Nowadays we expect eclipse predictions to be accurate to a fraction of a second because we understand the underlying physical principles and have studied the motions of the earth, the moon and the sun in great detail. In the story of the Chinese eclipse there is an inference that the astronomers should have known about it in advance and there is good reason for believing that crude predictions were possible in those days because of the repetitive cycle of eclipses known as the Saros.
The Babylonians discovered that there was a Saros or cycle of 223 intervals between new moons, after which eclipses of the sun and moon recur. If an eclipse is seen on a particular day, then it is certain that another will happen 18 years, 10 days and 7 hours later which may be visible from the same place but which will not have the same appearance. On average there are 41 eclipses in the Saros cycle, and each one of these will be followed by another just over 18 years later. The Saros was almost certainly known to the Chinese and they would have used it in predetermining the dates of eclipses.
The first well documented example of the use of the Saros was the prediction of the eclipse of 28 May 585 BC by Thales of Miletus, the Greek scientist and statesman, but there can be no doubt that the method was used earlier than this.
Obviously the ability to predict was a powerful tool in the hands of the astrologers and their readings of the sky were variously correlated with natural disasters, deaths, wars and the displeasure of the gods.
In more recent times, others have used their knowledge of eclipses to great effect. Sir Arthur Helps, in his Life of Columbus (1910) relates the story of how the explorer used the lunar eclipse of 2 April 1493 to obtain provisions from the inhabitants of Jamaica. At first they were reluctant to help him and he threatened them with divine vengeance, 'for that very night the light of the Moon would fail'. The natives were frightened and during the eclipse they approached Columbus and implored his intercession with the inevitable result that the moon was restored to them and provisioning ceased to be a problem.
The only difference between lunar and solar eclipses as far as prediction and observation are concerned is that a total solar eclipse can be seen only from a narrow strip on the earth's surface across which the moon's shadow sweeps during the time of the eclipse, and which may be only about 150 miles wide. Lunar eclipses can be seen from the entire moonward hemisphere of the earth.
One would expect that some detailed knowledge of the processes causing eclipses would dispel some of the fears accompanying them, but the evidence of modern anthropologists seems to refute this. It seems that the basic reaction to a major natural disturbance like an eclipse still contains a certain amount of fear.
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