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What Are the Odds?

photograph of a total eclipse, showing the solar prominences around the edge

Ok, one last post about the total solar eclipse and then I’m done talking about it. (Maybe.)

There are so many mind-blowing things about eclipses but the one I can’t stop thinking about is the nearly impossible coincidence that the sun and the moon are the same relative size in the sky. If the moon were a little bit smaller or farther away, we wouldn’t have total eclipses where you can look directly at the sun, see the corona, the sky goes dark, you see a sunset effect all around the horizon, etc. That is some spooky magical shit. Ted Underwood put it this way:

Random accident that the moon and sun are the same apparent size here. If we had interstellar tourism, this is the One Thing that everyone would know about the Earth, and when they visited they wouldn’t want to see anything else. “We also have museums?” we’d say.

The moon is slowly drifting away from the Earth and total eclipses will gradually get rarer and rarer until, hundreds of millions of years from now, they will stop completely.1 That we’re all here right now, getting to experience this magical thing? Like, what?! If a science fiction writer made this up for a story, we’d say it’s too much.

And yet, for me at least, the coincidences don’t stop there.

When I saw my first total eclipse in 2017, we had to drive for 3.5 hours through three different rainstorms to find some clear skies. When we finally stopped, 40 minutes before totality, it was in a town so small that it’s not even called a town anymore: Rayville, Missouri. Yep, we found the sun in Rayville. What are the odds?

And then this year, on April 8th, the path of totality went right over my house in Vermont. In the past 70 years in Vermont prior to 2024, it’s been overcast about 50% of the time and only mostly sunny in 13 of those years. This year? Not a cloud in the sky when I woke up Monday morning.

I watched with a group of people in a big field in Colchester, including my friend Caroline and her dog, Stella (a name derived from the Latin word for star). There were a bunch of other groups watching in the field too and after totality had thrilled us all, they trickled back to their cars and homes. Our group stayed and I watched the last little bit of the moon slip past the sun through my telescope — it was officially over.

A large nearby group of folks with a couple of dogs left shortly after that. One of the dogs came over for a sniff and one of our party asked the guy what the dog’s name was. “Luna.”

And then Luna departed.

Seriously, what are the odds?

Eclipse photo above taken by my friend Mouser, with whom I witnessed the 2017 eclipse. It’s worth looking at large.

  1. I am sure, hundreds of millions of years ago, when the moon was closer to the Earth, total eclipses were a whole other level of whoaaaaa — lasting for 10-20 minutes at a time, completely blocking out any light from the sun, total darkness all around, etc.

Discussion  7 comments

Carolin May

When we went to see the last eclipse (also in Missouri), our car got hit by lightning on the way home. What are the odds?

(TBH, it was kind of a cool experience. Nothing bad happened, the car was just totalled. Turns out back in physics class, when they taught us about Faraday cages, they were correct in saying nothing bad will happen to you or the car... but back then, there weren't any electronics in the car that could get fried)

Andy Baio

Hank Green just talked about this a little on TikTok, and how eclipses led directly to the discovery of the Sun's corona. "The Sun is about 400 times farther away from us than the Moon is. It's also almost exactly 400 times bigger!"


The sun and moon relative distance and size is an insane coincidence. Alternatively, Luna is the most popular dog name in Vermont. I'm in NJ, and I watched the eclipse with my mom, dad, wife and kid. My dog Luna was there, and she was not interested at all.

Pete Ashton

I have a relative who is proper hardcore religious, like you have in the US but which is relatively rare here in the UK. We're friendly and don't talk religion but I did the "what are the odds? Isn't it amazing?" eclipse thing with him once and it was the only time I had to concede the divine intervention thing might be plausible.

Richard Martin

Sorry to be “that guy”, but I wonder if there are any gravitational/mathematical connections that increase the likelihood of this coincidence? We’re assuming that the size/distance of the sun/moon are independent variables, but it’s plausible there’s some sort of correlation there due to the way these things form from stuff orbiting the sun.

I guess with us gaining continually more data about planets orbiting other star systems, we might soon be able to answer that question.

Though I do love the idea of us one day becoming the hot intergalactic eclipse tourist destination. 🤩

Catherine Brennan

Please never stop talking about the eclipse.

Tyler Ogden

This discussion reminds me of a Radiolab episode discussing how the seemingly highly improbably happen all the time. Of course, that shouldn't diminish the awe of experiencing them first-hand. Perhaps increase it in realizing we're always living in times of miracles. Here's an article that summarizes the "Improbability Principle:"

Citing what he calls the “improbability principle,” Hand says that highly improbable events are commonplace, and are merely “a consequence of the mathematics of chance coupled with the psychology of humans.” Strange things happen all the time, he reasons, and we vastly underestimate the chance of coincidences

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