Commercial Eclipse Of The Sun
Geeks and ravers get an excuse to gather

SAN FRANCISCO -- I'm full of caffeine and regret, it's four o'clock in the morning, and for the last two hours I have been watching a giant moon, on a giant television screen, slowly creep across the orange blob of the sun.

See also...
... by Patrick Hughes
... in the Scope section
... from August 11, 1999

All around me, in the hangar-like expanse of the San Francisco Exploratorium, a ragtag collection of astronomy buffs, glitter-covered ravers, leather-clad goths, families in sleeping bags, and other hippie curiosity seekers are watching the event unfolding on the other side of the planet. All I can think is that solar eclipses make for really bad TV.

Guttering out in front of me is Eclipse '99, a worldwide series of parties culminating with live transmission beamed to the world famous Exploratorium. Here's one example of the kind of hype that led up to this event:

"At the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th of August 1999 the shadow of the Moon will sweep across the UK and beyond for the last time this millennium. Every nation beneath the shadow will come excitedly to a halt as the most dramatic light show known to mankind unfolds in the skies above."

Of course, San Francisco wouldn't be caught dead without a big hoorah to usher in that kind of celestial event, despite the awful time difference. The Exploratorium brain trusts put their eggheads together and dreamed up the world's largest slumber party. The nightlong affair with music, culture, and cutting-edge technology, was one long wait. After everyone had twiddled the world-famous knobs of the interactive exhibits, they fell into a blank stupor as if the eclipse also heralded a mass execution. Twenty bleary-eyed children, some still wearing pajamas, were dragged centerstage onto a crowded makeshift TV studio so they could watch the final countdown and ask questions for the live webcast. "What if the moon stops," asked one frightened kid.

Technicians scurried back and forth to make sure all the worldwide connections were in place. After a few moments as the last crescent of sun disappeared behind the moon, a bright penumbra popped out behind a black disk, and for two long minutes the crowd cheered the last solar eclipse in this millennium. Off in the distance, someone solemnly struck a gong.

It was the apocalyptic echo of cash registers ringing around the world. Southern England, Europe, and the Middle East -- every country was holding an event or two. Week-long raves in England, sturdy family picnics in Germany, a pipe-smoking, pseudo-academic conference organized by the Romanian Space Agency -- they all had a logo, a tee shirt, and a pair of sunglasses for sale.

But in sleepy San Francisco, the event has played more like a science geek Woodstock without even the bonfire and looting to liven things up. Let's hope for more enthusiasm by the end of the century.

Patrick Hughes is having a well-deserved lie down.