Visiting scientists say Maldives eclipse could rewrite laws of physics

Physicists from around the world converged on the Maldives together with astronomers and the simply curious to watch the spectacular eclipse on the weekend.

While most spectators were content with the dramatic sight of the rare annular eclipse – not to be repeated for another thousand years – these scientists were out to rewrite the laws of gravity.

Professor Hector Munera and Ed Oberg, two of the seven scientists known as ‘pendulum specialists’, gave a talk to the Maldives Science Society at Mandu College last night about the work they have conducted during their visit to the Maldives.

Colombian University scientist Munera, from the International Centre for Physics in Bogota, describes himself as a “classical Newtonian physicist”. But here in the Maldives his work is anything but classical – in fact, it goes against mainstream science.

In 1954 a French scientist and economist called Maurice Félix Charles Allais noticed that pendulums behaved oddly during a partial eclipse.

The dramatic annular eclipse as seen in Male' on Friday
The dramatic annular eclipse as seen in Male' on Friday

“Suddenly the pendulum jumped to another plane – the direction of oscillation changed abruptly,” explained Munera. “This was the first time the effect was observed.”

Similar pendulum behaviour was noticed during subsequent eclipse events. It became known as the Allais effect, and it developed a small following of scientists determined to prove that the strange behaviour of the pendulum meant that some component was missing from the accepted physics used to calculate the effect of gravity.

“We know a pendulum’s period should be constant. If the period changes during some kind of event, such as an eclipse, then that’s a gravitational anomaly,” Munera told the audience.

“Nobody had noticed that the position of the sun relative to the pendulum when eclipse began affected the pendulum’s behaviour. It was a significant finding because unlike mathematics, physics is not theoretical; it has to reflect the real world and good experiments demand modification of the theory.”

Ed Oberg, celestial mechanic, speaks to the Maldives Science Society
Ed Oberg, celestial mechanic, speaks to the Maldives Science Society

The scientists came to the Maldives before the latest eclipse and established ‘Pendulum house’ on Feydhoo island in Addu atoll. They installed five high-tech pendulums mounted in a rigid tripod, with a ball that is stopped, latched and released every 12 minutes and measured by laser range-finders. The contraption is capable of measuring the movement of the pendulum to one millionth of a metre.

The scientists are still analysing the data, “but what we think may possibly happen,” says Oberg, a mechanical engineer with 35 years of keen interest in celestial mechanics, “is that a miniscule component may have to added to the equation used to calculate the force between two celestial bodies. It could ruffle a lot of feathers.”

Acceleration due to gravity is measured in ‘gals’. The acceleration due to the Earth’s gravity on the surface is 976 to 983 gal, while the eclipse effect being observed by the pendulum scientists is no more than about five ‘microgals’ – millionths of a gal.

It might be miniscule but in this field of physics, size doesn’t matter.

“Tides are caused by 60 microgals – 60 millionths of a gal affecting every drop of water on the planet. Five microgals might not seem like much but it doesn’t just stop at pendulums – it affects everything, including tectonic plates,” says Oberg.

Ahid Rasheed, founding member of the Maldives Science Society (MSS), said the society was honoured to host the scientists while they conducted their work in the Maldives, “although it’s very frustrating for us because they are all working on their papers [and won’t share their results],” he joked.

The scientists with members of the Maldives Science Society
The scientists with members of the Maldives Science Society

He said he hoped the high level of public interest in the eclipse would foster an interest in science in the Maldives.

“Science used to be very popular here [as a subject],” he said. “But in the 90s people began to think that business and economics were better for the Maldives and business studies courses began to dominate the curriculum. Now some atoll and island schools don’t even have a science stream.”

Pictures courtesy of the Maldives Science Society. Eclipse image courtesy Nabeel Hilmy.


Maldives to receive best view of ‘ring of fire’ eclipse

The Maldives will tomorrow become the best vantage point in the world to watch the longest-lasting solar eclipse of the millenium – at least until the year 3043.

The eclipse will follow a 300-kilometre wide route across Africa, the Indian Ocean and eastern Asia, beginning at 10:45am Maldivian time and almost completely overlapping the sun at 12.27pm, creating a stunning ‘ring of fire’ effect that will be visible for almost 11 minutes.

So unique is the event that scientists and eclipse chasers from all over the world are converging on Male to watch the spectacular event.

Founding member of the Maldives Science Society, Ahid Rasheed, noted that the country is hosting the largest ever gathering of pendulum specialists in the world, drawn from the UK, Colombia, Australia and Canada, who will be studying gravitational anomolies during the solar event.

“We are very honoured to be hosting them, particularly as we are such a young organisation,” Rasheed said. “There’s also a cruise ship arriving from India especially to see to eclipse in Male, with four astronomers on board.”

News broadcaster CNN will be broadcasting live around the world from the roof of the tallest building in Male, the Holiday Inn.

The ‘annular’ eclipse means the moon will not obscure the sun completely, unlike a total eclipse, explains Rasheed, as the moon is currently further away from Earth as thus appearing smaller to those watching on the planet’s surface. This will make the moon appear framed by the sun, an effect Rasheed promises “is going to be very beautiful.”

“Ninety-one percent of the sun will be covered – it’s going to look just like the one on the TV series Heroes,” he explained.


As beautiful as the effect may be, watching it with the naked eye is very dangerous and can cause permanent eye damage just as if one was staring at the sun.

“It doesn’t matter if 100 percent or eight percent of the sun is visible, the infra-red rays will still be hitting the eyes,” Rasheed said.

“Some people say you can use the inside of floppy disks or x-ray sheets, but they won’t block all the IR rays. Sunglasses are not advisable at all, because they only protect from UV rays.

“Special eclipse-viewing glasses are made from mylar or black polymer. You can also use welding glasses, but I haven’t seen any in Male of the right standard.”

The Maldives Science Society will be holding a viewing session with 10 solar-protected telescopes starting from 9:00am until the eclipse ends at around 2:30pm, he said. with a break for Friday prayer. The society will also be providing a number of eclipse glasses, and has cleared the event with the Islamic Ministry.

“Friday is the Islamic weekend and in a 100% Muslim country, no event can happen during prayer time,” Rasheed explains.

The government recently asked the Holiday Inn to cancel an event planned during the eclipse which included music and a barbecue, after the event was criticised in an article published in newspaper Miadhu for contravening the Islamic tenet.

“The Holiday Inn [controversy] affected us. We tried to get students involved and approached a school about it, but the management were very hesitant,” Rasheed said, adding that the eclipse viewing would include a break during prayer time.

The Maldives Science Society event will be held at the back of Dharubaaruge (Usfasgandu) on Ameenee Magu in Male.

Live CNN coverage of the event will appear here.