THE SUN never sets on the World Wide Web, and you can't hurt your eyes looking at it on your terminal -- not even staring at a total eclipse. That was one advantage of watching the millennium's last solar eclipse over the Internet, as countless astronomy buffs did Wednesday through sites maintained by NASA, the Exploratorium, the Discovery Channel and other sites worldwide. Then there's the convenience: Europe is a long way to go for a show lasting only 2 1/2 minutes, albeit one that won't be seen again until the year 2080. Tremendous crowds were expected in rural Cornwall, England, the start of the so-called "pathway of totality," but actual turnout was sparse, and disappointed locals who had hoped to seize the marketing opportunity blamed overenthusiastic predictions for scaring off the merely curious.
Comfort isn't everything, though. On the 'Net, one could also read a compilation produced by the Daily Telegraph in London of accounts of the last eclipse to pass through that region in 1922. In the article, people in their eighties and nineties recalled being taken out as small children to view the eclipse from hilltops and beaches, carrying pieces of glass they had "smoked" themselves over the stove to avoid eye damage.
One man whose family had climbed to the top of a coal mine at 5 a.m. remembered saying afterward, as he climbed back down, that when the next one came in 1999 he would be so old he'd need a cane to make the climb. As it turned out, he added, the coal mine had long ago been razed; this time he was going to watch from his backyard. There's always some danger in going out to see these things for yourself, as he no doubt knew. But for an old man seeking to recapture an event from a childhood lived nearly 80 years go, no Webcast can match the power of the mind to vault over time and restore, for one moment in the daylight darkness, memories of a family long gone.