Science Center and moon get their day in the sun


There was a worried look on Mikey Tewner's face as he stepped up to the telescope at the Maryland Science Center and watched as the moon began to darken the sun.

"Does that mean for one day we won't have a sun?" asked the wide-eyed 9-year-old from Harrisburg, Pa.

No, he was told. Yesterday's solar eclipse was only a partial one in Baltimore, and only about 7 percent of the sun would be obscured by the moon. And the sun would be back to normal in less than an hour.

Mikey seemed relieved at the news, but still a bit shaken.

"I never even knew this could ever happen," he said.

Several hundred people dropped by the Science Center's promenade between 2:57 p.m. and 4:09 p.m. yesterday to watch at least part of the eclipse.

Producers from the center's Davis Planetarium had set up a pair of small telescopes in the bright sunshine, and projected melon-sized images of the sun through the instruments onto white boards. As many as 60 people were crowded around when the eclipse reached its maximum at 3:37 p.m.

Charles G. Hoffmeyer, 93, of Baltimore, made the trip alone by subway and bus. He seemed pleased, but not as astonished as Mikey.

"I've seen a higher percentage of [totality]," he said. "And I've seen the moon eclipsed."

Hoffmeyer said he watched a lunar eclipse one night in the 1950s from the window of a train headed from Newark, N.J., to Coney Island, N.Y.

"There was a man on the train selling sunglasses to see the moon eclipse," he said with a smile. "I didn't try to interfere with his business."

On further reflection, Hoffmeyer mused that "a lot of things have been eclipsed in my lifetime other than the sun. And of course, a lot of people have been eclipsed."

For some yesterday, the Science Center's solar cooker, which was roasting marshmallows a few yards away, held greater interest. And crowds of people continued to stroll the harbor area unaware, or uninterested in the motions of the spheres.

But for many, the partial solar eclipse was a novelty and a revelation. They peppered Davis Planetarium producers Joe Kelch and Connell P. Byrne with questions.

The producers answered by pointing out the rounded notch where the dark moon was obscuring more and more of the sun's bright, round disk. And they tried to show which way the moon was moving.

No, they said, it would not be a total eclipse here. That was for people who trekked to Hawaii or Mexico.

But there will be an 80 percent partial eclipse here in May 1994, they said. And, yes, those five dots on the sun are sunspots. No, don't look directly at the sun because it can permanently damage your eyes.

"I think it's great the Science Center is doing this," said Elaine Schelle, of Ruxton, who with her sister, Dottie Neely, of North East, had made the trip just for the eclipse.

"I haven't seen anything like it before," Schelle said. "I've read about it in Time magazine, but I've never seen the actuality. . . . I can't imagine why there aren't more people interested in this."

"Wouldn't it be great to study this in college and then be able to make money at it?" she said.

The spectacle intrigued Louis Hodge 3rd, 31, of Baltimore, too. He took some time from his job as evening coordinator at the Red Cross to get a look at the eclipse.

"I guess I'm fortunate to be able to see a 7 percent eclipse," the former Virgin Islander said. "I guess in the past I've missed these types of phenomena."

Hodge got bitten by the astronomy bug in Baltimore recently when Herman M. Heyn, the city's street corner astronomer, gave him a look at Venus and Mars.

At first he couldn't see the planets, but "then I saw two little dots, and that was exciting for me. I'll never forget it."

The sights have been "intriguing," Hodge said. Asked whether he would like to travel to see a total solar eclipse, he said, "This is making me think about doing that in the future."

As Hodge spoke, a shout went up from the crowd.

"Whoa!" said Byrne. "An airplane just went across the disk of the sun. That was great. It just zipped across."

The airplane's image appeared as a fleeting profile that flashed across the sun's disk. It may have been the highlight of the afternoon.

As the eclipse waned and the sun returned to its full roundness, the crowd began to melt away.

Finally, in the last few minutes of the event, fluffy clouds moved in front of the sun for the first time and obscured its projected image for the dozen or so people who remained.

"There," said Byrne. "Now there's a total eclipse."

When the moon exited at last, from stage left, the people applauded.

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