How to Safely Watch the Total Solar Eclipse in the Bay Area

You’ve decided not to join a bazillion people clogging highways and small Oregon towns to watch the moon obscure the sun for about two and a half minutes.

What now? Miss out on this truly rare spectacle — subject yourself to an endless stream of Facebook photos from way cooler friends who actually jammed themselves somewhere beneath the “Path of Totality?” Or find an alternative?

Astronomer Gerald McKeegan of the Chabot Space & Science Center says there are plenty of gadgets that will make eclipse viewing in the Bay Area almost as cool — if you don’t mind settling for an “almost total” eclipse because the Bay Area will see about a 75 percent solar eclipse. For far, far less than grossly inflated hotel bills, you can experience the eclipse at home with as little as just a piece of paper.

“Take a piece of card stock and punch a hole in it,” McKeegan demonstrated, holding what looked like a regular postcard with a small nail hole in the middle. “Hold this over a piece of white paper.”

McKeegan said the wholly humble viewer will allow the eclipse to project through the hole and onto the paper — creating a mini eclipse you can enjoy anywhere under the sun. McKeegan also showed off a pair of popular paper eclipse glasses fetching $2.99 in the Chabot gift shop.

Outlets like Amazon have recalled some batches of eclipse glasses because they turned out to be fakes. McKeegan said the only protection for buyers is to get them from reputable outlets.

“They look like sunglasses,” McKeegan explained, “except when you look through them you won’t be able to see anything unless you’re looking at the sun.”

Another easy homemade gadget is to get No. 14 welder’s glass from a hardware store and mount it in a small frame, which makes for another safe eclipse viewer, according to McKeegan.

Next the astronomer demonstrated a small commercial Sun Spotter, a sort of deconstructed box with a mirror and a viewer that will project the eclipsed sun onto a piece of paper.

“During an eclipse,” McKeegan said, “it’s Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that there’s a lot of stuff going on out there in space.”

For budding astronomers interested in space, McKeegan said small telescopes can be modified with sun filters to make for safe viewing. You can also fork out for an actual solar telescope — made just for the occasion of looking at the sun.

With "a small telescope with a proper solar filter on it,” McKeegan said, ”you actually get as good or better (than) an image than you would with a big telescope.”

Chabot boasts some of the biggest and most advanced telescopes around. Yet McKeegan said the center’s large modern computer-operated telescope is unsuitable for looking at the eclipse since it would require a large solar filter for the job.

Instead, the center will employ its 134-year-old telescope for the eclipse viewing party the center is hosting next Monday. The event will begin around 9 a.m. and run until around 11:30 a.m.

However, there is a big caveat McKeegan noted, pointing up at the thick fog, which swallowed the center on a recent day.

“Unfortunately August is the foggiest month of the year for the Bay Area,” McKeegan said. “So if it’s foggy you’re going to be out of luck.”

McKeegan himself, isn’t leaving things to chance. He and members of the East Bay Astronomical Society will head to Mitchell, Oregon to watch the spectacle. They will double the small town's population of 130 people.

“This is the first time in my life I will be able to see a total eclipse,” McKeegan said. “For millions of people across the country, this will be their only time to see a total eclipse.”

So whether you go whole hog — or just partial hog — the eclipse, like the weather, will be something everyone is talking about.

And if nothing else, consider this: “Most people don’t deal with science that much,” McKeegan said. “But this is their chance to get a little science.”

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