I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day.
_ Amos 8:9
The last total solar eclipse of the (sigh) millennium will be born at sunrise today off the coast of Nova Scotia. The moon's shadow will roll across the Atlantic and slash across Europe, the Middle East and India before dying at dusk in the Bay of Bengal.
This is big. Total eclipses happen every 18 months or so, but none has ever crossed over so many people.
The result has been a swelling tide of human nuttiness, made more intense by the fact the year 2000 is approaching.
The government of Mexico, for instance, felt compelled to issue a formal statement on Sunday advising its citizens that the world is not ending.
"There is absolutely no scientific evidence that eclipses are related to, or associated with, disasters or catastrophes," the Interior Ministry offered helpfully.
English authorities fear riots at Cornwall from the collision of hundreds of thousands of various pagans, New Agers, tourists and anarchists.
France expects 5-million viewers along the coast, but the nation is beset by rumors that crowds near the edge of the cliffs will be pushed into the sea.
Citing the prophecies of Nostradamus, some French mystics claim the city of Paris will be destroyed today, perhaps by the crash of the space station Mir. (Actually, that last part doesn't sound too far-fetched.)
In rural Romania, villagers are planning to ring church bells and make a racket to drive away evil spirits and restore the sun and moon to their rightful places.
In tribute to the darkness the nation's TV stations are constantly playing movies starring a national hero _ Dracula. This has not kept scientists from setting up near Transylvania for one of the best eclipse views.
Muslim leaders in Iran have called for national prayer, calling the eclipse "a sign of God" and accusing Western scientists of plotting to invade. This has not prevented Iran from loosening its strict rules on visitors to make a buck, including the widespread sale of "eclipse glasses," which do no good whatsoever. Meanwhile, in India, hundreds of thousands of Hindus will bathe in sacred waters during the eclipse to purify their souls.
In short: It is a circus.
U.S. media reports of all this eclipse fever are vaguely patronizing, and usually include something along the lines of, "Of course, the eclipse is a scientific phenomenon," followed by an explanation of how the moon passes in front of the sun in its orbit.
After all, we are far too advanced for such foolishness.
That is why we Americans prefer to dig our bomb shelters and stockpile supplies for the coming Y2K crisis. We will not publicly place credence in ghosts and goblins, but we need some repository for our own deep-seated millennial anxiety. We make technology our perfect, socially acceptable boogeyman: HereBeDragons.com.
But to go to the other extreme and dismiss the eclipse as "just science" would be as wrong-headed as weighing it down with demons and disaster. It is a miracle of the universe that only we, only now, are privy to _ it is our own private fireworks show.
Only the most jaded of us can fail to be impressed by the incredible coincidence: Nature gave us a sun 400 times larger than our moon, but placed it 400 times as far away, so that they appear almost exactly the same size, and the one can blot out the other.
Just science? It is no small miracle the sun rises and sets at all, let alone that every now and then a perfectly sized moon strolls along to cover it completely. The least we could do is appreciate it.