How to Look at the Sun

© copyright 2021 Alex Ramsay, Ryerson University

Over 4 billion years old and a million times larger than the Earth, our Sun has long since figured in our myths, our folklore and our histories. Yet, our fascination with the Earth’s greatest source of life is compounded by our inability to look upon it with our own eyes. Our collective image of this celestial body is culled from photographs and art, its true form unknown to the naked eye.


Even its light, washing over our cities and our forests, is experienced on a delay. This light – the arbiter of our workday and our waking hours – takes just over eight minutes to arrive at the Earth from the centre of our solar system. 

Lockyer, Norman. “Layers in solar atmosphere”. 1887. The Chemistry of the Sun. Internet Archive. Web. Feb. 7, 2021.

When we see the sun, we are limited by whatever apparatus with which we capture or construct its image. With Sir Norman Lockyer’s rendition found in The Chemistry of the Sun, it is rendered in sparse black and white, with layers of its atmosphere categorized alphabetically, ascending upwards.  Even here, with Lockyer’s limited tools at hand, he impresses our limited understanding and vocabulary upon the cosmic. As we find new ways of seeing, Locker’s diagram illustrates how, in order for us to better understand our surroundings, we condense them across two dimensional space. This act of condensing both happens within the scientific (as seen with Lockeyer’s work) and within the more traditionally artistic space.  Our common notions of the sun are founded upon these condensed images which render space and time in simple lines and colour. The juxtaposition of white (the sun) and black (space) finds our seeing of the sun limited to a duality of colour, one that removes the full spectrum of colours both visible and invisible to the naked eye. Yet, simultaneously this image acts as an informative diagram that furthers our understanding of the sun.


Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.