The Pinhole Camera of the Mind


Here's the best way to see an eclipse. Pull off to the side of the road in Oakland and turn your back to the sun. Find a flat surface that is facing our star, perhaps an old VW van with one of those old yellow-on-blue California license plates. Ball up your first and hold it up to the sun, open your hand just enough to let a tiny stream of photons through your fingers. Look at the van: that's the moon passing in front of the sun. Your hand has become a pinhole camera, an astronomical technology.

Make another camera out of a piece of paper, just for fun. Watch the leaves of the trees to understand what's going on in space.

As you stand there, let your enthusiasm spill over to the people walking by in the streets. Explain to two impatient and incredulous kids what you're doing. Watch them get it. Then, a grandfather may come walking down the street with a tiny little girl in a stroller. When he looks askance at these two random people standing in the street with their fists to the sun staring at the back of a van, get out the explanation quickly, so he has time to look at the shadows.

Looking again, he says, "That's deep."

Of course, we didn't mean to watch the peak of the eclipse like that on the side of the road. We tried to do it all proper with the special glasses. We even made it halfway up the Berkeley hills to the Lawrence Hall of Science, where there was a viewing party. But the traffic was so bad, we thought we might miss the celestial main event and we retreated.

Tell you what, though, I can't imagine that people in the hall of science had a better time than my wife and I did on a corner of the flatlands, making it up as we went along. There was such joy in figuring out what to do and in learning that we didn't need anything manufactured for the occasion. All that was required was learning how to see the right way.


Jump to comments
Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Technology

Just In