Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Ichthys

Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
Last-minute eclipse FAQ
Is this eclipse a warning from God?
Eclipse glasses — don't panic!

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2017
August
16-17

Fame thrust upon me

You probably never thought of me as a Spanish-speaking TV personality, and neither did I. But today (Aug. 17), despite a sore throat and my somewhat inadequate Spanish, I was interviewed at length by Telemundo Atlanta. Nobody else could talk about the eclipse in Spanish!

They gave me an enormous amount of time, about 6 minutes in one 30-minute newscast, nearly 7 minutes in the second one, and a reprise of about 5 minutes in the 11 p.m. newscast. That is more than high-ranking politicians usually get. I think it reflects the fact that there has been almost no eclipse information given out in Spanish. But if you want some, click here.

Here you see Annie Tejada asking me about the eclipse. There will be links to view the video, at least briefly. I have a recording but am not at liberty to put it on the Web.

Need eclipse information? Click here.

2017
August
14-15

Carport? What's a carport?

My big vocabulary got the better of me. I know what a carport is, and other people don't.

It didn't occur to me that this is arcane knowledge. I've known what a carport is since I was four years old, at least.

But other people simply don't understand when I say "go to the carport door" (the preferred entrance to our house at present).

It turns out that unknown to me, carports are a southern, 1960s-1970s thing. Newer houses here have enclosed garages, and so do houses of all eras in colder climates.

So what should I say? "Go to the side door?" It's not on the side. "Go to the back door?" It's one of two doors in the back, but "back door" might work because the other one isn't visible.



Charlottesville — 2 more points

I have a theory about the people who march with torches and Confederate and Nazi flags.

I think they don't distinguish reality from fantasy the way the rest of us do.

I think many of them have not really made up their mind whether they're playing a fantasy game or actually trying to be part of American politics. Look how surprised some of them are to find out this morning that their employers and neighbors want to ostracize them.

I've seen some of them heckle web sites and Facebook members who criticize them (which is why most of my Facebook postings on this subject are not public, and this blog does not have a comment section). They seem to be complete dupes of propaganda/fantasy web sites. They would believe pigs fly if a certain site said it. They will not believe the sky is blue if CNN says it. They say, and claim to believe, whatever feeds their anger and their game.

In short, the idea of testing one's beliefs against objective reality does not seem to be part of their mindset. For them, it's what you can say and feel, not what is real.


It is gratifying that all of a sudden, everybody believes in objective ethics. Racism is not just another opinion, it is objectively wrong.

The trouble with Trump's "all sides" speech is that it echoed the ethical relativism that was, until just now, so popular: "You have no right to impose your values on me." "Don't be intolerant."

Until just now, ethical relativism has been more popular with the left than the right. It has been especially fashionable among academics.

But a lot of us have joked all along that anyone will abandon ethical relativism if you steal his wallet. All of a sudden, the theft will be objectively wrong, not just a difference of opinion.

Perhaps also if people threaten him with torches.

A point about tolerance: I am in favor of free expression of ideas. I want the alt-right to be refuted, not silenced by force. But people need to take responsibility for what they say. You can't wave a Nazi flag one evening and expect your neighbors the next morning to welcome you into their community.

2017
August
13

Charlottesville

I call on all my fellow Christians to condemn all manifestations of "white nationalism" and racism in the strongest possible terms.

Traditionally, these people call themselves Christians and try to insinuate themselves among us. It is critical for us to tell the world that we are against what they stand for.

Matthew 7:22-23 applies.

Reuse of this graphic is encouraged.

2017
August
12

Eclipse glasses — fear, panic, and deception?
How to check yours, and how to do without them


SAFE eclipse viewers from Thousand Oaks, a reputable manufacturer

By now you've probably seen headlines that "counterfeit eclipse glasses are flooding the market."

Not exactly flooding. The only confirmed cases I've encountered came from third parties selling through Amazon. (Amazon was vulnerable because it allows individuals and small businesses to sell through the Amazon web site.) There may be others, of course, especially in the last few days before the eclipse.

