Thursday, March 13, 2014

Cosmos Episode 1: The good, the bad, and the problematic stuff

by Salman Hameed


The rebooted Cosmos has started with a bang. But bangs can go in many different directions. Here are some thoughts on the first episode. But with some caveats first: I was enamored with the first Cosmos. So it is always tempting to compare the rebooted version to the original one. But I watched the original when I was thirteen - and it is impossible for me to be in the same state of mind while watching Cosmos 2.0. Second, the idea of Cosmic Calendar was original in Sagan's Cosmos - and while it has been updated, the new Cosmic Calendar is now a copy. As is the phrase, "we are made up of star stuff". Plus, because of the hype, publicity, and the team behind Cosmos 2, we have to raise our standards of evaluation - and that may not be that fair. With some of these limitations in mind, here are some things that stood out for me:


The Good Stuff: The visuals are spectacular! I also enjoyed the addition of animations in story telling. In particular, I absolutely loved the animated sequence of the development of human civilization at the end of the Cosmic Calendar. Similarly, the pacing of the Bruno segment was perfect (though it had historical problems - see below). The tour of the universe and the Cosmic calendar could have been better with less "information" and more context. For example, there were too many stops in the early part of the Cosmic Calendar - and I think that diluted the overall impact. Oh and a big missed opportunity towards the end of the Calendar when Tyson was talking about the early hominid species. As I remember, the background had the famous 3.5 million year old Laetoli footsteps, possibly of three individuals, preserved in the volcanic ashes of Tanzania. It would have been amazing to have imagined where those three individuals might have been headed - while leaving these footprints that not only have lasted over 3 million years, but also have provided us with the evidence of bipedalism before the development of modern brain. One could have also jumped from these footprints to the importance of Neil Armstrong's footprint on the Moon. Okay - I didn't write the show and it may be unfair to start bringing up new additions.

The Bad Stuff: There already has been criticism for the animated story centered on Giordano Bruno. So lets get it out there: Cosmos 2.0 did not do a good job with history. Here are two reasons why this is a problem: a) It provides unnecessary fodder to places like the Discovery Institute (see here), and b) There is no excuse for bad history. After all, we all complain when bad science is depicted in TV shows and movies. Heck, Tyson was even upset with Sandra Bullock's zero-gravity hair in Gravity. Considering this, they should pay the same respect to other fields, including history. So what was wrong with the Bruno story? Well, the story implied that he was primarily burnt for his 'heretical' view of an infinite universe (with infinite number of worlds) and his belief in Copernicanism. Like the Galileo Affair, this is often depicted as a clash between science and religion, or at least science and catholicism (though Cosmos 2.0 correctly pointed out opposition to Copernicanism from Lutherans and Calvinists as well). Reality is more complicated, and this particular narrative of Bruno vs the Church was created in the 19th century  (See this Irtiqa post from 2008:   Why was Giordano Bruno Burnt at the Stake?). As Corey Powell explains very nicely in his post, Did 'Cosmos' pick the wrong hero?, Bruno was accused of several heresies, and a belief in an infinite universe was just one of them:
The Roman Inquisition listed eight charges against Bruno. His belief in the plurality of worlds was just one. The others involved denying the divinity of Jesus, denying the virgin birth, denying transubstantiation, practicing magic, and believing that animals and objects (including the Earth) possessed souls. You could fairly call Bruno a martyr to the cause of religious freedom, but his cosmic worldview was neither a deduction nor a guess. It was a philosophical corollary of his heterodox belief that God and souls filled all of the universe.
Oh and he thought that most of the Church officials were idiots - and called them "asses". So while, technically it is true that he was burnt at the stake for his belief in plurality of the worlds, to have a story that makes it the only thread is a bit misleading. And just as we don't like bad science in the name of simplicity, we should not like bad history in the name of simpler narratives.

Perhaps the worst thing in all this is that this can become a divisive issue. Similarly, Tyson at one point says that if you are ready to accept scientific methodology (I'm paraphrasing here), then join me in this voyage. I would have guessed that everyone should be invited to join in this adventure, and hopefully, all viewers will come out with a deeper appreciation of science and the universe.

