SINCE my previous post had an “anti-anti-science” theme, I thought I would offer another depressing example of how scientific events can be spoiled by (among other factors) irresponsible coverage.
When I was very, very young, I became obsessed with astronomy, thanks mainly to The Observer’s Book of Astronomy by Patrick Moore. Within its pages was the revelation that, more than 20 years in the future, Britain would experience a total eclipse of the sun. Even though 1999 seemed impossibly far away, I maintained my determination to travel to whichever part of the country I needed to in order to get a good view.
Eventually, it was time to book my accommodation in Cornwall. I called the booking company, to be told that visitors were being forced to pay an “eclipse surcharge” of 50 per cent on accommodation that week. Outrageous, but I was still determined to be there, so the money had to be paid.
Then, in the few months leading up to the date of the eclipse, the national media started to report all sorts of nonsense about the consequences of a huge influx of visitors to the West Country in August. The sewers wouldn’t be able to cope, there would be food shortages – at least one newspaper even “reported” that the government had the army on standby to help out! Local authorities in Cornwall were complicit in all this scare-mongering.
On top of all this, the usual nonsense about possible damage to people’s eyes from looking at the eclipse sought to make us scared of the actual event. Viewing glasses weren’t safe, you shouldn’t even look at the moon’s disc when it was completely covering the sub because the re-emergence of the sun a few seconds later would cause instant blindness, etc, etc…
So, to recap: ripping off tourists, food shortages, martial law, blindness… it sounded like a John Wyndham novel rather than an exciting and beautiful natural phenomenon. The result was that the hordes of expected visitors never arrived, and neither did the anticipated boost to the local economy. A phrase involving “goose” and “golden eggs” springs to mind.
And what happened on the day of the eclipse? I’ll tell you: record cloud cover! More than 20 years of waiting and I spent a fortune for the privilege of standing in the garden of a farmhouse cottage near Falmouth watching the sky get a bit dull for a few seconds, before it started pouring with rain.
Given the melodramatic over-reaction of the local authorities and the local and national media, though, this was probably entirely deserved. I don’t know when the next UK-based total eclipse will be, but I expect that when I finally see one in all its glory, it will be in another country where, I hope, media coverage will be a lot more responsible and (dare I say it) based on facts.