Now I'm afraid people are going to miss seeing the eclipse through perfectly good glasses because of undue panic.

And as of today (Aug. 12), Amazon is giving refunds on a lot of solar filters, including some expensive astronomical gear that is above all suspicion, simply because they haven't received proof that it has the proper certifications. Amazon is erring on the side of excessive caution. Not everything that gets an Amazon warning and refund is actually unsafe.

Bear in mind that although it's a good idea, the ISO certification for solar filters is new, and many perfectly good filters didn't receive it because they were made earlier, or may never receive it because, designed for use with telescopes, they have a slightly lower density.

Note that ISO and NASA don't test glasses or filters. ISO publishes a specification, and manufacturers tell you whether their product meets it. That means you have to be able to trust the manufacturer.

Also, the AAS list of reliable manufacturers and vendors is not the last word. There was no advance plan for an approved list, so no opportunity for smaller vendors to get on it. Everything on their list is reliable, but don't assume that anything not on their list is not reliable.

I saw this coming. Besides Amazon's misguided entanglement with no-name third-party vendors, there were two other bad decisions:

  • By relying on information printed on the eclipse glasses, the whole community has made it easy for counterfeiters to print the same thing on glasses that aren't right. Anybody can print anything. We should have been emphasizing the supply chain instead.
  • By making a huge number of different styles, the manufacturers made themselves unrecognizable. The paper frames of eclipse glasses can be any color, with almost anything printed on them. You can't recognize manufacturers by their look.

How to check your own eclipse glasses:

You cannot test the UV or IR absorption of eclipse glasses by yourself, and hence you can't prove that a pair is safe. However, you can quickly check for signs of trouble.

First, are the filters shiny, either aluminized or black? Normally, eclipse glasses are made of thin flexible plastic and are shiny (silver or gold) on at least one side, maybe both. Some are shiny black on both sides. Safe filters made of other materials do exist, but in that case, you should make sure of where they came from. Anything that is vivid red, green, or blue is not eclipse glasses.

Second, are they dark enough? You should not be able to see anything through the filter except the sun, reflections of the sun on shiny metal and the like, and very bright electric lights (filaments and LED elements only; not fluorescent lights). If you can see people, scenery, etc., outdoors on a sunny day, the glasses are not safe. (That was the case with the counterfeit glasses that turned up on Amazon.)

While you're at it, make sure the filters don't have holes or scratches that let extra light through, not even tiny pinholes.

Third, if they pass the first two tests, are they from a reputable manufacturer? Three of the best are Thousand Oaks, American Paper Optics, and Rainbow Symphony. A fuller list is here.

And do you know how they got to you? Anybody can print anything, so watch out for unknown supply chains. All the major stores (Walmart, Lowe's, 7-Eleven, etc.) and all the major astronomical and educational organizations are OK. As I said, the only known problems arose because third parties are allowed to sell through Amazon.

Finally, keep things in perspective. Even the fake eclipse glasses that showed up on Amazon were not actually proven to be dangerous. I don't recommend using them without further checking, of course, because the false certification printed on them shows that the maker was up to no good. We don't know where they came from or how far out of spec they were.

But bear in mind that the ISO standard is very strict, and some perfectly safe filters don't meet it. Filters may lack ISO certification simply because they're older, or because they are designed for telescopes and deliberately have a slightly lower density to allow shorter photographic exposures. The ISO standard requires a logarithmic density of 6.0, but optometry researcher B. Ralph Chou has found that densities as low as 5.0 are sufficient to prevent eye damage. It's not a matter of a sharp threshold.

And if you don't have eclipse glasses or don't trust yours, you can still see the eclipse safely with no equipment at all, by looking at the shadow of a piece of paper with a small hole in it, like this:


Photo by Richard Dasher, used by permission

Enjoy the eclipse, don't panic, but be safe.

2017
August
10

Something Zeiss to look through

Melody gave me a premature birthday present (more than a month premature) that will help me see the eclipse and many other things: a pair of Zeiss Terra ED 10x42 binoculars. As often happens, I found them myself, at a closeout price because Zeiss has just upgraded them slightly and this is the old model, and then we designated them a birthday present.

