seeing an eclipse directly is
bad. So a story has been thought of to keep them
safe.

You have to look at fasting also in a similar manner.
For that you need to accept first that fasting ,now
and then , is actually good for health.
I can quote several links which suggest the same.
"http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/04/28/health/main551400.shtml"

Apart from medical health, fasting preached by most
religions are meant for giving you an oppurtunity to control
your desires. It definitely teaches you self-control and
patience.

But if you tell a person that if you fast you will have better
self control , so please fast once in a week, Do you think he is
going to listen ?

So these were some of the ways probably designed to make the common
man fast to reap these benefits.
In Hindu religion there are several occasions demarcated for fasting
every year. Some examples are Chathurthi e.g.

Even in the western culture you have practices like the "GM Diet"
which is almost fasting :-).

I am not saying every custom is good/bad.
We may have some customs which looks foolish on the first look.
But there would have definitely been a reason why those were
formed.

If its not harming anyone, then i don't think we need a
justification for following our customs. :-)

-Anand

Mohit said...

The issue here is that despite being educated and knowing very well about the scientific validity of the superstitions, so many people follow them blindly. They may not be hurting anyone else but whats the use of all the education if it can't clear the cobwebs of time gone by!

Quoting a friend : Ignorance is curable. Stooopidity is permanent. :)

Tanushree said...

Anand:
The issue is not periodic fasting in general, but for specific fasting during an eclipse. You may say that it is a minor inconvenience, but I happen to disagree.

Cooked food is supposed to get impure during an eclipse and needs to be thrown out. Being one of many people who have deliberately eaten during eclipses, I can confidently say that this is a false. Imagine thousands, if not millions of households in India throwing away a cooked meal or even leftovers of the previous meal. Even throwing away the stored water that was in the pots! A collosal waste?

Next, someone may be forced to stay hungry at the cost to their health. Take a pregnant woman, for example, who is supposed to eat at regular intervals. She goes to the office and cannot eat till she comes home and bathes (this is what I got from my colleage mentioned in the original post). So she has to stay hungry all day. Is that good for her? Now you will say, that part is not valid, because anyway being pregnant, she is not allowed to go to the office in the first place! A day's work missed for her? Isn't that a negative outcome?

As I and another commenter have mentioned, the post is not about illiterate poor people, the post is against supposedly educated people who should know better. Hiding behind the rote of "there are a lot of things that science does not know, this may be one of them" is simply copping out, and refusing to think. Remember, just because we don't know how things work does not mean there are some demons at play!!!

KoPoS said...

Upfront i do daresay that throwing away food is ridiculous at the very least; first economically & logically; with so many people going hungry its utter colossal waste.

However, I havent come across of throwing away the food personally. Generally the darbha[blade of grass] is put in all containers which is 'believed' to remove any impurities. So there is a workaround to throwing away the food. So lets rest it at that.

Secondly, I dont think that the respected colleague doesnt know about eclipses and not that he believes in food getting contaminated too. Its just that its a tradition which he has been following. Sometimes traditions are just disciplines and routines that stil exist long after the people that started it are gone. Frankly i find him practising it harmless and directly having no major problems by following it.

Of course its totally against 'science' and doesnt have any logic to it; but i think i will give them their 1% of benefit of doubt. Personally, I will have no problem tolerating their beliefs as long as it is against mine and doesnt stand my own tests & as long they force me to subscribe to theirs.

Though i dont believe in rahu or of a dragon or any such reason; however things i dont understand like 'cosmic rays' not sure, radiation levels are high'er' during eclipse and i think thats pretty much true? Of course with all precautions taken, the tales to keep out mischievous bratty children can be handled without the myths.

My own point is: Traditions are not something that just come up in a single flash moment of thought. Its something that has stood the rigors of time; tested/believed by generations; and for all their experience of their own and their wisdom; i dont mind respecting their own beliefs.

However, accusing them of not using brains is maybe taking too far. Modern science/medicine has its own share of blunders[thalidomide]. I wont square off against them but that does not mean i will stand with them.

Aparna said...

Got to cut in here with my comments.
@Kopos:
There is absolutely no truth in the fact that radiation levels are high'er' during eclipse, proved as well as explained as: it is the same sun you see during an eclipse and otherwise, and the only difference is a shadow, a shadow of the moon on the sun.
In fact, the only reason why you should not see an eclipse is because you should never, ever see the sun with naked eyes, with or without an eclipse. At other times, you don't automatically stare at the sun because it is too dazzling, but during an eclipse, you might forget and stare at it, which will cause harm to the eyes...the same amount of harm which would ahve been cause had you stared at the sun at other times.

Aparna said...

A question for kopos:

'My own point is: Traditions are not something that just come up in a single flash moment of thought. Its something that has stood the rigors of time; tested/believed by generations; and for all their experience of their own and their wisdom; i dont mind respecting their own beliefs.'

Does these traditions include child marriage, casteism, burkha/purdah too???

