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| Sun Gazing Safety
"Never stare directly at the sun" is often read or heard. Tell that to someone who wants to see a beautiful/romantic sunset on holiday! Wikipedia (accessed April 6, 2014) starts its entry on Sungazing by stating that looking into the sun is dangerous. But surely there is a great deal of difference between a low and a high sun. A sun gazer Matthew Lloyd Wilcox (here and here, accessed April 6, 2014) tells us that in the first 45 minutes of sunrise and last 45 minutes of sunset, there are usually no harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. It is these UV rays that can hurt the eye. In his short documentary, an ophthalmologist confirms that it is the UV that harms eyes. This and another ophthalmologist check his eyes and confirm he has no eye damage. When sungazing, he uses an app to check whether there is any UV present.
However, is an app really necessary? From an evolutionary perspective, we have lived for millions of years with the sun. Our eyes are adapted to an everyday experience of it. Generally, we don't tilt our heads up in daily life, so looking at a sun higher up seems ill-advised, and naturally we will look away from it. We may look very briefly at a high sun, but only very briefly. However, a sun on or near the horizon is on a level of where our head and eyes normally operate. So, surely we have adapted to this strength of sunlight! If it is too harsh, we will naturally look away. The lesson of animals in the savanna is that they will gaze at the sunrise. All together, this strongly suggests that sunrises and sunsets are safe to look at.
Another example is when sunbathing. We lie on our backs with eyelids closed. When a cloud covers the sun, we may open our eyelids and see how long the cover will last, because maybe it's time to stop sunbathing! If the cloud at that moment moves away, our eyes will momentarily glimpse direct and high sun, but we will naturally avert our gaze. It is a reflex and if we listen to our bodies, no harm should be done. The same principle might apply when we are walking along on a sunny day and cloud happens - we look up but the cloud moves on, and we glimpse bright sun.
Yet another simple example is when walking along, gazing very briefly up into the sky to check the sun's position so as to gauge the approximate time of day. This has no doubt gone on with humans for millions of years without harm!
So, when some astronomy authorities or books say to never under any circumstances look at it, perhaps they are wrong?
Clearly, as other astronomy books warn, looking at the sun with binoculars or a telescope is NEVER advisable, as it would cause rapid, severe and irreversible eye damage. Other astronomy sources indicate that the only time to look at the sun is when it is both hazy and in the hour or so it is setting.
Whatever you decide, I don't think I have damaged my eyes from sunrises or sunsets or the occasional glimpse at a high sun. I'm sticking with evolutionary reasoning - sunrises and sunsets are safe unless my body signals otherwise.
Sun graphic by Prawny (Morguefile)
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