Last Sunday night’s supermoon and lunar eclipse were both scientifically interesting and cause for much speculation on the fringes of some religious groups. But how do a supermoon and a lunar eclipse work? And, once we’ve established that, do supernatural speculations that surround astronomical events have any relevance to the scientifically inclined?
As you may have noticed, if you are in the habit of roaming the streets in the early hours of Monday morning, the beginning of this week heralded a particularly unusual phenomenon: the collision of two astronomical events in one night – a supermoon and a lunar eclipse. The eclipse occurred between 00:11 and 05:22 GMT on the 28th of September, reaching its greatest point at approximately 02:47 GMT. A supermoon is less easily measured in terms of time, and could be considered to be happening for the duration of its appearance in the sky on the night of 27th to 28th of September. The meeting of the two lunar events has been much talked of, and rightly – we will not see this combination again until 2033, in 18 years’ time. Furthermore, the unusual collision of events sparked apocalypse warnings from some, despite assurances that there was nothing to be feared.
Many people are fascinated by the night sky; in fact, in terms of the general public’s view of ‘scientific thinking’ as a whole, astronomy, along with theoretical physics, is seen by many as representational of what science is. Despite the vast oversimplification and erasure in this being the case, it is nice and also important that there’s a popular appreciation and interest in what makes the universe work. With this in mind, let us take a closer look into precisely what happened on Sunday night.
Supermoon and total eclipse
The supermoon is technically the simpler of the two events. The moon orbits the earth in an elliptical path, meaning that it is not always the same distance from the earth; sometimes it is closer, sometimes further away. A supermoon appears when the moon is simultaneously at its closest point to the earth, called perigee (or within 90% of perigee), and when it appears as a full moon. This causes us to see a moon that is around 7-8% bigger, although it is just proximity. However, this should not be confused with the moon illusion, which causes the moon to appear bigger when near the horizon.
The total eclipse (sometimes referred to hereafter as the blood moon), is slightly more complex. Total eclipses occur when the moon is entirely ‘blocked’ from the Sun’s light by the earth. Blocked is perhaps the wrong word – the moon in actuality simply passes through the Earth’s umbral shadow, which is the cause of its dark red colour. The umbral shadow is not completely devoid of light, indeed; as the colour of Sunday night’s moon suggests, Earth is somehow throwing red light onto its satellite, which is possible due to a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering. When sunlight hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it hits the particles that make up that atmosphere – gases, dust particles and water droplets. The visible spectrum of light is made up of lots of different colours and corresponding wavelengths, which are measured in nanometres: violet light, for example, has a short wavelength and high frequency, whereas red light has a longer wavelength and lower frequency. When light hits the particles in the atmosphere, they will scatter when hitting particles smaller than their own wavelength. However, light with shorter wavelengths such as violet and blue light are scattered much more easily, while red light can pass through the atmosphere. In the case of an eclipse, it is then refracted onto the surface of the moon.
The reason that total eclipses are not more common, given that the only preconditions seemingly needed are a full moon and one orbit of the earth (taking just under a month) is that the moon, as well as tracing an elliptical path around the Earth, also orbits approximately 5 degrees out of kilter with the Earth’s orbit of the sun, meaning that most months the moon is either above or below the umbral shadow. Furthermore, only people on the ‘night’ side of the Earth will be able to see the eclipse.
Despite unshakeable scientific evidence to suggest that the event, sometimes dubbed the #superbloodmoon, was perfectly normal and expected, albeit unusual, it did not stop a slew of apocalypse predictions. Why do natural events still cause so much supernatural speculation? A prime, and extreme example of the kind of theories about a tetrad of blood moons that began on April 15th last year, are those of Irvin Baxter. His website, and the pages and pages of biblical prophecy documented there, seem terrifyingly credible at first glance, merely due to detail.
Irvin Baxter is the founder of Endtime Ministries – a non-profit Christian organisation in Texas that was formed when Baxter read Revelations 19 times in a search for a truth he felt he was not getting from the Christian teaching he was receiving -, has stated that this tetrad of blood moons will signal “some major event for the Jewish people”. Throughout time, in fact, Baxter links similar tetrads as far back as 1493-4 with significant dates in Jewish history. This time, bizarrely, he identifies the ‘major event’ as the signing of a peace agreement between Palestine and Israel. Given that the deadline produced by Baxter before it passed was April 2014, the prophecy is already flawed, but he maintains that “According to the biblical prophecy, the signing of a Middle East peace agreement will mark the beginning of the Final Seven Years to Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus to the earth.” Assuming that the date for the peace treaty is flexible, which his continued pursuing of the subject would suggest, then when does the world end? Seven years from the predicted treaty? Seven years from the eclipse? It is very unclear. He also claims to have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall as early as 1968, 21 years before it would fall, although no evidence is presented to support this. It seems harmless, but further perusal of his predictions find that a ‘second holocaust’ will eventually result from the peace treaty, through a sudden attack from the Palestinians. The spectacular cultural insensitivity of this one remark begins to show one that Baxter, and those like him, are not as harmlessly entertaining as they may seem to those who either belong to more mainstream religious groups, or who consider themselves agnostic or atheist, and do not in any way see reason in his predictions.
Despite deliberately complex and confusing analysis of Middle Eastern politics, there is nothing but empty and offensive speculation. For those who are touched by his message, it seems like a cruel joke: taking the beauty out of nature and twisting it to make it about politics, about religion, and about personal posturing.
That’s not to say that religion and science cannot coexist – they can and they do, but surely that’s because they are both meant to be about hope and wonder. They are not about the end of days. They both give life meaning, they give us hope for the future, they comfort us. For that reason, we looked up at the super-blood-moon on Sunday and we saw an incredible universe, one that continually inspires curiosity, and pushes us further down the path of new discovery.