Just becasue something stands the test of time, do we continue supporting it, or do we question them and then support them, only if the logic given is scientifically correct?
It is said generations need to progress with new ideas, won't supporting traditions blindly merely keep us back?

If science has made mistakes, then it is science which has helped us find them....why can't we use the same science for explaining 'mistakes' of traditions?
Or are we scared to investigate?

Tanushree said...

Thank you, Aparna, for that clear and concise explanation.
Traditions are not something that just come up in a single flash moment of thought. Its something that has stood the rigors of time; tested/believed by generations; and for all their experience of their own and their wisdom; i dont mind respecting their own beliefs.
For thousands of years, people in our country have believed that menstruating women are impure and shouldn't be allowed to enter the kitchen, to eat in the regular dishes, to even touch other members of the family. When these traditions were formed, we did not have the advances in feminine hygiene that we do now. So possibly, people could be worried about something getting soiled (if you stretch your imagination it far enough). In fact, I have studied with many girls who faced exaclty the same thing. Even when very young (13 or 14), they would have to plait their own very long hair (which they weren't allowed to cut, being from a traditional family), and have their food thrown at them like street mongrels.

When you are at work, there are scores of possibly menstruating women who are drinking from the same water cooler, serving themselves from the same food containers, and maybe eating at the same tables as you. But you cannot do anything about it, because even if you did believe in these things (which I fervently hope you don't), there is no way you can tell, is there? It would be impractical for you to bring your food and water from home, and it would be completely unacceptable, and probably even illegal for you to demand that menstruating women don't come to work and make everything here impure.

I have specifically chosen to talk of this tradition, because it is not as obviously harmful as others like child marriage, casteism and purdah. It is merely, to you, a minor inconvenience. Shall we keep following this practice because the origins hail back to the dawn of our culture? It has withstood thousands of years, even goes across cultures! Why do you not hark back to the wisdom of generations of sages and elders, and write to the HR department to stop menstruating women from coming to work?

Anshuman Ghosh said...

Aparna -

In the few studies dealing with boundary layer
studies during solar eclipses, important findings are reported. In
general, these indicate significant changes in the atmospheric stability
during the eclipse

and

The impact of a total solar eclipse on surface atmospheric electricity is
another of the effects which can be studied during this phenomenon. In
particular parameters like surface electrical potential gradient and
conductivity are recorded as long as the eclipse is in progress. Research
on this point shows that as a result of surface atmospheric turbulence
change, the surface electrical conductivity is enhanced, while the
potential gradient is reduced.


This is from some research pages which are into eclipse analysis. I dont think your statement of "there is no difference between a normal day and eclipse day" stands true at all. Apart from the atmospheric changes stated above, the radiation level does change due to the formation of a Corona , which reaches a temperature of 1,000,000 K.

sources :
http://www.seds.org/nineplanets/nineplanets/sol.html

http://www.astro-mainz.de/eclipse99/y.html


Tanushree -
Well well, do i see temperatures of the grey cells soaring ? we are discussing some of the "traditional way" of keeping people indoors, and ofcoure the hazard of such theories (i.e. people going overboard).
But inspite of the summers approacheth, lets keep a cooool head, wat say ?

Tanushree said...

Anshuman:
Apart from the atmospheric changes stated above, the radiation level does change due to the formation of a Corona , which reaches a temperature of 1,000,000 K.

sources :
http://www.seds.org/nineplanets/nineplanets/sol.html


You don't seem to have read your own source carefully enough. The corona does not "form" during an eclipse. It is always there. It is only during the eclipse it can be observed, as at other times, it is hidden by the glare of the photosphere (which is hidden in the moon's shadow during the eclipse). If you read the page you linked to, the description of the corona and other parts of the sun are given before the section on eclipses, and the eclipse section says that in a total eclipse you can see the corona, which is worth a journey halfway across the world.

Anshuman Ghosh said...

a good source link (unrelated to household practices ;-D ) ==> NASA Eclipse Bulletin for the 2006 March 29 total solar eclipse -
http://umbra.nascom.nasa.gov/eclipse/20060329/rp.html

Anshuman Ghosh said...

Interesting section from http://www.astro-mainz.de/eclipse99/y.html

Chemical Effects

A sizeable part of the radiation over the whole spectrum range is absorbed at various levels of the atmosphere by the different constituent molecules and atoms at their characteristic wavelengths. Therefore it is well known that during the day there are some reactions that take place in the atmosphere depending on the action of solar radiation; at nights these reactions do not occur.
During a solar eclipse the amount of this radiation, at all wavelengths, reaching the Earths atmosphere decreases (*) as long as the solar disc is being partially/totally blocked by the moon. Thus the disturbances produced on these photochemical reactions (**) , and consequently the perturbations on the concentration variation of the chemical species involved in these photochemical processes, by a diminishing of the solar radiation during the partial phases and totality of a solar eclipse, have theoretical and observational relevance to atmospheric chemistry studies.

