As people prepare to gaze at the sky to catch a view of the total solar eclipse, professionals are urging them to use caution.

A total solar eclipse is coming on Aug. 21, but looking directly at the sun is unsafe -- period.

"There's nothing special about the light that comes through during an eclipse. If you went out right now and looked at the sun, you could damage your eyes by looking at it directly," said Dr. Donald K. Walter, a physics professor at South Carolina State University.

"The sunlight is just so intense that it can burn your retina and you may not even notice that immediately. From what I've read, it's sometimes not until the next morning that people come up with eclipse blindness from where they've damaged their retina from looking at the sun," Walter said.

Dr. Michael McMullen, an ophthalmologist with the Orangeburg Eye Center, said, “Looking at the sun during an eclipse even for a short amount of time can cause permanent eye damage, so there are some steps people need to take to view it safely.”

A total solar eclipse will occur from coast to coast across a portion of the United States on Aug. 21, when the moon will cast a shadow on Earth and fully or partially block the sun's light in some areas.

Orangeburg County will be in the direct path of the total solar elipse. At 2:43 p.m. on that day -- weather permitting -- the skies across Orangeburg County and nearby communities will grow darker than normal for about two minutes and 20 seconds, Walter said.

Safe viewing methods

Direct viewing and projection viewing are two general methods through which astronomy enthusiasts and others are able to safely enjoy the eclipse.

Specially made solar glasses or a number 14 or darker welder's glass are among the safest methods for direct viewing.

"You've gotta use these as the eclipse approaches," Walter said, noting that using dark sunglasses, CDs or DVDs will not work.

"Regular sunglasses won't do it. Even if you stack sunglasses on top of sunglasses, it won't do," he said, noting that looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the brief total phase of the solar eclipse, or totality, when the moon entirely blocks the sun’s brightness.

"If you don't take your glasses off, you won't see anything because the light is blocked out so much. The sun is completely blocked by the moon and there's only a little halo around it called the corona. It's a very beautiful and interesting sight," Walter said.

"That'll last about a little more than two minutes and 20 seconds and then it'll start to get bright again. You'll then immediately put your glasses back on," he said.

McMullen said, “Solar eclipse glasses can allow you to safety view the eclipse, but they have to meet the international standards and the standard is called ISO 12312-2. People can go to the American Academy of Ophthalmology website for an article about how to view the solar eclipse safely.

“If people want to look at sources where they can purchase glasses, the American Astronomical Society has a page that lists different producers of eyewear that meet the safety standard.”

Sunglasses not safe

Like Walter, McMullen said regular sunglasses are never appropriate for eclipse viewing. He said people should not put themselves at risk for solar retinopathy.

“You see that same problem in countries that practice sun gazing as part of their religion. It’s where you lose the very center of your vision, so just using the approved glasses are really the only way to safely view the eclipse,” the eye doctor said.

Projection, or indirect, viewing can be done in a number of ways, including taking an index card and punching a fine needle point into it.

"You hold that index card between the sun and another sheet of paper or the ground, and the image of the sun will appear on that other sheet of paper or the ground. You're not seeing the direct sun. It's going to be a little image, but you can see the sun as a crescent depending on where it is during the eclipse," Walter said.

"Another projection method that I think is kind of neat is you can take a Ritz cracker with its little pinhole projection instead of punching holes with a needle. The holes from the cracker which is projected down onto a piece of paper will work," he said.

Crossing the outstretched, slightly open fingers of one hand over the outstretched, slightly open fingers of the other is yet another safe projection method, the professor said.

"The little gaps between your hands will project down onto the ground, onto the side of a buidling or a sheet of paper. The neatest thing of all is if you stand under a broad leaf tree such as an oak or maple. The leaves filter the sunlight where they cross each other and create little pinholes. You see dozens or hundreds of little suns projected onto the ground under that tree," Walter said.

Cameras, binoculars, telescopes

He stressed that individuals should use a camera, telescope, binoculars or other optical device to view the eclipse ONLY with a special solar filter on its front.

"Those shouldn't be used unless they have filters at the front end, where the light's coming in. There are only a few manufacturers you can buy these from, but it's the same kind of material that the solar glasses are made of," Walter said.

"So people should not think that they can put on their solar glasses and then pick up a pair of binoculars and point them up at the sun. What the binocular does is collect a lot more light than your eye does. It concentrates that light in the eye pieces that you look through and that will … the person," he said.

Walter also said people who want to take a picture or video of the sun with their cell phone can simply take their special solar glasses and put the solar filter over the front of their cell phone camera's lense because "that's just like putting a solar filter on the front end of the binoculars or a telescope."

Walter said the total eclipse will prove to be a once-in-a-life time event for many.

"It's amazing event. It's like no event that any of us have ever seen before. People are traveling from all over the country to see it," he said.

McMullen said, “It’s neat. I’m excited that it’s here except I’m operating on that day. So I may have time to step out and take a look at it if they’ll let me.”

Contact the writer: dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD

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