I wanted to freeze time. We had travelled to Meramec State Park in Missouri and waited nervously through the weekend as the weather forecast for Monday alternately called for partly cloudy — no, overcast — no, partly cloudy — no, overcast. Monday dawned clearer than predicted.
A few thin clouds scuttled by as morning waned, but the predicted storms never coalesced. And as the moon touched the disk of the sun and began its slow dramatic slide, all was clear overhead. A few clouds approached, but they were too thin to block the brilliant light of the sun.
An astronomer who was with us at our campsite by the Meramec River directed our attention to the asphalt of the narrow campground road beside us. He wanted us to notice pattern of leaf shadow on the ground. The shadows were filled with trippy crescent shapes, a pattern that grew more and more pronounced as the eclipse approached totality. Beautiful!
The cicadas in the trees all around us suddenly grew louder. And then our little crowd began to cheer. The thin last clouds cleared just in time for the diamond ring, that moment just before totality when a last shard of the sun suddenly dazzles. Then the moon slipped over the sun for two-and-half eerie, extraordinary minutes. I wanted it to last so much longer. It was too strange and sublime to digest in such a short space of time. Then the diamond ring burst forth again, and we looked away from the dazzling brightness.
For those short moments of totality, sun and moon fit hand and glove. Like a key and its lock. So here is the take-home question: What is the best explanation for perfect solar eclipses?
A few minutes before totality I got into a conversation with a family who had come down from Seattle, where, of course, Discovery Institute is headquartered. I asked them what they thought of the odd fact that the moon fit just perfectly over the sun. Not too small that it never covered it. Not so large that it covered too much of the sun and thereby blocked the corona. This means the corona is beautifully visible during a perfect eclipse.
The family chewed on the question for a moment. A couple of them seem a little puzzled. What was I getting at? Perhaps I hadn’t phrased it well. I know I hurried the question. Finally one answered that, well, the sun and moon fit perfectly because the moon was much closer than the sun, so that made up for the sun being so much bigger.
Yes, of course. The sun was 400 times bigger, but the moon was 400 times closer than the sun. But I had hoped they would wrestle with the question of final causes. What was the deeper explanation for why we had been allowed, on rare occasions, to enjoy something that has dazzled humans for ages and, in recent generations, helped scientists to discover and test some truly amazing things about our universe?
I was curious about an ultimate explanation, and the young man who answered me seemed satisfied to merely explain the geometry of eclipses. In that moment I was reminded of one writer (was it Chesterton?) who spoke of how we explain the mathematical regularities of the laws of planetary motion, or of gravity, or of one of the many other laws and constants of physics and chemistry, and imagine that we have given an explanation. Why are they regular thus? Why do they dance as they do?
Why, as mathematician Eugene Wigner put it, are mathematics unreasonably effective at describing so much of our physical universe?
We need to step back and ask the bigger question: What is the ultimate explanation for why we can enjoy perfect solar eclipses? What is the ultimate explanation for why mathematics proves curiously effective at describing so much about our physical universe? Why so many elegant and discoverable mathematical laws? And why are the laws and constants of physics and chemistry fine-tuned so that we can both exist and discover those finely tuned laws?
Is the explanation chance? That we just happen to live in a universe fine-tuned for observers like ourselves, and fine-tuned — extravagantly so!– to give us things like perfect eclipses that weren’t strictly necessary for our existence?
Is the ultimate explanation chance? Or is it design? What is the best explanation?
In the moment the cicadas lifted their voices, the diamond ring blazed and then blazed out, and the fires of the sun’s corona blazed forth, there was a feeling of wonder and awe in our little group gathered from far and near — friend and stranger.
Many who have described the viewing of a perfect solar eclipse say it as borders on a religious experience, people of many different religious faiths and of no religious faith. What best explains that feeling? What best explains all of these things?
I am convinced that the best explanation for that feeling of reverence is that there is a maker worthy of reverence at work here. And I’m convinced that this explanation — design and not chance — is both the most imaginative, and the most reasonable explanation.
Today I was not alone in giving praise to the maker of sun and moon for a perfect solar eclipse. Hallelujah!