(*) - the radiation is expectedly decreasing due to cover on visible solar surface
(**) - its the variation in the radiation recieved which is leading to sudden change in photochemical reactions

Tanushree said...

Re: Chemical Effects
So? What is this site saying? That it has theoretical and observational relevance to the study of atmospheric chemistry. It is not saying that anything happens here that doesn't happen at night, at a more gradual rate. I have read the entire article, and there is nowhere it says that there is any abnormal solar or atmospheric activity observed during eclipses that warrants all the "precautions" and "traditions" that we follow.

Another poster posted about "workarounds" to impurity of food: "darbha[blade of grass]". Makes me want to LOL.

Anshuman Ghosh said...

The point here is, while it is gradual with the fall of dusk, it is sudden fall during onset, and then sudden rise back during offset of the eclipse, which causes variations not seen during our daily life.

disturbances produced on these photochemical reactions , and consequently the perturbations on the concentration variation of the chemical species involved in these photochemical processes ==> A.B.Normal
-:)

KoPoS said...

Digression here. When you give a sweeping statements, that for thousands of years, there were practices of mesturating women kept aside, and any such thing; it might be better to keep things in perspective. The things you have highlighted have become part of the traditions/culture only in the last 100 or 200 years.

That apart, i do agree with the points of child marriages. Most of the practises are anachronisms now; but that doesnt mean all of them are. If you just give a simple sweeping statement that all the traditions are based on dogmas and have no basis at all; i would definitely not take that. The indian system is based on science and that is undeniable.

I dont deny the way it has changed the world and our thinking; but i would not put all my faiths in it too. A part of me will vouch for the older systems.

However I would not as i said i will completely believe in the modern scientific system. There are of course, my own limits of belief of it: naturally for a system that has not yet found a cure for common cold; my belief on it will be wholehearted.

KoPoS said...

correction. my beliefe will not be wholehearted.

Aparna said...

So, does that mean, when you are sick, you depend on prayers and godmen to cure you?

Aparna said...

@Anshuman,
There are various reactions associated with an eclipse, however, are you sure these reactions, like a change in the surface electrical potential gradient and conductivity, will not affect us if we stay indoors?

Also, as you pointed out, the radiation is expectedly decreasing , not increasing, during an eclipse, so that would mean less harmful effects of the radiation, right? And if decreasing of the readiation is harmful, then why do we eat during the night?

Anshuman Ghosh said...

@Aparna - well dont u agree that staying indoors will still be better 'protection' from variations? its anyway better than roaming outside, what say ?

About eating during the night and other practices - My points till now have only talked about changes and effects, scientific per se, and dont really relate to the practices about eating and stuff. But yes, if on those days, people dont eat, it does save a lot of food for the poor and hungry ;)

Anonymous said...

Hmm..Tanu, this is an older post but I got around to reading this only now, so pardon my late comment..

Ok, your original postings and then the segue about girls' mensuration and the comments thereof seem to be taking the topic in multiple directions. Just so I am clear, I am assuming that the point you wanted to convey is in the last para where it references the colleague, correct?
Now, if that is right, then I am not clear what is your exact disagreement. That the colleague has a viewpoint in terms of not eating on a certain day which does not fit into your rationalization? If so, are you defining what is an acceptable position to take which is to ignore the "eclipse effect" and continue eating normally and any variations to this are derisive or objectionable? This is where I am struggling to identify with your viewpoint though I can relate to the second part of food getting contaminated - which is of course ridiculous.
So, parsing the last para, it would be nice if you can say which portion is the real irrational aspect . I see the fasting as a viewpoint that you may find funny but an acceptable one because it involves a person's prerogative to eat or not eat during a certain time. That the person chooses to interpret the eclipse in a way that defines rationality and decides not to consume anything maybe ridiculous but should be as acceptable as your right to deride it. The second point about food contamination is indeed the one that I will find amusing and illogical because there is no scientific facts to back it up.

Oh!BTW, not sure about someone's timeline in the post about mensuration and quarantining the girl, but it certainly goes back thousands of years. It is as despicable as it can get and there are cases even in the Mahabharat where Draupadi refused to come to the dice arena because she was having her periods and can't be seen by the elders. So, it is not a 100/200 year old tradition. The crude interpretation of a natural biological monthly occurance of the female anatomy and the unconscionable indignity during those days that is cast upon the female gender in the Hindu society has been going on for ages and should be soundly condemned. But this by itself is a separate topic since you could draw upon hundreds of such ludicurous practices as evidence for your original eclipse post, so thought I will point this out and then add my 2 cents..

See what all these years in our group does...trying to breakdown and parking lot the issues.. ;)

- Ramesh

Bishawjit said...

Hindus will never change. even in this scientific age. how on earth people can believe such a stupid story of rahu taking over sun and moon. time has come that we take proper action to throw away the unjust and fake stories made by the bramans for their own benefit. time has come that we stick to the proper teachings of VEDA.