Solar Eclipse CoronaAugust 21, 2017


For a nation that has sent men to walk on the moon and bring back its rock samples, we (USA) are a perplexing mix of brilliance, daring, and dumb ignorance. Sometimes it just seems the ignorance is GROWING rather than waning as we make strides in science. People have been hunting around for “eclipse glasses” to use in watching the solar eclipse that will occur over our part of the USA today. There’s a frenzied concern: it seems the “eclipse glasses” are sold out at most stores, and people are cautioned not to watch an eclipse directly, or else….  “Or else what?” I asked a caller, and I got no answer!

The frenzy is crazy. It reminds me of our agony in late 1999 as the new millennia, the year 2000 (“Y2K” in media parlance) rolled in. Even at NASA, where I was a scientist then, we were instructed to buy and install special “Y2K Patches” for our computers and instruments. People were told that all sorts of calamities might break loose, and were advised to stock up on food and household supplies for a couple of weeks in case civil order broke down. Remember? Well, the sky did not fall!

Yes, friends, ignorance breeds gullibility and superstition. In medieval times (and more recent times in some areas of the world) religious gurus taught people that a solar eclipse was when devils and witches were devouring the sun, and the prescribed remedy was to pray (or beat drums if that was your form of worship). But, good grief, the USA is surely way past such silly beliefs! Or is it?

From what I hear, it seems some people believe that deleterious rays emanate from the solar corona at eclipse. That is false. NOTHING special happens to sun rays during an eclipse except that they are blocked for a while by the moon. The blocking does not create any hazard that was not there before the eclipse. That blocking cannot enhance the potency of the rays nor does it alter them in any way. One might argue that the blocking only REDUCES the damage you can suffer if you look briefly at the sun. Note the word “briefly”: that is the only caveat, and it is one that applies at all times, eclipse or no eclipse. Looking directly at the sun for extended periods can damage your eyes at any time, not just during an eclipse.

I wish I had sent this message out before now. Then might I have asked you to send me the $25.00 you budgeted for those “special eclipse eyeglasses.” That brings me to a modern factor behind the ignorance and superstition in the USA: commercial gain. When I first came to the USA in 1975, there was talk in the media about a solar eclipse that had occurred a couple of years earlier, after which enterprising scammers began to sell “genuine eclipse darkness” captured in sealed cans during the eclipse; buyers were warned not to open the can, or the special darkness would be lost.

No wonder we believe all kinds of twaddle and call it “religion.”