Eclipse Myth or Scientifically Provable Fact?

On Wednesday, July 22, 2009, a total eclipse of the Sun was visible from within a narrow corridor that traversed half of Earth. Credit: NASA/JAXA
On Wednesday, July 22, 2009, a total eclipse of the Sun was visible from within a narrow corridor that traversed half of Earth. Credit: NASA/JAXA

By Mahreen Khan

Eclipses have been shrouded in myth for centuries. While some are absurd, others are believable, despite all the opposing science.

It’s not that the eclipse has psychological effects,” said Dr. Daniel M. Davis, chair of Stony Brook University’s Department of Geosciences. “It’s that the experience is so extraordinary, so awesome.”

Here are some common myths surrounding solar eclipses that you may find yourself caught up in — and some facts to keep you grounded.

Temperatures drop and winds change course. While no significant systematic study has yet been produced on eclipse-associated temperature drops, Dr. Sten Odenwald, director of the NASA/Heliophysics Education Consortium’s citizen science directorate, said reports from a variety of sources suggest at least a 10-degree dip during a total eclipse. “It’s not really going to be that noticeable, unless you’re at one of those critical temperature boundaries,” he said. Any drop more than 15 degrees, NASA data visualizer Ernest T. Wright said, would be highly unusual. In an area experiencing a partial eclipse, the temperature drop will be hard to notice, with temperatures possibly missing their projected high for the day by a couple of degrees. As for the “eclipse wind,” Mr. Wright said those in a total eclipse will likely notice a breeze. “You feel this breeze that comes up all of a sudden, just because of totality,” Mr. Wright said. “And then minutes later, it’s gone.”

Animals and insects act strangely. It’s unlikely that your dog will turn full-out werewolf on you, but animals do respond to total solar eclipses because of the sudden shadow of darkness that is cast. Some birds stop chirping, while others caw in unison. Spiders might unspin webs — only to re-spin them two-and-a-half minutes later, and bees might buzz louder than usual.

Pendulums swing faster. Reports that pendulums change their amplitude or knock as if hit by a shock wave are grossly exaggerated. Very sensitive gravity meters may pick up on slight shifts in the net force of gravity, Dr. Odenwald said, but your eyes alone will not.It’s not just total solar eclipses where you would see this,” he said. “You would also see this during any new moon. There’s nothing special about a total solar eclipse in this particular kind of gravity measure.”

Pregnant women and children should stay away from the sun during a solar eclipse. False, false, false. The notion that pregnant women are at risk during an eclipse, or that children are any more likely to act erratically is wrong, said Mr. Wright. “There’s no kind of radiation that’s different, there’s really nothing different from any other day. It’s just mythology that builds up around certain things, and it’s like astrology, which we don’t regard as having any scientific weight either.” 

Electrical grids lose output. Yes, momentarily. But power companies are aware of upcoming eclipses and plan accordingly. “A little bit too much has been made of the impact,” Mr. Wright said. “There are weather impacts every day that are pretty much equivalent. It’s just — the cool thing is — you can predict it.”