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Solar eclipse myths and rumors bubble up, from radiation to food poisoning

People visit a NASA information booth to grab solar eclipse glasses in Russellville, Arkansas. The space agency has debunked a number of myths about the total solar eclipse — including ideas about food going bad, or unborn babies being harmed.
Mario Tama
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People visit a NASA information booth to grab solar eclipse glasses in Russellville, Arkansas. The space agency has debunked a number of myths about the total solar eclipse — including ideas about food going bad, or unborn babies being harmed.

Will a solar eclipse harm a pregnant woman's baby if she looks at it? Does an eclipse emit special radiation that can instantly blind you?

Those are some of the ideas people have been asking about — and that experts have been pooh-poohing — as people in North America anticipated seeing a total eclipse, from Mazatlán to Montreal.

Monday's total solar eclipse begins over Mexico's Pacific Coast at around 11:07 a.m. PT, moving east through Texas and up to Maine, finally leaving the continent on Newfoundland's Atlantic coast.

Solar eclipses have long triggered fanciful explanations and warnings, from religious mythology to modern-day superstition. In recent days, for instance, a message circulated online warning people to turn off their cellphones and other devices before midnight ahead of the eclipse, warning of powerful radiation and cosmic rays.

In reality, a solar eclipse brings a temporary sharp drop in solar radiation — an event that ham radio operators have been eagerly anticipating for months, with competitions and experiments looking to fill the Earth's suddenly radiation-free ionosphere with radio signals.

Persistent but unfounded beliefs even prompted NASA to devote a special page to debunking misconceptions about a solar eclipse.

Total eclipses don't produce rays that cause blindness, NASA says

During totality, electromagnetic radiation from the sun's corona will not harm you. In fact, the only time it's safe to look at the sun without eye protection, as the sun's brightness is fully obscured by the moon and its corona is visible.

But outside of totality, your eyes can be harmed during an eclipse. If the sun is only partially obscured, looking at it will damage your retina. You can look if you have special solar glasses, but don't count on those to protect you if you want to use a telescope or camera lens that doesn't have a solar filter.

As NASA says, "the concentrated solar rays will burn through the filter and cause serious eye injury."

Another thing to remember: Take breaks if you're using a special filter to look at the sun before or after totality. As the space agency says, the sun's infrared radiation can make you uncomfortable, "as it literally warms the eye."

You should look away from the sun periodically, or use an indirect viewer like a pinhole projector to track the eclipse.​

More things NASA says are NOT true about a total solar eclipse

MYTH: If you are pregnant you should not watch an eclipse because it can harm your baby.

Another notion that seems to be rooted in concern about radiation. To put people's mind at ease, NASA employs a sort of "you're already soaking in it" example, citing the neutrino particles produced by the sun's nuclear fusion:

"Every second, your body is pelted by trillions of these neutrinos no matter if the sun is above or below the horizon. The only consequence is that every few minutes a few atoms in your body are transmuted into a different isotope by absorbing a neutrino. This is an entirely harmless effect and would not harm you, or if you are pregnant, the developing fetus."

MYTH: Eclipses will poison any food that is prepared during the event.

NASA gives a hypothetical: What if some bad potato salad makes people sick during an eclipse? Food poisoning is very common — and it shouldn't be blamed on a rare celestial event, the agency notes.

"The basic idea is that total solar eclipses are terrifying and their ghostly green coronae look frightening, so it is natural to want to make up fearful stories about them and look for coincidences among events around you."

Other myths have to do with omens and major events

Here are four that NASA singles out for debunking:

MYTH: Eclipses are harbingers of something very bad about to happen.

MYTH: Solar Eclipses foretell major life changes and events about to happen.

MYTH: Solar eclipses are a sign of an exceptional celestial event taking place in time and space.

MYTH: Solar eclipses six months after your birthday, or on your birthday, are a sign of impending bad health.

NASA ascribes many of these ideas to astrological forecasts being propped up by confirmation bias.

As the agency says, "We tend to remember all the occasions when two things happened together, but forget all of the other times when they did not."

Other myths — such as the idea that the moon turns black during an eclipse, or that the Earth's two poles don't see eclipses — are simply false, the agency says.

Eclipses have deep spiritual meanings

Ideas about an eclipse's potentially powerful effects aren't new. In fact, solar eclipses do also cause some unusual things to happen.

People in totality can expect to feel a sudden drop in temperature, for instance. Stars and planets become visible in the middle of the day, and humans can experience a range of odd visual effects — from the sharpness of shadows to the movement of "shadow bands" and a change in how we perceive color.

Then there's the eerie effect of the eclipse moving from west to east, adding to the perception that time isn't moving in its normal path.

Many cultures and religions link eclipses to energy, seeing them as events of renewal and promise — or in some cases, of vital energy being drained away.

For the Ojibwe and other Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region, a story about a solar eclipse centers on a boy and his sister who trap the sun after it burns him.

In many folktales, magical animals try to eat the sun or the moon. In Hindu mythology, a serpent god, Rahu Ketu, wanted to eat the sun — but then his head was cut off. That created two new entities, Rahu and Ketu, according to the Folklife Today blog from the Library of Congress.

"These are the deities of eclipses and comets. Rahu is fixated on eating the sun and the moon, and will try to catch them and gobble them up," the blog notes. "Fortunately he only succeeds once in a while. Since his head was cut off, the sun or moon just falls out the hole where his neck used to be. This is an eclipse."

As Folklife Today notes, in many cultures, humans take up the duty of ending an eclipse, often by making noise and beating on drums or gongs to dispel the spirit that's attempting to take the sun.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Bill Chappell
Bill Chappell is a correspondent and editor, and a leader on NPR's flagship digital news team. He has frequently contributed to NPR's audio and social media platforms, including hosting dozens of live shows online.