If Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson is to be believed, it's “the most impressive thing a president has ever done”. US President Trump looked up at the recent eclipse without protective glasses that will keep his eyes safe from potential harm.
It's not that the president didn't have protective glasses. The president did have his own pair, though it seems that he elected not to wear them before looking up at the sky as the eclipse was in progress. President Trump came out to the White House South Portico and squinted up at the sky, prompting his aides to cry out, “don't look!” His glasses were in his jacket pocket, and he soon took them out and wore them to watch the eclipse.
Scientists have long been warning people not to look at an eclipse. Looking directly at the sun—even for just a short while—can be harmful to your retinas and can even lead to blindness.
The president sneaks a potentially harmful peek at the eclipse. [Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
Back when you were younger, you probably “borrowed” your dad's magnifying glass from his desk drawer, held it under sunlight over a piece of paper, then waited for the paper to burn. The magnifying glass concentrates the light of the sun, which is so strong that, concentrated, it can set paper on fire.
Our eyes also have a lens. If you look directly at the sun, the lens concentrates the light of the sun on your retina. This can kill cells and burn holes on your retina, much like how concentrated sunlight can also burn holes in paper.
Retinas are important to our ability to see well. They sit at the back of our eyeballs, housing cells that can sense light and thus enable us to see. When our retinas sustain damage due to sunlight, it's actually painless. We won't feel that it's happening, so we're not alerted that we're damaging our eyes.
Solar eclipses can be even riskier to our eyes, simply because we let our guards down. When we look at the sun, our bodies have instinctive reactions. For example, we blink and our pupils contract. However, during an eclipse, the moon is blocking the sun, making it more comfortable for us to look and disarming our usual defenses. Even a sliver of sunlight that makes it past the moon can burn a hole in our retinas.
The president, alongside First Lade Melania Trump and their son Barron, watch the eclipse the right way. [Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images]
Luckily, most of the damage we can experience when we look at the sun isn't permanent. It can heal after a month or so. However, some types of damage can be permanent. If, for example, you make a habit of looking at the sun, it may cause blindness.
There are ways that we can look at the sun without burning holes in our eyes, making watching the entire progress of the eclipse possible. One easy way is to buy and wear protective glasses. Another is to use a pinhole camera if you would rather not look directly at the sun at all, protective eye wear or no.
It's a good thing though that someone had the presence of mind to warn President Trump not to look at the eclipse.
Get weekly science updates in your inbox!