Zeiss binoculars for just over $300? It can happen. "Terra" is Zeiss' economy line, designed in Germany but made in China. They're not as rugged as the higher-priced models, but for astronomy, one doesn't need great ruggedness.

They are the best binoculars I've ever had. They're not perfect; no binoculars are.

I should explain how to evaluate binoculars for optical quality. First look for misalignment (the two sides not aimed in quite the same direction); if the error is small, you won't see double images but your eyes will get tired. These binoculars are in excellent alignment.

Next, judge sharpness and contrast. The trick is, all binoculars are much sharper in the daytime (when the pupils of your eyes are smaller) than at night; it's like stopping down a camera lens. So the only sure test is to look at the starry night sky.

Cheap binoculars are sharp only in the very center of the field. No binoculars are perfectly sharp all the way to the edges unless they've chosen to give you an unusually small field. The reason is that most people would rather have a wider field than have perfect sharpness all the way to the edge.

These Zeiss binoculars have an unusually wide field, 60° apparent, about 6° true field, and the middle 75% of it is quite sharp. That is impressive. By masking off the lenses, Zeiss could have given us perfect sharpness with a 45° field, but I'm glad they gave us the extra area even though it's not perfect.

They are also surprisingly light and compact, lighter than the Pentax 8x40 binoculars that were, until now, my best. Thank you, Melody.

During the eclipse, I will use these only during totality. At any other time they would require sun filters in front of the lenses.

2017
August
6-9

Is this eclipse a warning from God?

This is mainly for my fellow Christians, but others may be asked scientific questions related to it, or may at least want to be reassured about what is and is not normal Christian belief. So read on.

I was worried that some confused preacher would declare that this eclipse is a special message from God, and now Billy Graham's daughter is doing it. It's related to the "blood moon" nonsense that circulated a few years ago.

People seem to think these eclipses are surprising, unexpected developments, and hence new messages from God. They aren't. Their dates, times, and places have been fixed as long as the sun and moon have been in their orbits. Anyone with accurate knowledge of the orbits could have predicted them. Oppolzer did so in 1887.

Now think for a moment. In a sense, all of nature is a revelation of God; not only every eclipse, but every flower, every blade of grass, every crater on the moon.

But if you start reading ordinary natural events as "signs," you have strayed into superstition. You might as well be reading tea leaves or goats' entrails. Indeed, the "blood moon" people, including Ms. Lotz, get at least some of their interpretation from from medieval Jewish lore (not mainline Jewish doctrine, which, like Christian doctrine, is wary of mistaking outer space for the divine). They don't get it from the Bible.

I want to assure my non-Christian readers that there is nothing in the Bible that tells us eclipses are "signs" or warnings and no Christian tradition of any such belief.

And I want to advise my fellow Christians that if you don't really know what an eclipse is — if you don't realize it is a natural event — then please at least keep quiet and don't confuse other people. Instead of picking up third-hand accounts of other people's speculations, show due respect for God's laws of nature and read and heed, for example, Jeremiah 10:2 and 1 Timothy 4:7 (in context, of course).

2017
August
5

Practicing on the moon

I've tried out my eclipse setup again, Canon 60Da with Canon 300-mm f/4 lens (at f/10), and got good results photographing the moon. Anyone who can take pictures of the moon comparable to these should be well set up to photograph the total eclipse.

Here's the whole picture:

Note: For the eclipse I'm going to rotate the camera 90 degrees so the field extends mostly east-west, since the corona is expected to be bigger in that direction.

Of course, I shrank that picture to fit it on the screen. Here's the image of the moon shown at full resolution, without any sharpening:

And here it is with some digital sharpening (not the full process that I normally use on moon images, but just a little, to show you what's there):

One thing I confirmed is that, even working at f/10, I must focus this Canon lens on a celestial object (which can be the sun through a sun filter). To a first good approximation, the infinity mark seems to be accurate at 75 F, though it changes with temperature as the lens expands and contracts.



