Don't let the forces of darkness spoil the eclipse

Banning children from going outside is pre-Enlightenment claptrap, reminiscent of ancient civilisations who shouted at the “demons” which made the sun go dark

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The Independent Online

On Friday, the UK will witness the phenomenon known as syzygy, when all the high-scoring consonants in Scrabble align themselves into one word. OK, this is not exactly right, but it’s not as misleading as the panic that surrounds the solar eclipse. We are currently in the first phase of this madness, with hysteria beginning its slow transition across scientific fact. By Friday morning, all the fun and educational enjoyment of this awe-inspiring moment will be cast in the dark shadow of health and safety.

Various authorities are getting their hi-vis jackets in even more of a twist than they normally would because the solar eclipse is happening at rush hour. So a spokesman for the RAC has warned of “hazardous” driving conditions because motorists will not be expecting to turn on their lights. They have this advice: “Motorists must turn on headlights as light fades.” Look, in London the sun will be 84 per cent obscured, while in Edinburgh it’s 93 per cent.

In most of the UK, it will be like twilight or a really heavy thunderstorm – which would cause drivers to turn on their headlights anyway. We don’t need to be told this. The partial eclipse will take about two hours. Unless you’re stuck in a traffic jam on Norway’s Svalbard glacier, where there will be a total eclipse, it’s not going to suddenly go dark.

Then there are the schools like Oldway Primary School in Paignton, Devon, and Whitchurch Primary School, in Cardiff, which are banning children from going outside during the eclipse. As I discovered the other day, trying to explain this astronomical event to my four-year-old using a torch, a football and a globe (my demo was a bit shaky because the wind-up torch kept going dim), children are fascinated by it. There is no greater opportunity for a nationwide practical lesson in astronomy than this if we want to inspire youngsters to become scientists. Pupils could spend Thursday afternoon learning why they shouldn’t look directly at the sun during the eclipse, but how it is safe to do so indirectly.

They could have a lesson in which they make a pinhole camera. Or a science teacher could set up a handmade projector, using a mirror covered by a piece of paper with a hole in it, reflecting the sun on to a wall in the playground.

Simply banning children from going outside is pre-Enlightenment claptrap, reminiscent of ancient civilisations who shouted at the “demons” which made the sun go dark. It is only going to scare children.

Don’t just take my word for it, but that of Nasa, whose experts say that, despite the “good intentions” behind health and safety messages about upcoming eclipses, “they frequently contain misinformation, and may be designed to scare people from seeing the eclipse at all”. A paper from Nasa adds: “A student who heeds warnings from teachers and other authorities not to view the eclipse because of the danger to vision, and learns later that other students did see it safely, may feel cheated out of the experience.”

A solar eclipse in 2015 brings hazards not experienced since 1999,  the last time we had a significant eclipse, and that is, according to the doom-mongers, the risk of blindness by selfie. It is tempting to describe this warning as a cautionary tale along the lines of the Greek myths of Narcissus or Icarus. Even standing with your back to the sun, using your selfie-stick to record the moment, isn’t safe. But you wouldn’t hold your camera up to the sun, so isn’t that obvious?

Yet if there is anything more wretchedly pervasive about modern life than the selfie, it is our risk-averse obsession with health and safety. Don’t let it block out the sun.