The Eclipse - 11.11am, 11.8.99: When a dark shadow falls across the globe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
For thousands of years solar eclipses have inspired humanity with a mixture of wonder, awe and dread. During the 11th minute past the 11th hour of the 11th day of August, it will be the turn of hundreds of thousands of Britons to experience one of the greatest wonders of the natural world when a total eclipse of the Sun occurs over Cornwall.

Since the days of ancient Babylonia, when the first astronomers asked why the fire of the Sun should be blotted out so suddenly, so completely, total eclipses have been seen as dramatic evidence of our vulnerable place in the great scheme of life.

To the ancients, solar eclipses meant dragons devouring the Sun, floating discs on a cosmic sea or the dreadful might of the gods. Thanks to scientists such as Galileo and Copernicus we now understand precisely what happens when the Sun, the Earth and its Moon align in their harmonious movement within this small sector of the Milky Way galaxy.

But understanding a total solar eclipse has not taken away the magic of the event. You would have to live for about 400 years to stand a chance of seeing a total eclipse of the Sun from any one point on the Earth. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience

When the shadow of the Moon cutsacross the globe - rising in Nova Scotia in the west and descending several hours later in the Bay of Bengal - people will stand in wonder, as they have for generations. The last solar eclipse of the 20th century promises to remind us all that there are greater forces at work in the Universe than those that often consume our daily attention.