An Eclipse success disaster

by Paul Doherty

As I drove into work just after dawn, I was stunned by the fantastic sight before me. Bright rays of golden sunlight pierced the the roiling bottom of a fog layer that hung over San Francisco bay. The fog layer had hidden the sun from view for the past three days, the holes in the fog held out the promise that the fog might clear in time to let the moon to blot out the sun (partly) over the Exploratorium.
By 9:00 A.M. the sun shone in a sparkling clear blue sky and I had another worry. How many people were going to show up today? I was too busy to worry for long, my preparation work; setting up binoculars to project the eclipse and helping teachers to build the eclipse projectors, was continuously interupted by requests for interviews from local television and radio stations, even an AP wire service reporter tagged me for a story. Thank goodness I had come in early this morning and finished assembling the slide lecture I was scheduled to give after the eclipse.
At10 A.M. just ten minutes before the edge of the moon was scheduled to move in front of the edge of the sun, I got my projector to work. Looking up from my work and had my second shock of the day, a thick line of people stretched away from the Exploratorium entrance and around the block. I had never seen such a long line before.
I moved my solar projector next to the line to entertain people as they waited. I could only show a dozen people at a time so I rounded up two dozen teachers to entertain the line as roving scientists. All along the line the teachers set up the solar projectors they had built so that everyone could safely wastch the eclipse when it happened. Meanwhile Bob Miller was setting up his special eclipse image walk on the grass in front of the Exploratorium. This looked like it was going to be a fun party. Little did I know that trouble was brewing inside.
Eclipses have always signified trouble so I shouldn't have been surprised when shortly after the edge of the sun became dented Christina appeared next to me and asked if I could get someone else to handle the projector so that I could go inside the Exploratorium where I was needed. I grabbed Karen and put her to work showing the eclipse to the crowd, then I fought through the huge crowd to get inside. Big trouble was waiting, Goery himself grabbed me and said that the theatre was packed with people demanding a narrator to tell them about the eclipse, no one had been scheduled to talk to the crowd, he wanted me to do it.
He wanted me to go in front of several hundred impatient and angry people and calm them by telling them about physics.
Do you remember the scene in the movie Gunga Din in which Cary Grant finds himself in the middle of a temple full of a thousand murderous thugee? I always liked the bit where he strides down the center aisle of the temple then turns and announces in a loud voice, "You're all under arrest." A great scene. The thugee of course grab the character played by Cary Grant, rough him up a bit, then throw him into a pit. I hoped my lecture would turn out better.
I never thought about not doing a lecture on the spot, but luckily, I looked around first. Outside the theater, Nick had set up an overflow area, it was packed with even more people than were in the theater, they were angry and impatient too. Their numbers stretched up the stairs to the mezanine then along the mezanine for a long ways. I knew what I had to do. Nick himself walked by, and I sent him in to face the hordes in the theatre while I walked over toward the large screen TV and Exploratorium solar telescope projections. They needed two people to talk to the two separate crowds and I had the one talent needed to deal with the larger crowd in the huge space of the Exploratorium...
I worked my way to the front of the huge sea of faces. Things had moved so fast that I didn't even have time to be frightened. I said, "Hello Everyone," (The one skill needed was being loud since there was no microphone in the overflow area.) I continued,"I'm Paul Doherty a Physicist here at the Exploratorium, welcome to the eclipse. The screen to your right is showing you live the eclipse as projected by the Exploratorium Solar Telescope while on your left the Television screen is showing the eclipse transmitted to us by our team in Baja California..." I told them a little about eclipses then asked for questions. Pretty soon I got my first laugh.. maybe they weren't going to throw me in the pit after all.
As the moon crept over the sun though, I had more trouble. After half an hour I realized that my voice was out of practise, I was going to go hoarse before the end of the two hour eclipse. I remembered the old joke we used to tell about the PhD exams at MIT. The last exam question was going to be the following lab activity " Outside this exam room there are 1000 fully armed and angry Macedonian warriors, using American Sign Language deliver a lecture on quantum chromodynamics and get them all to register for physics classes next term." Little did I know then that seventeen years later my voice was going to give out and I was going to have to give a lecture to an angry mob using mime.
Luckily, and just in time, Rob Semper himself arrived and set up a public address system for me. Nothing like having the Associate Director of the Exploratorium as your roady.
The questions from the audience ranged all over the map of science. Question "How long have we been able to predict eclipses?"
PD "Since 2000 BC, Stonehenge can be used as an eclipse predictor."
Q "is it safe to watch a partial eclipse on TV?"
PD "Safer than watching most programs."
Q "How do you measure the mass of the sun?"
PD " Long physics story..."
Things were going O.K. so far. Now I just had to keep going long enough. After two hours of unscheduled eclipse narrating I was scheduled to give two, one-hour lectures in the McBean Theater. My adrenaline was still pumping and I was soaring along now as the eclipse reached its maximum but how long would it last?
A 11:20 as the eclipse reached its maximum in San Francisco the crowd cheered. Now we just had to wait for twenty five minutes to see images of totality from Baja. Ten minutes before totality we lost the phone line. The crowd called for a quick fix, and the minutes ticked by with no connection, then just moments before totality the image returned to our screen. The crowd cheered cheered again. There was a beautiful diamond ring effect as the last bit of the solar photosphere peaked through a lunar valley, then the corona of the sun became visible. It leaped out in bluish streamers stretching far from the sun. It was a stunningly beatiful eclipse. For seven minutes of totality I pointed out the corana and its structures as well as solar prominences. The last hour was an easy coast. As the moon moved off the face of the sun I answered questions. Until at last the eclipse ended at 12:30 and it was time to give my two scheduled lectures.