I also thought that after the soaring rhetoric of Cosmic Calendar, where humans are literally insignificant, it was a letdown to end the show with Tyson's meeting with Sagan. Yes, yes, it is about passing the torch. But that was already done at the beginning of the episode. The original Cosmos left us pondering about the future of humanity (what will we do in the next second of the Cosmic Calendar?), whereas the first episode of Cosmos 2.0 left us firmly planted on Earth with Tyson.

The Problematic stuff: In Reflections on the Pale Blue Dot, Sagan wrote:
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
And yet, Cosmos 2.0 started with glorifying one of the current leaders: President Obama. I have no idea what Sagan would have thought about Obama's drone program, NSA spying, and the long solitary confinement by the government of Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning). Sagan opposed many of President Reagan's policies and even declined an invitation to meet with him at the White House. Unlike seeking a Presidential endorsement for his show, I wonder if he would have wooed the audience just by focusing on the grandeur of the universe - like he did in 1980. I think the very beginning of Cosmos 2.0 succumbed to the celebrity culture, and thus became a bit smaller.

Waiting for episode 2. I know that one of the episodes will also feature al-haytham (Alhazen) as one of the major animated characters. Hope they get the history right.

Related post: 
Watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos in Pakistan in 1984

Excellent article on the current political struggle in Turkey

by Salman Hameed

It is a pleasure to post this article from my friend and research collaborator, Berna Turam. Things have been messy and complicated in Turkey. She provides a nice primer to understanding the current crisis, which in large part, is due to a struggle between the ruling AKP party in Turkey and the Gulen Movement (GM):
Turkey has recently been shaken up by the tumultuous altercation between the globally active Muslim community-movement, the Gulen movement (GM) and the pro-Islamic
Justice and Development Party (AKP) in power for over a decade. Both Western and local audiences have been stunned by the intensity of the clash, which peaked in the last couple of months. 
Previously, most observers had wrongly assumed that these groups were inherent allies because of their faith-based worldview. In sharp contrast to this misperception, these groups came from entirely different pasts and political orientation, although they share a common interest in free market economy and cherished upward socio-economic mobility. 
In fact, these two pious Muslim groups have not cooperated with each other with the exception of a five-year period during the first term of the AKP (2002-2007). Historically, they come from two different branches of Islam in Turkey. The leader, Fethullah Gulen, and his followers have never approved of - or stood close to - Necmettin Erbakan's more radical Islamism, embodied by Milli Gorus (National Outlook). 
Although the GM at large shifted their votes from centre-right parties to the AKP in the 2002 election, Gulen never truly trusted Erbakan's tradition and his protege Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has served as the prime minister since 2002. 
Nevertheless, similar to the liberal democrats of Turkey, the GM stood close by the AKP during its first term, when the AKP was conducting consistent political reform and respecting principles of secular democracy. This conditional partnership started to weaken in the aftermath of the 2007 elections, and cracked in the last term of the AKP (2011-present), when the latter developed an increasingly self-confident and authoritarian attitude in the absence of a strong opposition.
There is now little doubt about Erdogan's increasing authoritarian measures (some comical, as the threat to ban YouTube and Facebook because they host some of the leaked corruption wiretaps - a measure rejected by Turkish President), but the Gulen Movement is not completely innocent either:
Power struggles are caused by the inability to share power, and are fuelled by contradicting political and economic interests. Hence, they are organic parts of power politics and can be played out entirely legitimately, as long as the rules of democracy are protected. However, in the current Turkish case, we recently witnessed persisting violation of these rules with increasing speed and frequency. 
