Constable: How shady eclipse sunglass sellers could burn you
Apparently people savvy enough to know all about the risk of going blind by staring at the sun are still gullible enough to buy counterfeit, worthless glasses from shady online vendors. So much so that groups such as NASA, Chicago's Adler Planetarium and the American Astronomical Society are warning people to buy glasses only from reputable outlets.
"This scam can hurt you physically," warns Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau serving Chicago and northern Illinois, who notes that scammers are as inevitable "as the sun coming up."
My $1.92 "The Eclipser" cardboard glasses, which have the Aug. 21, 2017, date printed on them so I don't forget, also have a label assuring me that it conforms to the "Transmission Requirements of ISO 12312-2," which deals with "Filters for the Direct Observation of the Sun." ISO stands for the International Organization for Standardization, which is based in Geneva, Switzerland, and has been verifying guidelines for all sorts of products since 1946. Because an acronym is different depending on the language, the group goes by ISO, which is short for "isos," the Greek word for "equal." The organization sets the standard for glasses that filter out the ultraviolet and infrared rays that can harm your eyes. So I'm safe. Or am I?
"We see that number being printed on fake glasses," says Rick Fienberg, the press officer for American Astronomical Society, who points to some online vendors. "They are selling beads and flamingos and solar eclipse glasses. It doesn't inspire confidence."
A former editor of Sky & Telescope magazine, Fienberg is a physicist with a doctoral degree in astronomy from Harvard University, so he knows how to separate real glasses from fake glasses. If you buy eclipse glasses from a chain store, you're probably fine, he said. The astronomical society's list of reputable dealers can be found at eclipse.aas.org.
Solar eclipses have a history of duping gullible folks. In Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court," the time-traveling hero is about to be burned at the stake when he uses his eclipse knowledge in a promise to darken the sun forever unless he is freed. As the moon blots out the sunlight, the medieval mob panics, agrees to all the Yankee's demands, and cheers as he (in their simple minds) allows the sunlight to return.
The glut of attention given to the solar eclipse makes me wonder if we aren't overdoing it a bit, building up expectations that the sun and moon can't deliver. Back in 1994, the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 got a lot of media attention as it broke apart and slammed into the surface of Jupiter. It was a big deal among astronomers, but for those of us who saw it on the television news, it was far, far less dramatic than that "Star Wars" footage of Princess Leia's home planet of Alderaan getting blown to smithereens by Darth Vader's Death Star.
"For things that are visible for people without telescopes, this is numero uno," Fienberg says of the Aug. 21 eclipse. "If you go into Southern Illinois, you will be not be disappointed."
But he and his astronomy buddies aren't even giving Southern Illinois a chance. They will watch the eclipse from Madras, a small town in the Oregon high desert that consistently offers clear skies throughout August. The eclipse lasts only about 2 minutes and 40 seconds, so a passing thunderstorms or dark cloud could ruin any views in Illinois. I discover this Monday, as I stare at the sun for a minute or so just to make sure my glasses are legit. The sun appears as a soft little ball of light, but when clouds pass over, my glasses go so dark that I can't see a thing.
"If you stay in Chicago," Feinberg warns, "you might wonder what all the fuss is about."
Even so, people in the suburbs should get safe glasses and check it out, says Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, who is giving an eclipse talk at 1 p.m. Tuesday at McHenry County College and 6:30 p.m. at the Huntley Park District Cosman Theater. The live feed available at eclipse2017.nasa.gov probably will be better than anything you can see in the suburbs, but don't let that stop you from getting the right glasses and looking at the eclipse.
"We're going to be at the mercy of the weather no matter where we are," Nichols says. "But seeing it with your own eyes is something we encourage people to do. We encourage people to look up."