Tuesday, March 04, 2014

An opera inspired by a solar eclipse

by Salman Hameed

We often don't think about eclipses. Lunar eclipses go by without much notice. There is a bit more excitement with total solar eclipses. After all, these phenomena are just alignments based on the orbits of Earth, the Moon, and the Sun - and nothing more. The same is true for much of astrology - but it still retains its popularity for human affairs. Historically, however, eclipses were considered omens - often on the bad side. But eclipses have also inspired great art. Now a 19th-century opera, Prince Igor, by Alexander Brodin is being performed at New York's Metropolitan Opera - and it looks fantastic. For those of us who won't be driving to New York anytime soon, it is also being shown live in theaters as well. And if you still are not impressed, consider the fact that it is based in what is now Ukraine! Talk about timings. Here is an excerpt of a review from Nature that talks about its plot:
The opera's plot hinges on the defeat, psychological journey and redemption of Prince Igor Svyatoslavich. A historical ruler of Putivl in modern-day Ukraine, he is at war against the Polovtsy nomads, who have laid waste to Russia. The eclipse appears just five minutes into the prologue, a portent of Igor's military failure. The light coming through the windows darkens for a few seconds. “The sky grows dark? What does it mean? It is a sign from heaven,” sings the chorus, begging the soldiers not to go to war. “The Sun is a crescent, like the Moon.” The solar motif runs through the opera: in the third act, Igor, devastated by his defeat, evokes the Sun again: “I will save my people ... the Sun will shine again.” Ultimately, Borodin throws off the pall of superstition to show that humans — not celestial events — are in charge. At the very end, the prince, with an abruptness that we found unconvincing, begins to salvage wood from the ruins to rebuild his city, once again leading his people. 
Looks fantastic, but it is 270 minutes long!! Read the full review here (you may need subscription to access it).

And while we are on the topic of eclipses, one interesting story is of how Christopher Columbus used his knowledge of eclipses to gain influence over the native population in Jamaica. From Science News from 2006:
Nearly 2 years after sailing from Cadiz in 1502, Columbus and his restless, disgruntled crew were stranded on the north coast of Jamaica, confined to worm-eaten, leaking ships. The native inhabitants were no longer awed by the newcomers. Annoyed by their voracious appetites and angry at the depredations of crew members, who had plundered several villages, the population was hostile and would no longer supply food.
Weary and ill, Columbus had withdrawn to his ship. There, he pondered his precarious situation. Returning to the stained pages of the Ephemerides, he noted Regiomontanus's prediction of a total eclipse of the moon on Feb. 29, 1504. 
Such an eclipse occurs only when the moon passes into Earth's shadow. A lunar eclipse looks the same anywhere on Earth, but it occurs at different times, as measured by local clocks. Regiomontanus's book contained not only the expected dates of eclipses but also diagrams illustrating how completely the moon would be covered and precise information about each eclipse's duration and timing down to the hour. 
Columbus had observed a lunar eclipse on an earlier voyage and had noticed discrepancies between the predictions made by Zacuto and those contained in the Ephemerides. Moreover, he had no reliable way of determining the correct local time of this particular projected eclipse. The times provided by Regiomontanus for its start and end were for Nuremberg, Germany. 
Despite these uncertainties, Columbus was desperate enough to take a chance. On the day before the predicted eclipse, he summoned the leaders of the native inhabitants and warned them through an interpreter that if they did not cooperate with him, the moon would disappear from the sky on the following night. 
The natives for the most part were unimpressed; some even laughed. Columbus nervously awaited the outcome of his gamble. Could he rely on tables that had been compiled several decades earlier and that predicted the positions of celestial bodies only for the years between 1475 and 1506? How large were the errors? 
Amazingly, the prediction proved correct. As the full moon rose in the east on the appointed night, Earth's shadow was already biting into its face. As the moon rose higher, the shadow became larger and more distinct until it completely obscured the moon, leaving nothing but a faint red disk in the sky. 
The natives were sufficiently frightened by this unexpected occurrence and by Columbus's uncanny prediction to beg forgiveness and appeal to him to restore their moon to the sky. Columbus responded that he wished to consult with his deity. He retired to his quarters, using a half-hour sandglass to time how long the eclipse would last. Some time later, when the eclipse had reached totality, he emerged to announce that the moon, in answer to his prayers, would gradually return to its normal brightness. 
The next day, the natives brought food and did all they could to please Columbus and his crew. Columbus himself used the timing of the eclipse to calculate his ship's longitude, but his answer proved wildly erroneous. 
On June 29, 1504, a Spanish ship rescued Columbus's stranded party, a year after it had beached on the Jamaican coast. A few months later, Columbus set sail for Spain, bringing to an end his voyages to the New World.
Read the full story here

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