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July 19, 2000

Eclipses are fun events. I have seen quite a few, though never a total solar eclipse. When I taught astronomy, I found that most students got confused about which kind of eclipse is which. A solar eclipse is when the Sun is blocked by the Moon; that is, the Moon is between the Earth and Sun. A lunar eclipse is when the Moon is blocked by the Earth; that is, the Earth is between the Sun and the Moon.

Solar eclipses can be dangerous to view. I won't go into details here; you can get more at Sky and Telescope's Solar Filter Safety site. But the basic idea is that looking at the Sun is a Bad Thing.

Lunar eclipses, however, are not dangerous at all. It's just the Moon getting dark, and so what's the big deal? You can look right at a full Moon without damage!

image of newspaper headline for eclipse

Unless, of course, you read the Melbourne, Australia newspaper Sunday Herald Sun. There was a lunar eclipse visible Down Under in July of 2000. The Sun ran the following headline: ``Risk "Eclipses Spectacle"'', and proceeded to discuss the dangers of blindness from a lunar eclipse! They actually quote a medical doctor by the name of Gerald Segal, who says ``Never try to watch an eclipse.'' I'm not sure if anyone told him it was a lunar eclipse, or if he really didn't know any better. Certainly no one at the newspaper knew the real story.

Anyway, if you get a chance to see a lunar eclipse, take it! And don't worry about going blind. Worry more about stumbling around in the dark! There is always some danger in astronomical observing.

My thanks to Carlo Di Martino for bringing this to my attention and for the image of the newspaper article.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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