No doubt, this is hurting the young democracy in Turkey and its relatively fragile democratic institutions. Acts of corruption committed by the members of the government are being revealed frequently through the release of tapes, some of which have been illegally produced through unpermitted wire-tapping. Neither the corruption nor some of the methods used in making and releasing the tapes qualify as democratic practices. 
This situation is turning a promising pattern of positive state-society interaction achieved in the first years of the millennium into a war zone of destruction. It is destroying positives steps that have been made in politics, economics, art and other spheres. 
More importantly, as in most power struggles, there are also unintended consequences. Both the AKP and the GM are trespassing over the borders they previously promised not to. On the one hand, the AKP is violating the firm boundary between religion and politics. Erdogan used to preach his fondness of a secular state to Egypt and Middle Eastern democracies during the Arab Spring. 
Secularists and the leading followers of the GM have objected against the AKP's decreasing commitment to secularism. These worries are not to be discarded easily, as the PM and his government continue to take fatwas from religious figures. It is not surprising then to witness the frustrations of the GM about the radicalisation of the AKP. In fact, the GM has a good record of secularism by separating religion from education in their scientifically oriented schools.
...
On the other hand, however, the GM has trespassed over the boundaries of civil society, within which it emerged and expanded across the world as a self-defined non-state "civic" entity.  Consistent with this image, the GM has refused to form a political party. 
For decades, the leader and his followers took clear stance against mixing religion and politics, by clearly displaying this principle in their confinement of politics to civic engagements with the state. However, when GM's individual members began taking important offices in the branches of the state, they entered a different zone of politics. Understandably, both the AKP and the democrats of Turkey are concerned about the formation of a parallel state by the GM.
But more importantly, where is all this going?
The right thing to do for the GM is to contribute to a strong democratic opposition against the over-empowered authoritarian AKP through the ballot box. The local elections in the end of March 2014 and national elections in a few years will provide a major litmus test for the GM to illustrate and prove its ultimate intentions and goals.
Electoral politics, however can be divisive. Just as the AKP's voters have disagreed in the face of the government's freedom violations and corruption, the GM may also face divisions. 
Two factors may contribute to this. First, the GM has a large grass-root inside and outside Turkey, and a globally influential leadership in the community who are not in the state bureaucracy. Second, the prioritisation of competitive education in the movement created a new educated elite with civil sensibilities and political and economic leverage. 
The near future will show if the GM will transform this power struggle and merge its votes with the secularist opposition for the Republican People's Party (RPP). Voting for RPP is a difficult choice, not only for pious Muslims but even for some liberal and leftist democrats, as RPP has historically not cultivated democratic credentials and practices. 
To the contrary, the party has been closely associated with military coups and violations of human rights. Hence, in the upcoming elections the RPP will also be tested on its capacity to transform its radical secularist and anti-democratic edges, which have formerly excluded and discriminated against pious Muslims, Islamists and other minorities. 
The upcoming local and national elections will put both the Gulen movement and the RPP to a test and will give them an opportunity to change old habits.   
Surely, the present political chaos did not pop up erratically out of nowhere. Before the Taksim-Gezi protests broke out in June 2013, Turkey was already dealing with these very difficult experiments on the ground. In the aftermath of the Gezi protests, one thing is clear: If Turkey comes victorious out of this political crisis, it will stand as an historical example for the future of the Muslim world. 
It will be a showcase of shifting the axis of conflict from the ancient Islamist-secularist dichotomy to a struggle between those who defend democracy and those who infringe on it in the Middle East. 
Read the full article here

