Nebraska's skies finally receiving attention they're due

Monday, August 7, 2017

We’ve been writing about the upcoming total solar eclipse for a couple of years now, and dearly miss our long-time astronomy columnist, Vernon Whetstone, who passed away after a brave battle with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease — before he could share his wisdom with our readers.

We think he would have been pleased with all the attention his favorite subject is receiving, although perhaps a little perplexed that more Great Plains residents don’t appreciate the celestial sights we’re treated to every clear night.

We didn’t have time to enlist his help in a campaign — just a desire, really — to protect our relatively pristine skies from light pollution by encouraging more efficient, appropriate terrestrial outdoor lighting.

Nebraska is gearing up in a big way for the Aug. 21 total eclipse, welcoming visitors who know, down the exact minute and latitude and longitude, exactly where and when they need to be to take in the celestial sight.

It wasn’t always that way.

While modern eclipse-viewers are encouraged to watch their animals for signs of unusual activity during the event, ancient cultures used animals to explain the eclipse.

The Vikings thought they saw a pair of sky wolves chasing the sun and moon, Vietnamese thought it was a frog and dragons, of course, caused the blackout in China.

A northwestern tribe of Native Americans said a bear started a fight with the sun — their word for solar eclipse is “Sun got bit by a bear.”

Many cultures go outside to bang pots and pans together to scare away the demon causing the sun to black out but urge their pregnant women to stay inside to avoid birth defects.

Eclipses haven’t been particularly helpful to monarchs, such as King Henry I, who died shortly after the eclipse of 1133 AD, and two Chinese astrologers lost their heads, literally, for failing to predict the eclipse of 2134 BC.

The Bible mentions the sky darkening after Jesus’ crucifixion, which might be explained by a solar eclipse in 29AD or 33AD, but Mohammed refused to believe an eclipse in January 632AD had anything to do with the death of his son, Ibrahim.

Yes, we miss Vernon Whetstone, but we’re grateful to another expert, David Hurd, who provided some insight as to what to expect. He’s a former McCook Junior High physical science teacher who now holds a doctorate and is in charge of a university planetarium in Pennsylvania.

Reporter Lorri Sughroue picked his brain for a story last week, and convinced us that, while McCook’s not on the path of totality, it will still be a pretty good place to experience the eclipse.

We’ll just be finishing up that day’s paper, but should be able to find time to go outside to bang some pots and pans together.

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