Can You Really Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?

© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Eclipse mania is gripping the western part of the United States. Should the wide-eyed and unprotected hazard a peek?

NASA doesn't advise it. The truth is, a quick glance at a solar eclipse won't leave you blind. But you're not doing your peepers any favors.

As NASA explains, even when 99 percent of the sun's surface is covered, the 1 percent that sneaks out around the edges is enough to damage the rod and cone cells in your retinas. As this light and radiation flood into the eye, the retina becomes trapped in a sort of solar cooker that scorches its tissue. And because your retinas don't have any pain receptors, your eyes have no way of warning you to stop.

The good news for astronomy enthusiasts is that there are plenty of ways to safely view a solar eclipse. Quality welding goggles, Mylar shields, and the special filters sold in the back of astronomy magazines can all block out the most harmful rays. Sunglasses, however, cannot. (The editors at MrEclipse.com, an eclipse watchers' fan site, put shades in the "eye suicide" category.)

While it's safe to take a quick, unfiltered peek at the sun in the totality of a total solar eclipse, today's event is an annular eclipse, meaning that the sun (and its eyeball-frying radiation) is never completely hidden.

Wouldn't It Be Easier Just to Tell Your Kids They Will Go Blind?

NASA's website tackled this question. Their short answer: that could ruin their lives.

"A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience. Having now learned that the authority figure was wrong on one occasion, how is this student going to react when other health-related advice about drugs, alcohol, AIDS, or smoking is given?"

More from mental_floss...

May 20, 2012 - 5:37am
webby
submit to reddit