Just a second, what's all this about a 'blue moon'?

December 31, 1990|By Knight-Ridder

Tonight, normally sensible people will be transformed into besotted fools. Screaming will fill the streets. Cars will crash. Passions will bubble over. Babies will be conceived.

Ah yes, another New Year's Eve. But -- merry revelers, beware -- this in not a typical year's end.

There will be strange goings-on aloft, beginning precisely at 4:43 p.m. with the rise of a full moon. It will be the second such in a month -- in astronomical lingo, a "blue moon."

Coincidentally, that same moon will be making its second-closest pass around the Earth since 1912, tugging the planet's crust and narrowing the gap between New York and London by several yards.

Add to this eerie celestial coincidence a man-engineered glitch -- an extra second, tacked onto the tail-end of 1990 by scientists to compensate for a slowdown in the Earth's rotation.

Astronomers are, at best, mildly intrigued by the impending lunar phenomenon, which they consider thoroughly mundane. At worst, they're sort of peeved. The light of a full moon, they complain, only obscures their telescopic view of more distant and alluring realms. And a blue moon -- which actually comes around, on average, every 32 months -- isn't terribly remarkable, either. So as for that extra second at 11:59:59 Greenwich Mean Time (6:59:59 EST) today, a few will use it to get some much-needed sleep.

But not astrologers. They think you should stay home, lock the door, lock the liquor cabinet and go to bed.

"This is the beginning of a death cycle," warns Valerie Morrison, a psychic astrologer who has been making predictions on a radio call-in show in Philadelphia for 17 years. "This is a time for extra caution. "It's the gravitational pull," says Morrison, that causes not only people "to do crazy, erratic things" but also machines to go on the fritz. "It creates a lot of instability, especially where accidents are involved."

Wulf Heintz, professor of astronomy at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, does "not expect any destruction of the world, or even an earthquake," noting with a short laugh that "we do not exactly consider these people colleagues."

If anything bad happens tonight, says Frank Maloney, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Villanova University, don't blame it on the blue moon. If you screw up, blame it on yourself."

No one seems to know the origin of the well-traveled phrase, "once in a blue moon," although one researcher has speculated it harks from the 16th century.

The expression is all the more curious because the blue moon isn't rare. And seldom is it blue.

Occasionally, a moon (not necessarily full) does appear blue, the result of light-dispersing particles in the atmosphere. Normally, the light appears red -- thus those brilliant sunsets that can be seen through the smog. But when the particles are just the right size and abundant enough, they can make not only the moon, but also the sun look blue.

The last time this happened to any great extent was in 1950, when smoke from a forest fire in Western Canada drifted to high altitudes and produced blue moons for Newfoundland and even Portugal.

Astronomers have calculated the occurrence of blue moons far into the future. The last was May 31, 1988; the next will be Sept. 30, 1993.

The New Year's Eve moon will affect tides, causing the high to be higher and the low to be lower -- though not to any catastrophic extent, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

And just as it influences the planet's water, so does the moon pull at the crust. During any full, or new, moon, New York may be several yards closer to London, Miami closer to Madrid. Tonight's tug could be worth a few inches extra.

Meanwhile, Tama Starr and her brother, Jonathan, will be atop One Times Square in New York City tonight. As official timekeepers, they will dictate the precise moments during which the famous lighted ball drops and the new year kicks in.

Their father did it before them, and his father before, starting with New Year's Eve, 1907.

It usually takes 60 seconds for the ball to drop, but tonight it will take 61, and the countdown will end with 3-2-1-LEAP-zero.

That leap second -- decreed by the International Earth Rotation Service -- compensates for a slowdown in the Earth's rotation, caused by the pull of that moon.

A former amateur astrologer, Starr views it as a magical moment, one that is "outside of time." It is a moment that doesn't partake of reality, a door open into the cosmos, according to folklore, and Starr believes it.

"If you make a change then, it will stick. And in this minute, or even the extra second, you can change your whole life.

"You can make a decision. You can say yes to something important. Or you can say 'no.' You can resolve to be a better human being."

So make it count. After all, a moment like that happens just once in a blue moon.

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