Dark Side of the Sun

Next week, on 21st August, an eclipse in the United States is expected to become the most watched event of its kind in history. Physicist Dr Frank Close, who dates his own childhood interest in science to witnessing an eclipse, examines the mythology and psychology behind them.

Eclipses have inspired dread and awe since antiquity. The earliest Chinese mythology saw solar eclipses as dragons eating the sun. Native American astronomer Nancy Maryboy talks about the Navajo and Cherokee beliefs, many of which are still held today.

The programme also visits Stonehenge to examine theories that the ancient Aubrey holes, burial pits on the outer edge of the monument, were used to predict eclipses. The saros - the cycle of eclipses - has been used since the time of the Babylonian to predict eclipses.

We hear how Christopher Columbus used prior knowledge of an eclipse to save his shipwrecked crew. The ability to predict an eclipse was often used as a literary device over the centuries - in anything from Rider Haggard to Herje's adventures of Tin Tin.

We also meet eclipse chasers, that strange community of people for whom no expense is too great, or distance too far, to satisfy their fascination with a total eclipse of the sun. Psychologist Dr Kate Russo has studied her own and others' obsession with eclipses to examine the reactions so many people report. The euphoria people experience is, she says, caused by the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine - but, intriguingly, she suggests that people who witness eclipses exhibit similar symptoms to patients with trauma.

A Kati Whitaker production for BBC Radio 4.

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30 minutes

Last on

Wed 16 Aug 2017 16:00

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Images provided by Dark Side of the Sun presenter Dr Frank Close. Frank is the author of 'Eclipse: Journeys to the dark side of the moon', published by Oxford University press.

Satellite photo of a total solar eclipse in the Sahara desert

Satellite photo of a total solar eclipse in the Sahara desert

Eclipse chasers in the Sahara desert

Eclipse chasers in the Sahara desert

Eclipse watchers in Zambia, 2001

Eclipse watchers in Zambia, 2001

Eclipse watcher T-shirt

Eclipse watcher T-shirt

Crew of a ship in the South Pacific using novel eye protection

Crew of a ship in the South Pacific using novel eye protection