金環日食 kin-kan nisshoku—annular eclipse

There’s lots of excitement here about tomorrow morning’s annular eclipse. It will be visible from many of Japan’s population centres, including Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka (the partial eclipse will be visible from everywhere in Japan). The track of the eclipse extends across the Pacific to the US, terminating in Texas.

An annular eclipse occurs when the moon is slightly further away from the earth than usual, so its apparent size is not big enough to completely cover the sun’s disc. The moon will block out the central portion of the sun, but there will still be a ring of sun visible around the outside. For any given point on the earth’s surface, this is a very rare event.

Unfortunately, it’s raining now so it seems we won’t be able to see it properly. But we will go out and watch in the hope of a break in the cloud.

[Update (21st May): We were able to watch it! We were very lucky to get a break in the cloud and we could watch the whole sequence from our front room. It was a really beautiful sight.]

Next month there will be another rare astronomical event – a transit of Venus. After this year, there will not be another for over 100 years. In the 18th century, scientists travelled to many remote parts of the world to observe the transit, and use the opportunity to measure the distance to the sun. The legacy of these multi-year expeditions extended far beyond this central measurement, helping to shape the European understanding of the world in the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and happening at a formative moment in the relationship between European people and other cultures.

Note on the word of the day:

金環日食 kin-kan nisshoku literally means “gold ring eclipse”. The word for “eclipse” is written with the characters 日 sun and 食 eat, bringing to mind old ideas about the sun being eaten by a dragon.

One difference between learning Japanese and learning a European language is that, in many European languages including English, technical terms are often derived from the same Latin or Greek roots. So even if you haven’t learned the French or Italian word for “annular eclipse”, you could probably make a reasonable guess at how to say it, and you would assuredly understand it if you heard it. Whereas in Japanese, such technical words are usually of Chinese origin, and therefore unfamiliar to English speakers.

A huge benefit of living in Japan for a year is the opportunity to learn words like this in the course of events, which you would be unlikely to come across in a classroom or textbook back home.

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