Don't look at the Sun!

Update 5 June 2012: Over the next few hours the planet Venus will transit the Sun. This will be visible from many parts of the Earth. Remember to observe with safe solar filters. You can also view the whole thing online via LCOGT, The Royal Astronomical Society or NASA Edge.

Every time there is a solar eclipse you will find astronomers warning you to never look directly at the Sun. Even more importantly, you should not look at the Sun through a telescope unless you have a professional solar filter that covers the front of the telescope. Why?

The Sun is very bright and by focussing the light onto the back of your eye (the retina) with or without a telescope, you are putting a lot of energy (both optical light and infra-red) onto a tiny area. At some point in your life you may have tried to set paper on fire using a magnifying glass, so just think about that being done to the back of your eye. It isn't nice. Even more scarily is the fact that the retina of your eye does not have pain receptors, so you will not even feel the damage being done. It may not even become apparent until later.

Dont look at the Sun

A grape at the focus of a small telescope while looking at the Sun unprotected. CREDIT: Stuart/Megan

Last year, I decided to try to demonstrate just how dangerous looking at the Sun is. Luckily, I am too sensible to use my own eye for this purpose, so I decided to use a green grape instead. It is round and squishy, so vaguely resembles an eyeball. However, a grape doesn't have its own lens to focus the light onto the back of it ,so I reckon it should fare better than a human eye. Anyway, not knowing exactly what to expect, I used some pliers to hold the grape at the focus. For the first few seconds not a lot appeared to be happening. If it was your eye there in place of the grape, you would be cooking your retina in an irreversible way. Anyway, I was slightly suprised a few seconds later when the sunlight had burnt through the outer layer of the grape and hot grape juice squirted out. It sprayed the eyepiece. I made a rather poor quality movie of this, complete with the sound of sizzling grape. If you click on the image you should be able to see it (WARNING: 2.1MB MOV file). The result is not good.

Not only do you blind yourself, but you may damage the optics of your telescope. So, remember folks, NEVER LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN. If you want to observe the Sun, check out the SOHO website or find someone with a solar telescope. You have been warned.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 30th Sep 2005 (11:13 UTC) | 191 Comments | Permalink
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