A total solar eclipse is probably the most spectacular astronomical event that most people will experience in their lives. There is a great deal of interest in watching eclipses, and thousands of astronomers (both amateur and professional) travel around the world to observe and photograph them.
A solar eclipse offers students a unique opportunity to see a natural phenomenon that illustrates the basic principles of mathematics and science that are taught through elementary and secondary school. Indeed, many scientists (including astronomers!) have been inspired to study science as a result of seeing a total solar eclipse. Teachers can use eclipses to show how the laws of motion and the mathematics of orbital motion can predict the occurrence of eclipses. The use of pinhole cameras and telescopes or binoculars to observe an eclipse leads to an understanding of the optics of these devices. The rise and fall of environmental light levels during an eclipse illustrate the principles of radiometry and photometry, while biology classes can observe the associated behavior of plants and animals. It is also an opportunity for children of school age to contribute actively to scientific research - observations of contact timings at different locations along the eclipse path are useful in refining our knowledge of the orbital motions of the Moon and earth, and sketches and photographs of the solar corona can be used to build a three-dimensional picture of the Sun's extended atmosphere during the eclipse.
However, observing the Sun can be dangerous if you do not take the proper precautions. The solar radiation that reaches the surface of Earth ranges from ultraviolet (UV) radiation at wavelengths longer than 290 nm to radio waves in the meter range. The tissues in the eye transmit a substantial part of the radiation between 380 and 1400 nm to the light-sensitive retina at the back of the eye. While environmental exposure to UV radiation is known to contribute to the accelerated aging of the outer layers of the eye and the development of cataracts, the concern over improper viewing of the Sun during an eclipse is for the development of "eclipse blindness" or retinal burns.
Exposure of the retina to intense visible light causes damage to its light-sensitive rod and cone cells. The light triggers a series of complex chemical reactions within the cells which damages their ability to respond to a visual stimulus, and in extreme cases, can destroy them. The result is a loss of visual function which may be either temporary or permanent, depending on the severity of the damage. When a person looks repeatedly or for a long time at the Sun without proper protection for the eyes, this photochemical retinal damage may be accompanied by a thermal injury - the high level of visible and near-infrared radiation causes heating that literally cooks the exposed tissue. This thermal injury or photocoagulation destroys the rods and cones, creating a small blind area. The danger to vision is significant because photic retinal injuries occur without any feeling of pain (there are no pain receptors in the retina), and the visual effects do not occur for at least several hours after the damage is done [Pitts, 1993].
The only time that the Sun can be viewed safely with the naked eye is during a total eclipse, when the Moon completely covers the disk of the Sun. It is never safe to look at a partial or annular eclipse, or the partial phases of a total solar eclipse, without the proper equipment and techniques. Even when 99% of the Sun's surface (the photosphere) is obscured during the partial phases of a solar eclipse, the remaining crescent Sun is still intense enough to cause a retinal burn, even though illumination levels are comparable to twilight [Chou, 1981, 1996; Marsh, 1982]. Failure to use proper observing methods may result in permanent eye damage or severe visual loss. This can have important adverse effects on career choices and earning potential, since it has been shown that most individuals who sustain eclipse-related eye injuries are children and young adults [Penner and McNair, 1966; Chou and Krailo, 1981].
The same techniques for observing the Sun outside of eclipses are used to view and photograph annular solar eclipses and the partly eclipsed Sun [Sherrod, 1981; Pasachoff & Menzel 1992; Pasachoff & Covington, 1993; Reynolds & Sweetsir, 1995]. The safest and most inexpensive method is by projection. A pinhole or small opening is used to form an image of the Sun on a screen placed about a meter behind the opening. Multiple openings in perfboard, in a loosely woven straw hat, or even between interlaced fingers can be used to cast a pattern of solar images on a screen. A similar effect is seen on the ground below a broad-leafed tree: the many "pinholes" formed by overlapping leaves creates hundreds of crescent-shaped images. Binoculars or a small telescope mounted on a tripod can also be used to project a magnified image of the Sun onto a white card. All of these methods can be used to provide a safe view of the partial phases of an eclipse to a group of observers, but care must be taken to ensure that no one looks through the device. The main advantage of the projection methods is that nobody is looking directly at the Sun. The disadvantage of the pinhole method is that the screen must be placed at least a meter behind the opening to get a solar image that is large enough to see easily.
