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Ignorance, science preparing for eclipse

In the rolling hills of central Romania, a soothsayer prepared Tuesday to chase out the demons of greed and scientists made final adjustments on their telescopes in expectation of the last solar eclipse of the millennium.

"We will ring bells and make loud noises to scare away the bad spirits," said Gheorghe Tugui, repeating an ancient Romanian legend about eclipses.

The moon is expected to totally eclipse the sun in Romania. In Ramnicu Valcea, a city of 100,000 about 100 miles northwest of Bucharest, today's eclipse will be seen for two minutes and 23 seconds, the longest anywhere on Earth.

The eclipse will start in southern England at 11:10 a.m. (12:10 p.m. Central European Time and 6:10 a.m. EDT). The moon's shadow will then sweep eastward across northern France, Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia and Hungary before reaching Romania. Bulgaria is next followed by Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India before dying in the Bay of Bengal.

The eclipse can be seen live on the Discovery cable channel beginning at 6 a.m. today.

Dozens of scientists from the United States, Japan and Britain have descended on this industrial city to view the natural phenomenon. On Tuesday, the group was busy making last-minute equipment checks, more concerned with their telescopes and lenses than evil spirits.

For Tugui, evil spirits are daily trade. He traveled hundreds of miles from the far north of Romania to sell Dracula masks during the eclipse.

At countryside festivals, the masks are thrown into a fire to cast out demons and atone for people's sins. But with few tourists around and the masks going for a hefty $31, trade was slow Tuesday.

A few miles away in the Govora monastery run by Romanian Orthodox nuns, the sisters dismissed the popular belief that the eclipse is a portent of doom.

Scientists have other worries. Skies were hazy Tuesday and forecasters warned that a bank of clouds was headed this way from Western Europe. "All our experiments are completely dependent on the weather," said Jay Pasachoff, director of the Hopkins Observatory at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

Scientists will carry out four experiments on solar heating, the sun's corona and the sun's magnetic field, funded by NASA, the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.