What to Do if You Can’t Watch the Eclipse


Monday, August 21, much of the United States will be transfixed watching the total solar eclipse.  But what are your options if you can’t see the eclipse?  There are two major reasons why you might now be watching the eclipse:
1.  You have to be inside, or
2.  You don’t have the appropriate equipment to watch the eclipse directly without potentially damaging your eyes.


Obviously, life doesn’t just come to a halt because of the eclipse.  So many, many people will be at work during this event.  I am grateful for the people who will have to miss out because they are continuing to serve us–people like doctors and nurses in hospitals, people who run our power and water plants, police and fire fighters, air traffic controllers, homeland security personnel, the military, sales people, cooks and wait staff, and on and on.  Other people may not be able to go outside due to physical issues, etc.

If you are inside and are not completely wrapped up on whatever you are doing, from noon to 4 that day, NASA is going to be live streaming the eclipse from 12 locations, as well as from airplanes, telescopes, and high altitude balloons.  So if you have a chance, check that out at: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/eclipse-live-stream.  I think we will watch it at noon to be better prepared for when the eclipse moves to the East Coast and we watch it live.  I believe that site will also have the recordings of the eclipse that we can all watch whenever we want to, even if you miss the live streaming from 12-4 that afternoon.


You can damage your eyes if you stare at the eclipse without eye gear specifically made to block the sun’s rays.  We all know, under normal circumstances, that it hurts our eyes to stare at the sun, so we don’t do that much.  The particular danger in an eclipse is that when the moon is covering the sun, the sky will be dark, so your pupil will dilate to let in more light as is normal in low-light situations.  So as the moon moves, the reappearing sunlight can “flash” or surprise you before you have a chance to look away, and more of your retina is exposed due to the open pupils, increasing the potential for damage.  So it is risky to try to watch the eclipse directly if you don’t have the proper solar glasses.  Thanks to my friend Vivian, who ordered them for us months ago, we have eye protection, but most stores have long ago sold out of them, so they are hard to find at this point.

There are three major options I can suggest if you don’t have solar glasses:

  1. Attend public events
  2. Make a pinhole viewer
  3. Be a citizen scientist and concentrate on other aspects of the eclipse


Thousands of places are holding public events in which they intend to give away to participants free solar glasses–with the important caveat of “while supplies last.”  These will no doubt be popular, so plan to get there early to secure your glasses.  I know here in the Triangle NC, which will experience about a 92% eclipse, there are eclipse watching activities scheduled at local universities and community colleges, libraries, parks, our local planetarium, and multiple bars and restaurants with outside or rooftop dining.  So there are many places where you can score some glasses, but only if you are there early.


A pinhole viewer is a device modeled on the “camera obscura” concept (in Raleigh, we have an example of such a “dark room”  at the North Carolina Museum of Art in the Museum Park area).  The idea is that you make a small hole in a screen that will project an image of the sun on another screen, ground, or other surface.  This can be as simple as just sticking a hole in a piece of paper (or perhaps through a piece of aluminum foil over an opening in a piece of paper or cardboard) that allows you to watch the eclipse images on the ground (or some surface you put on the ground) or a more elaborate (but still pretty simple) pinhole view make from a cereal or shoe box.  Here is a link to a WIRED article that explains not only the science of this technique but explains two methods of creating your own pinhole viewer.


In an earlier blog post, I wrote about a citizen scientist effort to record the eclipse from every point along the total eclipse path.  But even if you aren’t on the totality path, there are a couple of requests for data from citizens observing the eclipse throughout the US that focus on aspects rather than viewing the eclipse.

Temperature Change:  NASA is interested in finding out how much the eclipse temporarily effects the temperature.  They are asking people to report changes in clouds and temperature before, during, and after the eclipse.   For more information, see:  https://observer.globe.gov/science-connections/eclipse2017 .

Animal or Plant Behavior:  There is anecdotal evidence of plants and animals behaving strangely during an eclipse, but the Life Responds project is trying to compile a more comprehensive database of both strange and standard reactions to the event.  To participate, download the iNaturalist app and follow the directions at: http://www.inaturalist.org/projects/life-responds-total-solar-eclipse-2017 .

So even if you can’t watch the eclipse directly yourself, you can concentrate on noticing other things, add your observations to thousands of others, and help scientists better understand all that occurs during a solar eclipse.  Then you can go home and watch it online at: https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/eclipse-live-stream.

So be safe.  Be responsible.  But I hope you all find a way to celebrate our solar eclipse in your own way.


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