Can You Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?

Even if the sun is 99% obscured, the light peeking through is strong enough to cause significant damage.  

Science & Technology
3 min
Diana Bocco
Diana Bocco
Can You Go Blind Staring at a Solar Eclipse?
All stories
Science & Technology

An eclipse is a natural phenomenon that has fascinated humans for millennia, sparking myths and legends across ancient civilizations. The Vikings believed eclipses were the result of a sky wolf chasing and catching the sun, and the ancient Greeks saw them as a sign of angry gods and impending doom. These interpretations, as diverse as they come, highlight the awe and fear that eclipses have inspired throughout human history.

But beyond the excitement and the rush to secure the best viewing spot, just how safe is it to watch an eclipse unfold with the naked eye? Gather 'round as we explore the marvels and warnings wrapped up in the event of a solar eclipse.

How an Eclipse Changed the Life of Two Teens

Back in the summer of ‘62, 16-year-olds Louis Tomososki and Roger Duvall were waiting for their very own solar eclipse in an Oregon baseball field. This particular eclipse wasn't set to plunge Oregon into total darkness, the full show was reserved for viewers further north in Alaska and Canada. But Tomososki and Roger Duvall were still very excited about the event. 

When it finally happened, Louis made a decision that would have lasting consequences, he chose to sneak a quick look at the sun, shutting his left eye and leaving the right wide open to the sky. It took just 20 seconds for that peek to etch a permanent mark on his retina. Roger didn't fare much better, with his left eye bearing the brunt of their shared curiosity. 

Their vision was not only affected in the open eye (in what Tomososki describes as “seeing faces without noses”), but even the eye that remained closed now has a permanent scrambled, whitish spot in it. 

It’s a clear reminder that even a brief encounter with an eclipse can have lasting consequences.

When Curiosity Blinds

But what exactly makes gazing at a solar eclipse potentially harmful? For starters, it’s our own choices. On any other day, our instinct is to look away from the sun, but an eclipse might tempt us to overlook basic protective instincts and stare at the sun far longer than we ever would under normal circumstances. Add to that the fact that our retina doesn’t have pain receptors (so we might not even realize the damage the sun is causing) and you have a recipe for disaster. 

solar eclipse

The sun's rays, focused through the eye's lens onto the retina, can damage the light-sensitive cells responsible for our vision. This can lead to permanent vision impairment, and some people have even experienced thermal damage, essentially "cooking" the cells in their eyes. According to the National Eye Institute , this can lead to blind spots, changes in color perception, and even permanent loss of vision. 

NASA's Advice on Solar Eclipses

While the temptation to steal a quick glance at a solar eclipse might be strong, experts strongly advise against it. Even when the sun is 99% obscured , the little bit of light peeking through is strong enough to cause significant damage.  

For those who choose to witness this marvel of nature, the message is clear: proper eye protection is non-negotiable. Always use special solar viewing glasses or a handheld solar viewer to watch the eclipse's partial phases. Unlike ordinary sunglasses, eclipse glasses are specifically designed for sun viewing and block out enough sunlight to protect your eyes. 

Armed with knowledge and the right protection, you can protect the health of your eyes to marvel at the mysteries of the universe for many eclipses to come.

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