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A new book on the reception of Darwin's work in the Arab world

by Salman Hameed

I had been waiting for this book for a while. I had read parts of Marwa Elshakry's dissertation on the reception of Darwin and evolution in the Arab world and found her work to be fascinating and outstanding. Well, now her book Reading Darwin in Arabic: 1860-1950 is out and I'm currently reading it. In the mean time, here is a review of the book from the Times Literary Supplement (tip from Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad):
The title Reading Darwin in Arabic notwithstanding, most of the men discussed in this
book did not read Charles Darwin in Arabic. Instead they read Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Ernst Haeckel, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Huxley, Gustave Le Bon, Henri Bergson and George Bernard Shaw in European or Arabic versions. They also read popularizing accounts of various aspects of Darwinism in the scientific and literary journal al-Muqtataf (“The Digest”, 1876–1952). The notion of evolution that Arab readers took away from their reading was often heavily infected by Lamarckism and by the social Darwinism of Spencer. Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was published in 1859, but Isma‘il Mazhar’s translation of the first five chapters of Darwin’s book into Arabic only appeared in 1918. 
For a long time, the reception of Darwinism was bedevilled by the need to find either neologisms or new twists to old words. As Marwa Elshakry points out, there was at first no specific word in Arabic for “species”, distinct from “variety” or “kind”. “Natural selection” might appear in Arabic with the sense “nature’s elect”. When Hasan Husayn published a translation of Haeckel, he found no word for evolution and so he invented one. Tawra means to advance or develop further. Extrapolating from this verbal root, he created altatawwur, to mean “evolution”. Darwiniya entered the Arabic language. Even ‘ilm, the word for “knowledge” acquired the new meaning, “science”. With the rise of scientific materialism came agnosticism, al-la’adriya, a compound word, literally “the-not-knowing”. 
The reviewer makes an interesting point that much of the discussion on evolution in the Arab world centered on politics rather than in works of fiction etc. I can imagine that the educated elites of the colonized world would be thinking more or less on political matters. Nevertheless, I have to finish the book to comment on that, but it is an interesting point:
The debate was prolonged and bitter, yet, on the showing of Elshakry’s thoroughly researched book, it strikes me as lacking in exhilaration. The vast vistas of time conjured up by Lyell and Darwin, the molten landscapes, the reign of the great monsters, the excitements of the fossil hunts and the quest for the missing link, none of these things seems to have struck an imaginative chord in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon. There is little or nothing in the Arabic literature of the Nahda, or “Renaissance”, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that can be compared to Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine or Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men and nothing, I think, to parallel the subtler exploration of Darwinian themes in George Eliot’s Middlemarch or Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, or, for that matter Darwin’s own rhetoric. The Origin of Species had concluded with these words: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved”. 
The embrace of evolutionary ideas was closely bound in with political considerations. 
Instead theologians, scientific popularizers, polemicists and journalists sought either to reconcile the new ideas with the Qur’an or to deny their validity on the grounds that they could not be so reconciled. In these debates Darwin’s The Descent of Man was more fiercely attacked and defended than The Origin of Species. Muslim polemicists against Darwinism gratefully borrowed the Protestant theologian William Paley’s analogy of a watch found abandoned on a beach, since the intricate design of such an instrument surely argued irrefutably for a designer. The Islamic reformer and activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–97) produced an early and intemperate attack on Darwin that was clearly not based on any direct acquaintanceship with his ideas (though Afghani later softened, and claimed that there was not a lot that was new in Darwinism, the Arabs having got there first). On the other hand, his leading disciple and pioneer of Islamic modernism, Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) became an enthusiast for the social Darwinism of Spencer and he was actually introduced to the great sage by his friend, the poet, Arabist and anti-imperialist Wilfrid Blunt. 
As was the case with reception of Darwinism in China, embrace of evolutionary ideas was closely bound in with political considerations, especially the challenges posed both by the West’s ideology and its military might. Science was now understood to be primarily Western science. Those who, like Abduh, broadly supported the theory of evolution were accused of being accomplices of cultural imperialism avant la lettre. The scramble for Africa was seen as the product of a political version of natural selection. Darwinism was denounced as part of the ideology of empire and something that underwrote the Anglo-Saxon claim to supremacy. In particular, the editors of al-Muqtataf, who drew so heavily on British publications, Ya‘qub Sarruf and Faris Nimr, were regarded with suspicion by Egyptian nationalists and, in fact, the editors seem to have had good contacts with Lord Cromer, the proconsul in Egypt from 1883 to 1907. In 1952, the year Nasser came to power, al-Muqtataf was forced to close. On a non-political level there was much that was peculiarly British in The Origin of Species and some Arab readers were probably repelled by Darwin’s intense interest in dog breeding. 
On the other hand, prominent supporters of Darwin and Spencer enthusiastically embraced the new foreign ideas as tools that might free them not only from the British presence in Egypt, but also from Ottoman and Khedivial despotism, as well as the shackles of what was seen as an outworn religious tradition. Spencerian social Darwinism, with its application of the concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology and politics, could be read as offering hope for the regeneration of the Arab world. 
Okay, this should whet your appetite for the book. Read the full review here

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in Pakistan in 1984

by Salman Hameed


It was sudden. It was unexpected. I was in 9th grade when my life took a dramatic turn. Like many of my peers at school, I was planning on pursuing electrical or computer engineering at N.E.D. University. My father is an engineer. My eldest brother is an engineer. The path seemed to have been laid out. But then, on a fateful night, Cosmos got aired on Pakistan Television (PTV). By the time the first episode ended, I had decided to become an astronomer. In less than an hour, a science poet from Brooklyn had fundamentally altered the trajectory of my life in Pakistan!