The Sun can only be viewed directly when filters specially designed to protect the eyes are used. Most such filters have a thin layer of chromium alloy or aluminum deposited on their surfaces that attenuates both visible and near-infrared radiation. A safe solar filter should transmit less than 0.0003% (density~4.5) [See footnote] of visible light (380 to 780 nm) and no more than 0.5% (density~2.3) of the near-infrared radiation (780 to 1400 nm). Figure 24 shows the spectral response for a selection of safe solar filters.
One of the most widely available filters for safe solar viewing is shade number 14 welder's glass, which can be obtained from welding supply outlets. A popular inexpensive alternative is aluminized mylar manufactured specifically for solar observation. ("Space blankets" and aluminized mylar used in gardening are not suitable for this purpose!) Unlike the welding glass, mylar can be cut to fit any viewing device, and doesn't break when dropped. Many experienced solar observers use one or two layers of black-and-white film that has been fully exposed to light and developed to maximum density. The metallic silver contained in the film emulsion is the protective filter. Some of the newer black and white films use dyes instead of silver and these are unsafe. Black-and-white negatives with images on it (e.g., medical x-rays) are also not suitable. More recently, solar observers have used floppy disks and compact disks (both CDs and CD-ROMs) as protective filters by covering the central openings and looking through the disk media. However, the optical quality of the solar image formed by a floppy disk or CD is relatively poor compared to mylar or welder's glass. Some CDs are made with very thin aluminum coatings which are not safe - if you can see through the CD in normal room lighting, don't use it!! No filter should be used with an optical device (e.g. binoculars, telescope, camera) unless it has been specifically designed for that purpose and is mounted at the front end (i.e., end towards the Sun). Some sources of solar filters are listed in the following section.
Unsafe filters include all color film, black-and-white film that contains no silver, photographic negatives with images on them (x-rays and snapshots), smoked glass, sunglasses (single or multiple pairs), photographic neutral density filters and polarizing filters. Most of these transmit high levels of invisible infrared radiation which can cause a thermal retinal burn (see Figure 24). The fact that the Sun appears dim, or that you feel no discomfort when looking at the Sun through the filter, is no guarantee that your eyes are safe. Solar filters designed to thread into eyepieces that are often provided with inexpensive telescopes are also unsafe. These glass filters can crack unexpectedly from overheating when the telescope is pointed at the Sun, and retinal damage can occur faster than the observer can move the eye from the eyepiece. Avoid unnecessary risks. Your local planetarium, science center, or amateur astronomy club can provide additional information on how to observe the eclipse safely.
There has been concern expressed about the possibility that UVA radiation (wavelengths between 315 and 380 nm) in sunlight may also adversely affect the retina [Del Priore, 1991]. While there is some experimental evidence for this, it only applies to the special case of aphakia, where the natural lens of the eye has been removed because of cataract or injury, and no UV-blocking spectacle, contact or intraocular lens has been fitted. In an intact normal human eye, UVA radiation does not reach the retina because it is absorbed by the crystalline lens. In aphakia, normal environmental exposure to solar UV radiation may indeed cause chronic retinal damage. However, the solar filter materials discussed in this article attenuate solar UV radiation to a level well below the minimum permissible occupational exposure for UVA (ACGIH, 1994), so an aphakic observer is at no additional risk of retinal damage when looking at the Sun through a proper solar filter.
In the days and weeks preceding a solar eclipse, there are often news stories and announcements in the media, warning about the dangers of looking at the eclipse. Unfortunately, despite the good intentions behind these messages, they frequently contain misinformation, and may be designed to scare people from seeing the eclipse at all. However, this tactic may backfire, particularly when the messages are intended for students. 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 [Pasachoff, 1997]? Misinformation may be just as bad, if not worse than no information at all.
In spite of these precautions, the total phase of an eclipse can and should be viewed without any filters whatsoever. The naked eye view of totality is not only completely safe, it is truly and overwhelmingly awe-inspiring!B. Ralph Chou, MSc, OD
Footnote: In addition to the term transmittance (in percent), the energy transmission of a filter can also be described by the term density (unitless) where density 'd' is the common logarithm of the reciprocal of transmittance 't' or d = log10[1/t]. A density of '0' corresponds to a transmittance of 100%; a density of '1' corresponds to a transmittance of 10%; a density of '2' corresponds to a transmittance of 1%, etc....
(Available online at http://umbra.nascom.nasa.gov/eclipse/990811/rp.html)