What's the world coming to when the most important worry about a cosmic event is whether you've got your glasses?
Sunday 08 August 1999
For a start, it is not unnecessary. A smallish risk of blindness strikes me as a trivial price to pay for the chance to view a total eclipse of the sun. This is an event which the majority of human beings will never see. For a couple of minutes, a fluke of planetary alignment is going to give us a glimpse of cosmic truths normally hidden from us: that the sky is not a roof with a sun built into it, that the world is not a still and stable place, that the stars do not only exist at night, that roosters do not only crow at dawn etc.
For these brief minutes we will peep through to the dark heart of the universe. We will see that the earth and the moon are no more than cold balls of rock spinning through space. The stars will shine in the daytime, the sun will go black and a cold wind will blow. Perhaps the Kraken will wake. We will notice what an infinitesimally small speck of dust our planet is. And all some people care about is whether I plan to wear my protective glasses.
Well, that is not the only thing they worry about. They also dread getting stuck in traffic jams. They fear that New-Age hippies are planning to run amok. They imagine a complete break down of law and order and the drafting in of armed forces to deal with the chaos. Until very recently it turned out that bookings for Cornwall holidays this August were actually down on last year. Far from making a special point of booking there, people were avoiding it. What? Go to Cornwall and have my holiday ruined by that horrid eclipse? Far too dangerous.
As a matter of fact, I can admit that I have acquired a pair of eclipse- viewing glasses made in France (as approved by the European directive 89/686/EEC) and I may even deign to use them during the hours and minutes leading up to the moment of totality. For the most part, however, I intend to use the time-honoured methods of throwing quick glances and looking at the sun through half-closed eyes.
And if any harm comes to me I do not intend to sue the government for having failed to change the current trajectory of the moon and the earth. I believe that cows in the fields know better than to study the sun while chewing idly on their cud. Anybody so daft as to stare wide-eyed at the sun until they are blinded deserves to be blinded.
After all, it is not as though we have not had time to buy a tent and book our passage down to Cornwall, or indeed to go out and buy our protective glasses. For millions of years the earth and the moon have been whirling inexorably and precisely through black space towards this conjunction of 11 August 1999.
In short, a total eclipse is the closest thing to a cosmic tremor that any of us will ever experience, comparable to an volcano opening up beneath our feet, or an asteroid coming into collision with the earth, or the sun itself entering a new phase of its life-cycle. The main difference between an eclipse and these events is that the eclipse should be rather less bad for human health.
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