Staring at the Sun (With a Telescope)

Thoughts on clearly viewing our star for the first time

This is what the sun looks like through a solar telescope. (The Aspen Institute)

What happened the last time you stared at the sun?

We've all done it, by accident or as a dare, mainly as children and as a test of how long it's possible to do without it hurting. The answer, of course, is it's not possible for very long, not very long at all. And not without seeing spots afterwards.

In Aspen, elevation 7,908 feet, the air is so thin people coming from sea level can suffer brief bouts of altitude sickness or nosebleeds. "Oh my goodness it is so beautiful here and why does my head feel like that and how can I make it stop" is a not uncommon first impression of the place. If you take the Silver Queen Gondola from downtown Aspen to the summit of Aspen Mountain (elevation 11,212 feet), you can practically feel the water being pulled out of your lungs by the atmosphere as you breathe at the top and take in the sight of the majestic Elk Range of the Rocky Mountains.

People get used to the elevation. But there's nothing like being that much closer to the sky to remind us of how very terrestrial we are. At the same time, the elevation and the clear air demand that attention be paid to the cosmos above, so much more visible and magnificent in an environment without light pollution. Is it one of the unacknowledged deprivations of modernity that so many of us live without daily access to the sight of the stars, the pleasure and sense of perspective they provide? When you see them again after a long absence, it feels like it.

The pull of the sky and the pull back to earth are some of the themes that have been at play in seminars at the Aspen Ideas Festival this week on the "Space and the Cosmos" conference track, ably documented here by my colleague Megan Garber. But it's not all lectures. There's a small planetarium hosting films about the universe. There was an evening stargazing event atop Aspen Mountain Friday. And for two days last week, a small team of people from the local Colorado Three Rivers Astronomy Club set up shop near a meadow on the campus where the Aspen Institute is located, giving passersby a chance to stare directly at the sun.

These "Solar Scope Viewing Parties" provided a couple of ways to do it. The first was through a pair of "solar viewing glasses" manufactured and distributed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and the nonprofit Charlie Bates Solar Astronomy Project. They're like sunglasses, except they block out everything except the sun, allowing you to stare directly at the yellow orb without pain or ill aftereffects.

The Aspen Institute

The second way was through a pair of solar telescopes, which made it possible to see the roiling, crackling surface of the sun itself. It looks like it's boiling, bubbling to the surface and being pulled back below at the same time. Which is sort of what is happening, as solar wind and solar gravity and solar magnetic fields exert forces in contrary directions. With one filter you can see sun spots, with another, filaments and solar flares, all at an eight-minute delay from what's happening. (That's how long it takes for the light to get here.)

A couple of observations. First, at least while I was watching, everything looked rather static; not for me the roiling movements one often sees in animations about solar flares in movies. Second: Staring at the sun is not the same as looking at the stars, planets, or the moon. You don't feel Saturn when you see its striated rings through a telescope. You don't feel the moon when you twist knobs to place its craggy surface in sharp focus in the cool of the evening. But in Aspen, I could feel the heat of the sun on my arms and head as I gazed at it. What I was seeing and what I was feeling were all part of the same thing. I was staring at the force that governed the deer I met in that Aspen meadow at 7 a.m. on Friday, calling them to graze. The force that bends the delicate Colorado flowers toward it and permits their rise. The force that has been worshipped as a deity in many religions. The power behind nearly everything that lives, too blinding to see directly in daily life. Letting my thoughts wander in such fashion, I marveled at the relationship between the small red circle on which I'd trained one eye and the great powers behind everything that is.

And then I remembered there was a line of people behind me, waiting to take their spots in the telescope's viewing chair. And so I got up and went on with my day.