Monday’s total solar eclipse, which stretched a band of black night across the continent at mid-day, displayed the awesome power of nature in ways that make an individual human shudder at his smallness. But as the moon intruded on the sun’s direct line to Earth, another great power was on display. Implicit in the decision of millions of people to don eye protection and stare at the sun for two full minutes was a collective endorsement of science itself. When people from all across the country looked to the sky, they took part in affirming one of the foundational principles of science itself: reproducibility.
In its broadest sense, science is the process of formulating models that predict events in the world based on observational evidence. The strength of science lies in one’s ability to independently verify the claims that another makes. When so many curious people, from Oregon to South Carolina, set out to witness the eclipse, they were really testing for themselves the validity of models of the planetary motion. They were, in this way, putting the science of astronomy to the test.
Now, the vast majority of people who traveled to see the eclipse probably weren’t skeptical that it would actually happen; to bear the brunt of what is expected to be some of the worst traffic this country has ever seen without a sure payoff would hardly be a well-spent Monday afternoon. But in truth, the news that there was to be an eclipse was just another prediction, born out of astronomical models of the solar system’s celestial bodies. No one can predict the future with 100 percent certainty, but thanks to an immense and rigorous empirical enterprise, spanning centuries from Copernicus to Galileo, Newton to Einstein, astronomy has established itself on such firm theoretical footing that one would be rightfully lampooned to say that no such blotting of the sun would occur as predicted.
And yet, what would have happened if all those traveler-worn sun-watchers were disappointed with two minutes of light when they had been promised dark? There would have been outrage. Some would claim a conspiracy: forcing millions of people into a narrow band of land, while a land-grab takes place back at home. Others would have left confused at how they had gotten swallowed up in the zeitgeist of such a fantastical idea — a feeling similar, I imagine, to finally realizing you have joined a cult. But the true fault would lie in our astronomical models. Something in the predictive mechanics of the science would have gone askew. Some missing data would explain how our models set the moon to intervene between sun and Earth, when instead it remained safely beyond celestial confrontation.
Whatever the cause, it would be the astronomers’ job to determine what had gone wrong, and to update their theories to make more accurate predictions. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, they would be forced to confront their misplaced confidence in their models. Despite the psychological burden, they would have to change their minds. And then, when the day of their next predicted eclipse came, they would be tested yet again.
Here lies the great difference between science and the various forms of faith in which people invest ideology. Everyone who spied through pinholes in aluminum foil Monday or donned silly eclipse glasses became scientists participating in the act of reproducibility on which the foundations of the scientific enterprise lies. They were testing the prediction of a model, and, I hope, getting their minds completely blown in the process.
Nothing in the world besides science works quite this way: From astrology and horology to homeopathy and healing crystals, there is no practice that bears results anywhere like science. And while other sciences may not proclaim predictions as dramatic as astronomy’s, they all traffic in the same currency of observation, modeling and prediction. Neither the complexity of biology, nor the sub-perceptual projections of climate science, nor the often imperfect practice of medicine in which I am engaged each day as a medical student undermines this process of truth-finding.
People all across America put their trust in the hands of a few expert astronomers, who told them that they would experience a sight that would change their sense of place in the universe forever. We’d do better as a nation to extend that reverence to all those who practice science and to the facts which it bears.
Gregory Barber is a medical student at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.