Most of the posts in this series are about things I have thought about pretty much my whole life. I can remember being told I asked too many questions as a kid, by the type of person that doesn’t like thinking thoughts that hurt to think. Yet my mind never stopped questioning, and I continue to hope it never does.
Like this last month, with all the eclipse talk going on. I remember being curious about the difference between a solar and lunar eclipse when I was a kid, and hitting the books to find my answers. It wasn’t until this most recent event that I got to wondering about something else, and luckily all I needed was a good search engine to find answers this time.
You’ve probably heard it your whole life, like I have for mine; but we probably both heard it a lot more in the last few weeks. No one should look at the sun during a solar eclipse, because…well, you know why.
It will blind you!
I started wondering if that was one of those things they told you, like all those other things they told you, when you were young and prone to believe what you were told. In this case, even I believed looking at the sun during an eclipse would blind you. Almost my whole life. In fact, right up until about two days ago.
That’s why this is a bonus post. The eclipse happens today, and I didn’t want to shuffle the schedule around for something I only just thought to wonder about. Tomorrow will be the post I promised last week, right on schedule. But today we are here to talk about the eclipse, and the common misconception that looking at it will blind you.
The first thing I found myself wondering was how many people there were in the world that were blind because of looking up at the wrong time. I have great faith in people, and even greater faith in their ability to do monstrously stupid shit. Somebody somewhere had to hear the old saying about being blinded by an eclipse and shrug it off, right? With billions of people on the planet, the number of people without vision because of this must be at least in the hundreds, right?
Want to know how many people have been completely blinded by an eclipse? Well, there aren’t any. You will find people with spots in their vision from staring at an eclipse for several minutes, and some of them even seek media attention during times like these; but you won’t find anyone that has been blinded by glancing up during an eclipse. That’s because it doesn’t happen.
None of this is to say you should ever stare at the sun. That’s bad for your eyes almost any time, and it’s especially dangerous right before and right after a total solar eclipse. Young people particularly should always avoid looking at the sun, since their eyes are still developing. Although most people that experience diminished vision regain what was lost, some of that damage can be permanent. You won’t go blind, or anything; but you might see spots the rest of your life.
Isaac Newton was blinded by staring at the sun through a telescope for an extended period, and his sight returned after three days. Most people who suffer any loss of sight from similar activities also regain what they lose. The ones that don’t aren’t blind, though; they just see afterimages every time they look at something. That may have been a scary three days for Newton, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to study the sun. You can bet he caught a glimpse of an eclipse if he got the chance, and that didn’t render him permanently sightless either.
Or anyone else, for that matter.
Some scientists that study the subject to this day think this is a terrible myth that has prevented people from seeing one of the most beautiful sights the naked eye can behold. During a total eclipse, there are often several minutes when staring directly at the sun is no more harmful than gazing at the full moon; which is to say, it’s perfectly safe to do so. Although the people who study this stuff know better, it’s hard to supplant a belief that is held by most modern people. So they look at this rare event while the rest of us look away, and they shake their heads at how our ignorance keeps us from beauty more often than it protects us.
I mean, maybe. As far as I know, maybe they don’t think of how we think at all. They’ve got some pretty wondrous stuff to fill their heads with, those scientist types. What do they care what parents tell their children to keep them in the dark?
Or at least, from looking up during an eclipse.
If we want to change this common misconception, we end up with a similar uphill battle that we fight in trying to prove that the Robin Hood saying is wrong. There’s this catchy little phrase that most of us accept as fact, and we can’t sum up the actual truth of the matter in just a few short words. Since we know kids can’t stand to listen to adults drone on for more than one sentence or so, we make sure some of those sentences will stick with them.
Even if they’re lies, and adults grow up to believe them too.
The truth is, you should only look directly at the sun during a solar eclipse. Glancing up from time to time to catch a glimpse of it won’t mess up your eyes, even if you are glancing right before or after a solar eclipse. What you need to avoid is gazing at the sun for long periods of time, whether it is in partial eclipse or not. But the one time you can actually look directly at the sun for several minutes is while it is in total eclipse. Which is pretty much the opposite of what we are told by all those people who don’t bother to find out for themselves before cautioning everyone against beholding beauty in this rare form.
See how long that took to say? Wouldn’t it be much easier to just say that looking up during a solar eclipse will blind you?
Yeah, it’s easier; it’s also an outright lie.
So why do so many people still believe it? I don’t know. That’s not my job. My job is to bring you thoughts that hurt to think, and I couldn’t help but bonus you with this one.
I hope you liked it.
Meanwhile, we’re back on track with the regularly scheduled posts tomorrow. Thanks to the timing of this eclipse, you get blogs two days in a row. Come back tomorrow, won’t you, for a slightly ranting discussion of how smoking has been demonized in this country while eating stuff that isn’t food has become more and more glorified. We’ll call it…
‘Eating is the new smoking!’
I hope you come back tomorrow, for that one.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,