My companion during the session

Everybody needs company while observing. This was my companion for the photo session. She forbade me to use the electrical outlet; I used the battery pack instead. But she did me a favor by putting up an enormous mosquito trap. I didn't get any mosquito bites. I hope she ate well.

(iPhone SE, illumination from a high-performance Thrunite penlight that I'll tell you more about later.)

2017
August
1-4

It's eclipse month!


Photo by Joshua L. Jones, used by permission

It's eclipse month! As far as I know, predictions of this solar eclipse were first published by Oppolzer in 1887, so it's not as though we didn't know it was coming. On eclipse day I'll be in Hiawassee with the equipment you see above.

Without further ado, let me answer almost all your questions. Most of this applies no matter where you are, not just Georgia and the Carolinas...

    Click to enlarge or print...


Last-minute eclipse FAQ

(SCROLL UP for much more information.)


Photo by Richard Dasher, used by permission

What is the safest and cheapest way to see the eclipse?

Make a 1/4-inch hole in a piece of paper and look at its shadow a few feet away (as in the picture above). During the partial phases of the eclipse, you will see a crescent instead of a round spot of light.

This method is particularly good with schoolchildren because the teacher can easily see that they are all facing away from the sun.

You can even make a hole with your thumb and forefinger and look at the shadow of your fist.

Is it true that the only safe way to watch the eclipse is on television?

No. That is what the TV networks told their viewers at the 1963 eclipse. It got them lots of viewers, but it wasn't true then and isn't true now. But it frightened a lot of people unnecessarily, especially at the 1976 eclipse in Australia.

Is it dangerous to be outside during the eclipse? Do we need to be careful not to look up?

No; go outside all you want, and look up if you want to, but don't stare at the sun, during the eclipse or at any other time.

The eclipse doesn't make the sun emit "rays" that it wasn't already emitting. That was a widespread misconception at the 1970 eclipse, and it is still circulating.

Sunlight is the same all the time, and the sun will always harm your eyes if you stare at it. But the eclipse makes people want to stare at it. Also, when part of the sun is covered, there is less total glare, and people may not realize that the part that's still visible is still as bright as ever.

Do I need eye protection if the eclipse is only partial?

YES, that is exactly when you need eye protection! During the few minutes that the eclipse is total (if you're in the path of totality), you don't need eye protection because all you see is the dim solar corona. At all other times and places, you see at least part of the bright surface of the sun, and you need protection.

How can I be sure my eclipse glasses or viewers are safe?

I would say, "Look at the ISO safety certification," but someone has been caught printing it on unsafe fake eclipse glasses. So instead I say: Consider the source. Are you getting the glasses from a company or organization that knows where they came from? If so, you're OK. There are many reputable brands and sellers.

So far, unsafe glasses or filters have only turned up briefly on Amazon and eBay; they come from overseas and involve a seller about whom little is known. If you buy from Amazon, make sure the order is fulfilled by Amazon itself or an established dealer, not a third party you've never heard of.

There is one more check. Through safe eclipse glasses, you should see nothing but the sun, and possibly a few bright reflections of the sun, and the filaments of very bright electric lights. If you much of anything else, the filters aren't dark enough. This is not a complete test, but it was enough to detect the unsafe glasses that briefly appeared on Amazon.

How many people's eyes will be damaged by this eclipse?

Eclipses don't blind people by the thousands. In these modern times, injuries happen almost exclusively to people who are intoxicated by drugs or alcohol or are deliberately defying instructions.

My estimate? There will be less than 10 cases of severe, permanent eye damage across the entire United States. Most of the injuries will be temporary, though they may take months to heal.

I don't advise people to take risks — on the contrary, we're safe because we don't take risks. People know what not to do. This study is part of the grounds for my optimism.

We will see.

I'm 30 miles outside the path of totality. Should I travel?

YES, if possible, for two reasons.

(1) A 99% or 99.9% or even 99.99% eclipse isn't enough. You won't see the corona until the sun is at least 99.9999% covered.

(2) The corona is a spectacular sight, and pictures don't do justice to its size or the range of brightness in the delicate streamers.

All I've ever seen are pictures of the corona. On August 21 I hope to see the real thing.


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