Best performance in a leading role: the moon

Rule 7-b. of journalism is to write about what's coming, not what's past. I should probably write about the orgy of self-adulation tonight in Hollywood, not that little number the moon did the other night.

But I'm a review guy, and I want to review the eclipse:

A thrilling show opened in skies everywhere Wednesday night, starring the Earth's only natural satellite. The stage was dominated by a coppery red disk against a background of deep infinity. The main action of the production, which was directed by God, was a slow-moving shadow. ...

The evening starts with channel surfing. Here's the Suns and Lakers and Shaq's first game with Phoenix. When my wife comes home, the game is so good even she gets involved.

Yikes, the eclipse. We run outside. At rise — a word that, oddly, works for both theater and sky — the moon is already in the umbra, and it is lurid red tinged with salmon, orange sherbet and cocoa. We find a binocular, and the craters and mountains are smudges on the wash of reds.

Schoolboy diagrams. If a lunar eclipse happens when the moon is on the far side of Earth from the sun, why don't we have one every full moon? Because the moon's orbit around Earth is a few degrees off from Earth's around the sun. So the moon is usually too "high" or too "low."

We find a spotting scope and get in tighter. Earth is casting a wide shadow, the penumbra, and a dark, inner shadow, the umbra. If the moon passed through only the penumbra, you'd have a partial eclipse. In the umbra the sun's rays are blocked, but there's enough refracted light to bathe the moon red. If Earth had no atmosphere the moon would be black.

If you were an astronaut on the moon right now you'd see a total eclipse of the sun with a fiery ring around Earth and sunrise and sunset on the periphery of a blacked-out disk, everywhere, all at once.

We are moonstruck. We picture globes aligning in space. Cue Strauss's "Thus Sprach Zarathustra." Dum dum da-DUMMM!

So many natural spectacles are mercurial. Nearly an hour of totality is a luxurious boon. We glass the Pleiades, a cluster of young stars in the galactic neighborhood, and the middle "star" in Orion's belt, actually a swirling cloud of baby stars, gas and dust. And Saturn, apparently next to the moon but actually 800 million miles off, its rings a tiny slash of light in our scope.

But the star of the show is the moon. Scientists think that when Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, a large planetary body hit Earth and blew out magma and debris, some of which went into orbit and aggregated into the moon. It is possible that without the it, complex organisms (including certain featherless bipeds) would not have evolved on Earth. Not the least of what the moon does is to stabilize Earth's axis so the ice caps don't wobble down to where the equator is.

By and by the moon has moved out of totality, the Lakers have held on for a win, and a fingernail of pale fire has begun creeping across the now-black lunar disk. Soon there will be just another full moon in an early spring sky. Here's to that moon, and here's to cloudess skies.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

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