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All Things Considered

Granite Geek: How To Watch The Eclipse Safely (And Not Get Scammed)

A view of the total solar eclipse in 2008.

The eclipse is coming, and eclipse enthusiasts have been planning their viewing parties for months now, but they recieved troubling news over the weekend. Eclipse viewing glasses that don't meet safety guidelines are said to be flooding the market.

Concord Monitor columnist David Brooks has been keeping track of these sun-gazing safety hazards, and he spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

The American Astronomical Society just issued a warning to those planning to see the eclipse. What was the nature of that warning?

It was basically saying, hey there's a bunch of fakes out there. And if you use them you could damage your eyes permanently.

So you've seen eclipse glasses all over the place. They look kind of like dark versions of the glasses you wear in a 3D movie, and basically they have a filter over them that will block not just a lot of visible light but a lot of UV light. And that's important because it's the ultraviolet light that does the damage, and the Astronomical Society is saying a number of manufacturers are sending out glasses that don't actually meet the standards—don't block as much UV light as they say they do. Some of them are even putting fraudulent stamps on them that claim they've been tested and meet [safety standards].

What kind of damage are we talking about if you stare at the sun too long with improper eye protection?

Well it can literally blind you, and [is] more likely to just do significant damage to your eyesight. The ultraviolet rays penetrate the front part of the eyeball, which is the most protective, and they hit right on the back, and that's what really does the damage.

The thing that's particularly dangerous about it is you don't feel it at the time. These fake glasses, or badly made glasses, they'll dim it enough that you can look at the sun without it hurting your eyes, but you won't know that it's damaging the back there. You won't know until later, you’ll start to get headaches and your vision gets blurry and affected in other ways.

So, would it be effective or acceptable to fashion your own glasses, or just use sunglasses that you have lying around?

That is about the worst idea I've ever heard you say—which is, you know, saying something. Do not try to do that, because even things that seem like they're really dark may not be blocking the light. In fact, welder's goggles, even some of those don't work. So absolutely don't try to. Don't try to wing it with goggles. What you should do, as I say in my column, is what I did back in 1984 when I saw an annular eclipse, which is almost a full eclipse. It’s basically when the moon is somewhat closer to the earth and therefore it doesn't quite cover the whole sun, it sort of leaves a ring around it. It was very cool.

What I did was I made a pinhole projector. You put a hole in a piece of paper or a piece of cardboard—with, say, a pin, and then you hold that about a foot or two away from a piece of white paper or a piece of white cardboard that's basically your projection screen. You’ll see an image of the sun projected onto it. It's not a really big image but it will be there and it will be sharp enough that you can watch the moon’s shadow slowly crawl across the sun during the eclipse, and you can do it without any glasses at all.

Is the sun particularly brighter or stronger during an eclipse?


So in general, you just shouldn't be looking at the sun.

No, obviously we all know, don't look at the sun. Our mom told us that and for some reason when the eclipse comes along it seems like, maybe we can sort of kind of look at it in a full eclipse.

If you were down in the path of totality you actually can look at it for the very short period of time when it is completely blacked out. But we won't be seeing too much of this eclipse right given where we are—65 percent coverage at the max. We’re seven, eight hundred miles away from the path of totality, [but] you should still go out next Monday and check it out.

You can get eclipse glasses from many libraries, by the way. Those have been tested and those are fine although many of them either don't have any or they're limiting them to card-holding patrons, because there's so many people who want them.

So you should definitely go out, at the very least try a pinhole projector or just kind of look around and see if there’s a change in the daylight when it happens, because this does not happen very often.

What if it's cloudy?

If it's cloudy, you may not notice anything at all. If you can sort of see the sun behind the clouds, I don't know that you'll notice any difference in sunlight, but you might, and it might just look a little bit weird. Go and check it out. 

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