Staring at the sun

In years to come, people will ask each other “Where were *you* during the eclipse of 1999?”. Well, it’s perhaps not quite up on the same level as historic events like, er, the death of Princess Diana, but after a long period of ennui leading up to the event, I must confess it wasn’t bad. It probably helped that I’d stoically ignored all the hype, and was thus expecting not very much to happen: no apocalypse (unlike certain French fashion designers, who must now be feeling very silly after predicting the Mir space-station would fall on Paris), no massive display of fireworks, just the moon covering most of the sun for a bit.

So come eleven o’clock, I abandoned my desk and left the building, in the biggest exodus since the last fire drill, to stand around in the streets with everyone else, pieces of cardboard in hand. Not that I need really have bothered, as it soon became apparent that it was a race between the clouds and the moon to see which would cover the sun first. The moon just about got there, though the clouds soon meant that pinholed cardboard was a waste of effort, while those wearing the special shades merely looked silly. It was a nicely communal activity though, I’ve not seen so many city workers standing around being entertained since the Stop the City protest. Next time, though, they’ll probably have worked out some way to make it pay-per-view.

Once the sun went out (or the 96.8% out we got here), that was it. For it really is a remarkably boring event: it’s like a glacier, impressive to see, but not something you’d want to watch. The most surprising thing was how it actually did get significantly colder — otherwise, it was tempting to go up to an overlooking roof-top, and lob a few burning tennis balls off the top, while dangling a colleague, clad in a black cape and wielding a scythe, over the edge. Combine that with a few well-chosen phrases through a megaphone, like ‘The end is nigh…’, and there could have been panic in the streets. However, the logistics of getting a scythe at such short notice proved too tricky, so I went back to my desk, and instead started worrying about whether I was now going to go blind. For to a hypochondriac such as myself, the dire warnings about not looking at the sun meant that I spent the next two days gazing at the wall, trying to work out if my vision was irrevocably damaged, or whether it was just that my contact lenses needed cleaning.

The best thing to come out of the eclipse is that it has probably given astronomy its highest profile in this country since the Apollo missions. It was nice to see the venerable Patrick Moore wheeled out on prime-time: as TV personalities go, you can’t imagine anyone further from the grinning and vacuous inanities of Johnny Vaughan and whatever talentless bimbo is working with him on The Big Breakfast this week. I must confess to feeling an overwhelming surge of nostalgia for Magnus Pyke, and the Great Egg Race. Oh, and Tomorrow’s World has never been the same since Raymond Baxter left.

The most amusing thing about the whole event was the frantic bleating of the businesses down in Cornwall, whining ceaselessly about how there weren’t enough visitors and blaming all and sundry for this failure. Except, of course, themselves for jacking their prices up to levels which went beyond the acceptable: after all, it wasn’t as if the eclipse was going to cost the hoteliers anything. It was a simple case of supply and demand and they got it badly wrong — it’s always immensely satisfying to see the greedy get their come-uppance (see also the great house price crash of the early ’90s). Book those camp-site places now for the next one, near the end of the 21st century…