Welcome to my annual Halloween update and inaugural annular eclipse report. That's right, heavenly bodies and hellish haunts, all in one convenient location!
Let's start on the high road. You've probably heard by now that, in the annuls of annular history, Sunday evening's eclipse will be the first of its kind in nearly 20 years, arriving at its peak at 6:32 p.m. The word annular is from the Latin word "annulus," meaning "little ring" (I looked it up), and the term applies in this case because the moon is basically going to try to upstage the sun but won't quite pull it off. This is an effect best described in the immortal lyrics of Johnny Cash as "a burning ring of fire," and if you don't use the proper eye protection or viewing devices, it "burns, burns, burns (your retinas)," and that would just be bad, bad, bad.
Of course Johnny was singing about love being the "burning thing that makes a fiery ring" -- a line I never really understood until it occurred to me that maybe he was secretly an astronomy geek and the song is in fact about his love of annular eclipses. And maybe all those black outfits were his attempt to mimic black holes. And maybe "I Walk the Line" is really about walking the line of an astronomical unit, which is the average distance between the Earth and the sun, 93 million miles, which is longer than any line at Disneyland even for the revamped Star Tours ride, "as sure as night is dark and day is light ..."
Anyway, we apparently can't get the full halo effect of the eclipse from the Bay Area -- better views are from farther north -- but we can still see a crescent-sun image and a good place to do that is on the observatory deck at Chabot Space & Science Center in the Oakland hills starting at 5 p.m. There the staff will help with safe viewing and the making of little pinhole "cameras," like the ones we all probably made in third grade where you poke a tiny hole in a piece of cardboard and then you can see the image of the eclipse on the ground or on a piece of paper placed a few feet back. Not as exciting, but not as blinding either. For Chabot ticket info, call 510-336-7373 or check www.ChabotSpace.org.
But wait, there are more events on the horizon! There's a lunar eclipse coming up on June 4, but that hits around 3 a.m. so only insomniacs, astronomy geeks and cats will see it. And then the next day, June 5, we'll have the Transit of Venus, which is not something to replace Muni, but rather a rare occurrence when the beautiful planet passes in front of the sun and appears as a small black dot (you'll want your pinhole thing again). This is at a more reasonable viewing time, between 3 and 5 p.m., and it's super-rare -- the next one isn't until 2117.
Some would say these events are heavenly harbingers of the horrific end of the world. But those same people said those same things about the invention of microwave ovens and the cancellation of "One Life to Live" (actually, I think I said that), and they were wrong then, so we can only wait and see. Get your zombie survival kit ready just in case!
Oh, the singularity!
In the meantime, we can only hope this galactic gallivanting is even a tad bit as stellar as the plasma ball I just got in the mail. It's basically a mini Tesla coil inside a glass orb of ionized gas that produces a self-contained ball of psychedelic fire that will burn, burn, burn you if the glass breaks or you leave it on too long and it overheats.
Lots of people had them in the '80s, but not I. Back then there was no online shopping and pretty much the only place you could get one was at those Spencer's stores in the mall, and my mom didn't want me to go in there because they had black lights and crude gag gifts and rude T-shirts and various "paraphernalia" for I knew not what and still really don't.
Anyway, my plasma ball will be part of our Mad (or at least slightly miffed) Scientist Laboratory display for Halloween this year. As you may or may not know, my spouse and I are Halloween fiends, and we build huge front-lawn extravaganzas, always with a different theme. Last year was Wild West Ghost Town. Year before that was Dark Carnival. The list goes on. And though this is merely May, we have begun in earnest to collect props. Part of this process is to scour yard sales and thrift stores in search of, well, we don't really know until we see it. But it could be any kind of oddball plastic, neon-colored, scary-electrical-looking stuff. Last weekend I scored a freaky '80s-style subwoofer that has clear plastic housing so you see inside to its internal organs. It will serve nicely as a robot head. And we got a big bag of circuit-board blocks with holes in them that, embedded in plywood with a revolving colored disco light behind them, will serve as a delightful, if slightly miffed, megacomputer brain.
So be advised, if you have stuff in your garage like old radio equipment or test tubes and such, we may show up at your house. We can only hope you're having a yard sale at the time. Otherwise that would just be weird.