Monday, 19 November 2012

Is a solar eclipse a "cosmic coincidence"?

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The solar eclipse of 13 November 2012, photographed by Francisco Diego
When a total solar eclipse occurred over Australasia and the south Pacific last Tuesday, 13 November, the Daily Telegraph's blogging vicar, Rev Peter Mullen, used it as an opportunity to chide Richard Dawkins (and by extension all atheists, of whom he is the official representative) for his belief that such spectacular occurrences are the mere result of "cosmic coincidence".
"The sun is huge and ninety-three million miles away and the small moon is in our backyard, a mere quarter of a million miles away. Yet in an eclipse their discs precisely cover each other. Don’t therefore imagine that anyone designed it that way. It’s just a cosmic coincidence, isn’t it, Professor Dawkins?"
Well, actually Rev Mullen, that's precisely what it is. A few days after the eclipse, we received an email from our friend Dr Francisco Diego, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at University College London, who had been in northern Australia on a field trip to observe the eclipse.

In addition to attaching this stunning photograph of the corona at the moment of eclipse, Francisco sent us a short refutation of Rev Mullen's piece, which he'd read while staying in Singapore on his way back to London:
"I read with interest Rev Mullen's comments about the total solar eclipse I just saw from the Australian bush. I agree that this kind of news has an uplifting effect compared with what we do to our planet and our fellow human beings.
Yes, the event has effects in some of us that go beyond the scientific opportunity to better understand the Sun. This was my 20th eclipse expedition and still I experience those feelings of primeval terror when the daytime landscape plunges into darkness in only seconds and the sun goes away to be replaced by what looks like a sinister cosmic eye. Nature gives us amazing displays that hit the core of our deep emotions, inspiring a kind of spirituality without the need of supernatural intervention.

If Rev Mullen thinks that the AVERAGE similarity of apparent sizes between the sun and the moon that we see today goes beyond a simple coincidence, I feel that he should be aware of the way the Solar System formed and the cataclysmic way the moon formed. There are plenty of cosmic coincidences in these processes. But there is another one: it has been measured that the distance from the earth to the moon is increasing a few centimetres every year, so in the future, the moon will be so far away that its apparent size will not be enough to cover the sun completely.

Yes, Rev Mullen, it is a natural coincidence, for the time being."
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