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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Solar Lunacy

“When you write your blog piece,” my daughter said, “you could mention that the glasses tell you not to use them with cameras or binoculars.”

“They do? Where?”

“It’s printed right on them.”


Sizzled Specs with Sun | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
LAST TUESDAY, VENUS SCOOTED across the surface of the sun – or appeared to. It was the second and last time I’d have the chance to see this phenomenon.

The first one I saw took place on June 8, 2004, already in progress for viewers in the eastern U.S.A. as the sun was rising. Much of the excitement stemmed from the fact that most recent transit before that was in 1882.

My family turned it into an event for my homeschooled daughter, inviting fellow-homeschoolers and their families to stay overnight or arrive at dawn. I set up a solar-filter-equipped telescope in a field behind the house, where I also set up a stove from which to serve breakfast to the attendees. We had a guest astronomer on hand to describe and discuss the proceedings, giving a look at its very significant scientific value.

And as I nudged the telescope to follow the sun’s ascent, the little black disc of our neighboring planet eased its way across the fiery orb of gold.

Such things are addictive. I resolved to be ready in eight years for the next one. Because the next one after that won’t take place until 2117, and won’t even be visible in this part of the country. New Yorkers will have to wait until 2125 for their next shot at it.

Last Tuesday was cloudy with threats of rain. The transit would begin shortly after 6 PM and remain in progress as the sun went down. I was working at an outdoor event, which was helpful, but the sky remained clouded, which was not.

But just after 6, some patches of blue appeared. Dapples of sunlight peeked here and there through trees.

Eight years earlier, our visiting astronomer brought a package of Transit of Venus Eclipse Shades, which were cardboard eyewear – like the old-style 3D glasses – with dark plastic filters for lenses. You’d swear they were opaque until you found the sun, which was reduced to a dull orange circle.

A small circle, as the photograph at the top of this column shows. (Yes, it’s a Photoshop job, because I couldn’t get both the sun and the glass in focus at the same time. But the relative size is accurate.)

Why not, I reasoned, put the Eclipse Shades over my eyes – over my eyeglasses, actually – and then look through a pair of binoculars?

Because it turns out to be damned difficult to get the sun in binocular view when everything around is black and you need three hands to keep all the tools in place. But I found a moment, a break in the clouds. I found a viewing spot, a place on the lawn. With glasses, Eclipse Shades, and binoculars in place, I slowly scanned the spot in the sky.

And was rewarded with a blinding – and I mean that literally – shaft of light sizzling my retinas. That’s why the warning is printed on the Eclipse Shades. The binoculars focused the sunlight so intently on the plastic filers that it burned a pair of holes through them. You can see them in the photo.

I turned my head and staggered back, unaware at first of how that light could have hit me. Then I looked at the specs and figured it out.

It didn’t stop me. I further reasoned that if I angled the binoculars differently, I could avoid another such incident – and that’s what I did. I didn’t get very long to study the transit before the clouds rolled in again, but there it was, the black dot of the planet of love, a few degrees in from the rim of the sun at the one o’clock position, an exciting little blip in the sky that was worth nearly ruining my eyeballs to see once more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good advice told in a humorous way. I am glad you are OK.