Sir Arthur Eddington’s Eclipse

by Fred Harold Jensen
Orchard Park Meeting


Quaker and physicist Sir Arthur Eddington's work is particularly relevant to us in Western New York, right now, expecting a total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. Astronomically speaking, we are living in a time like no other time. We are expecting a total eclipse of the sun, and we should be expecting eclipse-chasers to come as guests. How does this expectation connect to Sir Arthur Eddington? He was an eclipse-chaser, and a Quaker one at that.


In order to prove that the theory of general relativity was correct, Eddington had to travel to a place where he could witness and photograph a total eclipse of the sun. The necessity for the scientist's solar eclipse expedition arose from a strange prediction from Einstein's theory. Odd as it was, Einstein predicted that light would bend near extremely massive objects—objects like our sun. This bending of light toward the earth would make the stars shining "around" the sun appear closer to the sun than we would expect. If you find it hard to believe that light could be "funneled" toward the sun, well, a lot of people in Einstein's day also found it hard to believe. But Eddington could tell Einstein's equations made sense, and being a "Seeker after Truth," the Quaker wanted to see if Einstein was right. The only way to prove the reality of the light-bending was to photograph the stars that appear around the sun in the sky. But, obviously, the light from the sun usually overwhelms these stars. So, the only way to photograph the stars "around" the sun is to do so at the exact moment of a total solar eclipse, when the light of the sun is blocked. Eddington thus had to chase an eclipse.


Every given patch of real estate on Planet Earth only gets a total solar eclipse once every three-to-four centuries, and there was not one happening over England that year. So, Eddington had to travel from England, first to West Africa, and later to Brazil, where he could witness and photograph eclipses. One of the amazing things about solar eclipses is that, at totality, the stars shine at midday. Therefore, as planned, when totality happened, Eddington photographed the place in the sky where the moon was blocking the light of the sun. He thus captured an image of the stars that would normally be invisible during the day, and the image showed that, indeed, these stars seemed to be closer to the sun than one would normally expect. Eddington thereby proved Einstein correct.


Eddington, who was not only a Quaker and an astrophysicist, but also a poet, wrote this verse to celebrate the discovery.

Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate

One thing at least is certain, light has weight

One thing is certain and the rest debate

Light rays, when near the Sun, do not go straight.

—Arthur Stanley Eddington


We Quakers have a tradition of pro-science faith to maintain, and we honor Eddington when we celebrate an eclipse. Actually, just the fact that we are "Seekers after Truth" should be sufficient reason to eagerly anticipate the approaching eclipse in Western New York. However, while we expect an event in the sky, the grounded, human-centered aspect of our faith calls us to action as well. The approaching eclipse could bring in a torrent of tourists. So, what is to be done? Of course, we should be hospitable to sojourners in whatever ways we can. One project all the people of Erie County could do together would be to address what has been a perennial problem in our region, the problem of abandoned and vacant houses. It seems to me the county needs an initiative to restore houses well enough that the houses could be hostels for eclipse tourists, or domiciles for umbraphiles (fans of eclipses).


The approaching eclipse resonates with the testimony for peace, in fact, it IS a testimony for peace, for it is for all people, and is thus a unifier. The solar system does not care about the petty little wars that happen when we bipeds stop using our big-brains. With the right kind of mentality in expecting the eclipse, we can also see the very rare moment we are living in as a time for spirituality.