Why Friday's solar eclipse will be the stuff of legends

For many people around the world, a solar eclipse is as much a cultural event as it is an astronomical one. Here are some tips on viewing it safely.

Wilfredo Lee/AP
The annular solar eclipse is seen as the sun sets behind the Rocky Mountains from downtown Denver late on Sunday, May 20, 2012. The annular eclipse, in which the moon passes in front of the sun, was visible across Asia as well as the southwest part of the United States. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Whether you're concerned about proper eye protection or the existence of a sun-eating dragon, there's a lot to review before Friday’s full-supermoon-vernal-equinox-solar eclipse.

By both scientific and cultural standards, this will be a legendary moon. 

This is an eclipsing supermoon – a new or full moons closely coinciding with perigee – the moon’s closest point to Earth in its orbit during the equinox.

Equinoxes happen twice a year, around March 20 and Sept. 22, when day and night are of approximately equal duration.

Add to that "eclipse," which comes from the Greek word meaning "abandonment."

The origin of the word suggests that the sun abandons the Earth to a brief, uncommon night, which, according to many superstitions around the world, is full of terrors.

According to Chinese mythology, an eclipse occurs when a celestial dragon consumes the sun. In Hindu mythology, the sun and moon are eaten by the free-floating head of the demon Rahu (they subsequently fall out the bottom of the head, because Rahu lacks a neck). Korean mythology has cosmic dogs chasing down the sun and moon, and in Vietnam, it's a giant space frog. 

Not all eclipse myths involve creatures eating heavenly bodies. The Batammaliba people of Benin say that an eclipse occurs when the moon and sun are fighting, and that the only way to keep them from fighting is for humans on Earth to reconcile their differences. 

In literature and film, an eclipse can be a powerful plot device. In “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” the hero "foretells" the event, solidifying his standing as a powerful wizard.

Eclipses also serve as a premise for romance, dating back to The Eclipse: The Courtship of Sun and Moon (1907).  In the 1985 film "Ladyhawke," and other movies, the eclipse served as a curse-breaker that allows lovers to reunite.

To help you make your eclipse plans, be they romantic or otherwise, NASA has an interactive web page that allows users to click on their region and get a reading on whether or not they will experience the eclipse, when, and to what extent.

Even without voracious space animals, a real-life eclipse can still present danger if you don't protect your eyes.

Staring directly at the sun can cause blindness in less than one minute, although times for damage to occur vary according to each individual, says Michael Wan, pediatric ophthalmologist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Wan says in an interview that the combination of ultraviolet and infrared light energy coming from the sun – even when it is eclipsed – make even a few seconds of viewing with the naked eye too dangerous for children and adults.

“The only safe screening materials I would trust are welder’s glasses – number 14 or aluminized Mylar,” says Wan. “Honestly I wouldn’t trust anything else.”

Robert Goldberg of Eastside Optometric in Manhattan agrees with Wan.

“If you want a number for how long you can look at a solar eclipse the number is zero. I definitely wouldn’t trust any of those cardboard 3D-style filter glasses you bought on the Internet either,” Dr. Goldberg says.

To be perfectly safe, both Wan and Goldberg recommend those in the path of the eclipse join the rest of the world to watch the event via websites such as Slooh, which will be broadcasting the entire event live from the Faroe Islands, located in the northern Atlantic Ocean. This is one of the prime land-based viewing locations from which to see the moon slide in front of the sun.

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