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Learning from the first eclipse media event

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-08-2017 Justin Fox

It was a bright, clear day across much of the country when the moon passed in front of the sun. People gathered on rooftops, city squares and country fields to witness the astronomical phenomenon that had been heralded for months in the media.

Yes, that describes Monday in the US reasonably well. But I was thinking of 3 May 1715, in southern England.

The sky over London early that morning was a “perfect serene azure blew,” Edmond Halley recounted later. He had gathered with a group of scientists and science enthusiasts—some of whom had travelled from France for the event—on the roof of the Royal Society, the pioneering scientific organization founded 55 years before, instruments at ready.

Assembled about a mile to the west at Covent Garden was “a great Concourse of people of Quality,” as one newspaper put it a few days later, there to witness the eclipse in the company of mathematician William Whiston. Whiston had for several weeks been giving (and charging admission for) evening lectures at Mr. Button’s Coffeehouse in which he described what was to transpire that day.

Halley, the Savilian professor of geometry at Oxford and long one of the Royal Society’s most active and inquisitive members, had estimated that matters would commence at 8:07am. Soon after eight, he began looking through his six-foot telescope at the western edge of the sun. “At 8h 6’ 20” by the Clock,” he wrote, “I began to perceive a small Depression made in the Sun’s Western Limb.”

So he was a little off. Still, both Halley and Whiston had predicted, with striking exactness, the first total eclipse of the sun in southern England in centuries. Each had published detailed maps projecting the path of the eclipse (Halley’s correctly predicted a course slightly to the north of Whiston’s), and filled the London newspapers with advertisements for them in the weeks leading up to the big date. Halley also took pains to ensure that his map was “dispersed all over the Kingdom.” It came with this explanation:

The like Eclipse having not for many Ages been seen in the Southern Parts of Great-Britain, I thought it not Improper to give the Publick an Account thereof, that the sudden Darkness wherein the Starrs will be Visible about the Sun, may give no surprise to the People, who would, if unadvertized, be apt to look upon it as Ominous, and to Interpret it as portending Evil to our Sovereign Lord King George and his Government, which God preserve. Hereby they will see that there is nothing in it more than Natural, and no more than the necessary Result of the Motions of the Sun and Moon; And how well those are understood will appear by this Eclipse.

Whiston had similar intentions but, having been thrown out of his Cambridge professorship five years earlier for his unorthodox religious views, he was also out to cash in. Map and book sales, lecture fees and the gratuities thrown his way after a successful prediction (he raked it in at Covent Garden that morning) constituted the majority of his income. Halley, the son of a wealthy soapmaker, had no pressing need of tips. But by projecting the path and timing of the eclipse more accurately than Whiston and even than Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed, he burnished an already sterling reputation as an astronomer and scientific jack-of-all-trades—a reputation immortalized by the arrival in December 1758, 16 years after his death, of a certain comet he had predicted.

Astronomers had understood the basic causes of eclipses for almost two thousand years, and had gotten to be quite good at predicting lunar eclipses, which occur much more frequently than the solar variety. But in 1715 Halley and Whiston had a new tool for prediction—the calculations of celestial orbits in Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687. They also had a new tool for disseminating their predictions—the burgeoning English print media of the early 1700s. That combination of scientific accuracy and media attention made for a “propaganda coup for the new science,” University of Kent historian of science Rebekah Higgitt wrote in the Guardian on the 300th anniversary of the 1715 eclipse two years ago.

In the three centuries since, the “new science” hatched at the Royal Society and other incubators has explained away countless other mysteries and made countless other accurate predictions. These days it feels like it could use a propaganda coup or two, though. Nobody’s really questioning eclipse predictions, James Hamblin’s funny Atlantic piece on “The Eclipse Conspiracy” notwithstanding. But many are full of disdain for and suspicion of what scientists have to say about vaccinations, about climate change, about lots of other things.

Some of this has to do with overreach and error by scientists, some of it with disinformation campaigns by those with financial or political interests to defend, some of it with the generalized distrust of modernity that has been cropping up from time to time over the past three centuries. It’s also that science now covers lots of territory more complicated than solar eclipses, making it harder for the scientists to be quite so confident in their predictions and harder for the rest of us to understand what they’re talking about.

Still, Halley and Whiston’s example is worth thinking about. They were popularizers as well as scientists, putting their predictions before the public in terms laypeople could (mostly) understand. They were to some extent doing their work in public too—Halley asked witnesses around the country to make observations and send them in, and he published a revised, corrected version of his map several years later. They were out to sell science by demystifying it. Which seems as useful in 2017 as in 1715. Bloomberg View

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