I don’t remember the exact date, but this was some time in 1984. I had heard of neither Carl Sagan or of his Personal Voyage in the form of the show Cosmos. In fact, when I sat down to watch the first episode, I was initially disappointed to find out that it was a documentary. I loved science fiction films, but used to run away from documentaries. I was thirteen. But the name of the show, “Cosmos”, fooled me. It sounded cool and mysterious.

And then Carl Sagan, in his inimitable accent and style, invited us all to join him in the voyage:

The surface of the earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we've learned most of what we know. Recently we've waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

I was hooked. The first episode ended with Sagan’s famous Cosmic Calendar, where the entire history of the universe was compressed into one year. The Big Bang happened on January 1st. In this calendar, the Sun and the planets formed only in September, and life arose on September 21st. Modern humans appear at 11:52pm on December 31st, and the entire written history would lie within the last 13 seconds of the cosmic year. The episode ended, but I remember sitting in stunned silence for a little while. For the first time, I had encountered the true enormity of space and time. My jaw stay dropped for the coming weeks and months, and I was an annoying teenager who was trying to explain the Cosmic Calendar to anyone who would listen (and even listening was not exactly a precondition). 

I had fallen in love with astronomy. Through Cosmos, I found out that one could be a professional astronomer. This was a revelation: You can get paid to do what you really love to do! Seventeen years after the airing of Cosmos in Pakistan, I obtained my doctorate in astronomy in the US. Carl Sagan died in 1996, and I never got a chance to thank him personally for transforming my life via only a picture tube. 

I routinely watch clips of Cosmos for writing inspiration. I have the series on iTunes, DVD, and, yes, even on VHS. I want to make sure that in case of a technological apocalypse, one of these formats will allow me the continued pleasure of being awed by Sagan’s personal voyage into the cosmos.

Now I await the premiere of the new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. By all accounts, it looks dazzling. Tyson, himself, is an outstanding communicator of science and a worthy successor of Sagan. I’m excited to see this updated Cosmos. So much has happened in astronomy since the first Cosmos. Planets around other stars. An accelerating universe. Dark Matter. Dark Energy. But in all honesty, I’m also a bit apprehensive. Sagan is often portrayed primarily as a science communicator. But I think his biggest contribution was to provide us with a rich and sensitive humanistic view of the universe. He managed to balance awe and humility in the face of the enormous cosmos uncovered by science. I hope the new Cosmos finds a way to retain this spirit.


The wait is almost over. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey premiers tomorrow. Here is the trailer: 


Cosmos - A Spacetime Odyssey With Neil deGrasse... by Michael500ca

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Digitized Collection of Arabic and Persian Medical Books and Manuscripts at Yale University

by Salman Hameed

If you are working on the history of Arabic or Persian medicine, you should check out the digitized collection at Yale University's Medical Historical Library (tip from Tabsir):
This digitized collection of selected volumes of medical books and manuscripts, dating from 1300 to 1921, is drawn from the Medical Historical Library, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library.  This collection reflects the Arabic and Persian intellectual efforts that translated, augmented, and transmitted Greek and Roman medical knowledge to Western societies during the Renaissance.  It includes iconic works by authors such as Avicenna
and al-Razi. 
The Medical Historical Library, originally formed by the joining of three collections by bibliophiles Harvey Cushing, John Fulton, and Arnold Klebs, has over 120,000 volumes dating from the 12th to the 21st centuries.  While primarily composed of works in Western medicine and science, a smaller selection of Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts are a "hidden collection" in the Library.  Through the support of the Arcadia Fund, the Medical Historical Library was able to digitize Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts, as well as early translations in Latin, French, and English.   
This project was conceived to build on the earlier success of past Middle Eastern digitization efforts at Yale University Library and a past collaboration between YUL and the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), which digitized a small selection of Arabic and Persian manuscripts which are available at the Arabic and Middle Eastern Electronic Library (AMEEL).  The project added another level beyond the Arabic/Persian collection, as early Latin, French, and English translations of Arabic medical works were selected to be part of the grant.  The transmission and translation of Arabic and Persian medicine into Europe has been a source of scholarly interest, as Arabic and Persian societies were vital in the retention and augmentation of ancient medical knowledge. 
For more information about this digital collection, contact the Medical Historical Library via email or phone 203-737-1192. 
- See more at: http://web.library.yale.edu/digital-collections/arabic-and-persian-medicine#sthash.62LIcl1b.wAzziDJi.dpuf

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