Of Heroes, Eclipses, and 2045

SPOILER ALERT: I mention that there is an eclipse in the prior two episodes of Heroes and how they got the science wrong for 2008 by mentioning places on the planet heroes are located.  I won’t say who, just the where.

Since I don’t consider the spoilers in this blog to be more then what you’d get watching previews on NBC, I’m now going to move on with life and blog.

So… I watch Heroes. It gets stored on our Windows Media Center and sometimes I just binge. It is not a particularly great show, but I have a special soft spot in my heart for corny science fiction. (I also like Sanctuary, although the fake British accent is driving me crazy). Heroes, however, crossed a line from corny to just plain misplaced in time in their past two episodes. Creatively titled Eclipse 1 and Eclipse 2, these two episodes detailed what happens to our Heroes during a solar eclipse. The only problem is, the events can’t happen until 2041! Specifically, they have an eclipse that is visible for several hours to people in Kansas, Haiti, and someplace that I *think* was California (but I admit to missing a few details). One of the Heroes also mentioned how solar eclipses are events shared across the globe. While generally eclipses are events only seen by a lucky few who take off (often via ship or bus) to exotic locations, there are rare occasions when the world gets lucky.

Solar Eclipses occur when the Moon passes directly in front of the Sun when viewed from a given position on the surface of the Earth. This is a very careful alignment and you have to be in just the right place at the right time to see it. It’s along the lines of walking around to frame a photo so that it looks like a friend is holding the full moon in their hand. Sure, you can stand in more than one place, but those places are all pretty close together and along one line and you have to be in the right place at the right time.

Solar eclipses work much the same way, but more than just the moon is in motion so you have to move rather radically if you want to try and maintain alignment. All at the same time we have the Earth rotating and sweeping the position of eclipse from East to West, the moon orbiting (which also moves the shadow), and then of course you have the whole Earth-Moon System orbiting the Sun. All these motions together create an arcing eclipse path across the planet that is only about 160 miles wide (although admittedly a partial eclipse of the Sun will be observable over a huge swath of planet). From any given location it can take up to 4 hours for the moon to go from just starting to touch the Sun to barely no longer touching the Sun. During half that time, less than half the Sun is covered.

I looked at a bunch of eclipse maps to figure out just how insanely wrong the episode was and found myself surprised to find that there is an eclipse in 2045 that almost pulls off what they showed in the last two episodes of Heroes. Totality does pass across America (North *I think* of the California/Arizona characters and south of the Kansas characters) and over Haiti. It is visible at some level to people in pretty much all of the USA. If you click on the image above, it will show you the path of the total solar eclipse (The blue path containing circles), and areas of different percentages of coverage (the blue lines from East to West mark varying amounts of eclipsing).

So, while I was annoyed with the episode for taking advantage of an astronomical event in a way that initially seemed very improbable, it turns out that if Heroes were placed in 2045 what they showed about the eclipse could be true. Sadly, I think the show is supposed to be placed about now and not 33 years in the future. While there will be a rather cool eclipse of the Sun this summer, you’ll need to join me on a boat off the coasts of China and Japan if you want to see it. The next major eclipse to be seen in North America will occur in 2017.

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13 Comments

  1. Wilson December 10, 2008 at 2:05 am #

    Of course, there was also the eclipse they showed in the first episode of season 1. That one was visible (*at the same time*) in New York, Texas… and Tokyo.

  2. Adrienne December 10, 2008 at 2:06 am #

    …imagine watching the 2 episodes in a room full of astronomy educators…(which happened as we all get together on Mondays to watch Heroes)…it was funny. Plus they show the Moon moving 2 different ways across the Sun (first ‘left to right’ then later ‘right to left). We’re still waiting for how they can explain “Solar eclipse Hero-Mojo” that won’t make us all gag…

  3. Zach Kessin December 10, 2008 at 4:48 am #

    I enjoy Heroes I just don’t try to take it too seriously, or watch more than 1-2 episodes at a time.

    For better silly SF watch “Chuck”

  4. Beth December 10, 2008 at 8:31 am #

    2045 not 2041.

    I hope to be able to share the 2017 one with my family including my Dad who introduced me to astronomy. He’ll be 80 at that point.

    I like this map showing the paths of several eclipses. That’s the World Atlas view.

  5. Matt December 10, 2008 at 10:25 am #

    On the other hand, you’re watching a show where the basic premise is that people can fly, turn invisible, explode in radioactive fury, use telepathy, telekinesis, have rapid regeneration, travel back and forth in time, and generally break the laws of physics an average of, oh, say 30 or more times per show.

    At least an eclipse of this type is possible, if not timely. I don’t think the creators and writers of the show are asking too much for an extension of your suspension of disbelief – after all, you’ve already accepted such a ridiculous amount of their pseudo-science that it shouldn’t be too hard to imagine them in a universe where such an eclipse happened in 2008. If it makes you feel better, don’t think of it as our world; instead, think of it as a world close to ours, but not quite. In that world, things just work a little bit differently than we’re used to.

  6. Robert December 10, 2008 at 12:14 pm #

    Let’s not forget when Mohinder refers to it as a “total annular eclipse.” So maybe there were two eclipses happening in different parts of the world. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Also, there was a nice shot of the Moon about to start crossing the Sun, except it was first quarter. So annoying!

  7. EdF December 10, 2008 at 3:51 pm #

    This is like when I watch Law and Order with my friend who works for the District Attorney.

  8. EdF December 10, 2008 at 7:05 pm #

    Oh, I forgot, the British accent is killing me too on Sanctuary.

  9. KDC December 11, 2008 at 1:11 am #

    Heroes: Longest…Solar…Eclipse…Ever!

  10. Richard Drumm The Astronomy Bum December 11, 2008 at 1:13 am #

    Of course it’s just possible that the “Total annular eclipse” bit is put there by writers who just want to make astronomers laugh…
    I hope so.

    Anyway, I’m personally -STOKED- about Aug 21, 2017. I’m planning on planting myself near Columbia SC the night before and keeping an eye on the satellite images of cloud cover. I-26 runs along the eclipse path and provides an easy path to maneuver around clouds if need be.

    I’ll take a few pictures, but mostly I think I’ll just enjoy the moment for the moment’s sake.

  11. Doc Kinne December 11, 2008 at 10:49 am #

    As I said on my blog, they need an Astronomical Consultant. And I’m only too happy to apply! :-)

    And as has probably been mentioned in the comments, arguments can be made, even if the eclipse passed through the locations it had to, that we were seeing it at the same time, and that can never happen, of course.

    So, I hope the producers contact me. And if they go through you, Pamela, you have my contact information. :-)

  12. RapidEye December 11, 2008 at 10:58 am #

    Yeah, both the first season’s and this season’s eclipses have been buggin’ the crap out of me. I try not to take it too seriously, but its like a beautiful Victoria’s Secret Model with a big piece of spinach stuck in her teeth =-) OK, maybe Heros isn’t quite as pretty as that, but you get the general idea…

  13. MarkInCanada March 1, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    this ruined the episode for me, but because my girlfriend hates it when i critique tv shows in the middle of them, so i had to bite my tounge till it was over.
    but what bugged me even more than the lenght and path of the eclipse was the fact that they don’t lose their powers at night when the Earth is inbetween them and the sun!
    suspension of disbeleif is one thing, but it should atleast be internally consistant…

    wow i just realised how long ago this was originally posted, a little late to the party.

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