As the shadow of the moon moved across Cambridge Saturday, birds fell out of trees in confusion and church bells chimed.
It was an end-of-the-world scenario good enough to blow many an uncontracted mind. Students opened their windows to blare Beatles, Wagner and Stones at the fans doing their thing with pinholed paper and pieces of film. Almost everyone snuck at least one direct glance at the sun even though they weren't supposed to.
In Cambridge, the sun's glare never completely disappeared but 96 per cent of its surface was covered at the height of the eclipse.
Canoeists who attempted to paddle to Monomy Island off Cape Cod for a 45-second glance at totality were foiled by a heavy current. But thousands of eclipse watchers flocked to Nantucket where totality lasted more than two minutes.
Nantucket Memorial Airport nearly doubled its previous record for air traffic. The control tower there reported 1416 airplane arrivals and departures on Saturday including two runs by 727 jets. By 8 a.m., 2000 people had lined up for the Woods Hole ferry.
As darkness engulfed Nantucket, sparrows and ospreys began to roost, and Venus and some stars became visible. In the island's interior, the heavy wind suddenly died out, and when the moon obscured the sun's disc, the entire island erupted in a spontaneous gasp as clusters of eclipse watchers reacted simultancously.
"There was an unusually well-structured and picturesque corona for this time in the solar cycle," Edmond M.Reeves, lecturer in Astronomy, commented yesterday.
Although solar activity should be close to a maximum at this time in the sun's 11-year cycle, "the sun has been very quiet in the past few weeks," Reeves said.
For this reason, the corona had a more spectacular ray pattern than might be expected at this time in the cycle.
Just seconds before totality, an international group of scientists including Reeves and William H. Parkinson, lecturer in Astronomy, launched a 25-foot Aerobee rocket from NASA's Wallops Island in Virginia.
The rocket's nose cone contained two cameras designed to photograph ultraviolet light from the sun's thin outer layer or chromosphere in the few seconds that the moon blocked out the rest of the sun.
"It was an absolutely text-book launch," Reeves aid. "The weather rocket pointing and recovery were perfect."
The weather was also clear in Southern Mexico, where a Harvard-Smithsonian-National Geographic team headed by Donald H. Menzel. Paine Professor of Practical Astronomy, had set up a temporary ground-based observatory for the eclipse.