For six seconds on the day of the eclipse, a woman looked at the sun without protecting her eyes. She tried again for 20 seconds, this time using eclipse glasses, but the damage was done. Four hours later, her vision was blurry, she could only see black — and her eyes have now provided the first glimpse of what happens on the cellular level when you look straight at the sun.
Almost 90 percent of American adults watched the eclipse this past August. The much-hyped event, branded the “Great American Eclipse,” had eclipse-chasers flocking to the sites in the US where the moon blocked the sun completely, or the so-called “path of totality.” By the time the 20-something woman in today’s case study — published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology — looked at the sun, it was already 70 percent covered by the moon. Three days later, she headed to the Mount Sinai’s New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, where doctors informed her that she had damaged her retinas by looking into a giant ball of glowing gas that emits radiation that burns your eyes.
Images of her eyes are the first time we’ve been able to see such detailed pictures, thanks to advances in optics. These showed that both eyes were affected, with the left eye especially having damaged photoreceptors and a lesion. Unfortunately, no treatment for eye damage from staring at the sun — technically called solar retinopathy — currently exists. In 1962, one man looked at the eclipse straight on; today, he can only use his right eye.
Still, the scientists hope these detailed images can lead to a deeper understanding of the condition and help develop potential treatments. In the meanwhile, they write, young people “need to be better informed” about the risks of viewing the sun without protection. Perhaps — but to be fair, people were warned.