Eat the Sun: an ophthalmologist’s review of a documentary on sun-gazing David Weinberg The Skeptic

“Eat the Sun” is, at long last, a movie that has the courage to ask serious questions. Questions like:

Can an old man imbibe solar energy through his eyeballs and therefore no longer need to eat?

Can a young man find inner peace and spiritual fulfillment by taking off his shoes and staring at the sun?

Will that same young man avoid permanent damage to his retinas?

Will he come to his senses and cease sun gazing when he learns the tragic answer to that previous question?

Can a documentary be so credulous that it barely gives screen time to people with actual expertise on questions of scientific fact?

Spoiler Alert: This review will reveal some dramatic moments and some not-so-surprising surprises from the film.

Eat the Sun” is a documentary exploring the practice of sun gazing. It is not a new movie, but I was previously unaware of its existence. I watched it on a whim after listening to a podcast review featuring Merseyside skeptic and editor of this magazine, Michael Marshall. Watch it if you dare, but don’t take eye-melting advice from a movie.

There are two central figures in the movie, surrounded by a fascinating cast of supporting characters. Mason is the protagonist, and as the movie begins, he has already embarked on his journey. He perceives that he has benefited greatly from his sun gazing and hopes to build his prowess to achieve a 44-minute session of continuous sun gazing. The movie follows Mason in his journey to better understand the principles and master the practice of sun gazing. Along the way we connect with numerous other sun gazing practitioners.

The rationale for the 44 minute benchmark is never explained, but comes from Mason’s inspiration, a charismatic sun gazing evangelist known as “HRM” (Hira Ratan Manek). HRM asserts numerous spiritual and health benefits, including the assertion that sun gazing allows one to derive energy directly from the sun, eliminating the need for eating altogether. He claims that he has gone extended periods of time (years) without eating. At the time of the filming he admitted to occasionally drinking coffee, tea, or buttermilk, but no “solid food.” Mason hopes to replicate HRM’s ability to survive without eating.

Much of the movie is Mason’s Odyssey to meet other sun gazers. We are introduced a variety of characters with various motivations, but a common bond of sun gazing. Among the cast of supporting sun gazers, some endorse and some reject the idea that sun gazing can replace food.

Eat the Sun: should you?

As a Professor of Ophthalmology I can assure you of this: the pre-eclipse public service announcements were right. Intentionally staring at the sun is a really bad idea!

Mason is working toward, but has not yet achieved, his goal of 44 minutes of sun gazing. After hearing from a fellow sun gazer who suffered retinal injury, Mason seeks an opinion from an ophthalmologist at the Jules Stein Eye Institute, (the Ophthalmology department the University of California, Los Angeles). He learns that he has self-inflicted retinal damage from sun gazing.

The eye is a biologic instrument capable of gathering and focusing light. The focusing elements (the cornea and lens) are near the front of the eye. The light is focused on the retina in the back. The retina functions like the sensor in a digital camera. The image on the retina is transduced to a signal that is transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain and interpreted as vision. But there can be too much of a good thing. Solar retinopathy is a form of photic retinopathy: injury from over-exposure to light.

When one stares at the sun, the energy is not uniformly distributed across the retina. The optical elements of the eye focus an upside-down image of the sun on a very tiny spot in the retina. The intensity of the light energy is sufficient that temporary or permanent damage can occur.

Because in sun gazing, the goal is to stare directly at the sun, the greatest damage occurs in the portion of the retina corresponding to the center of the visual world. Injury to this portion of the retina is particularly consequential because it manifests in the “straight ahead” vision, creating a blur, distortion, or blind-spot exactly where the viewer is directing attention.

In some cases the injury is transient, but in others – such as apparently with Mason – the damage can be permanent.

Eat the Sun: Can you?

Sun gazing as a sole source of nutrition is twice removed from reality; it is biochemically implausible, and it is thermodynamically impossible.

As humans, we utilise solar energy, but we capture it indirectly from plants. A plant photosynthesises and stores energy, we eat the plant. Or a plant photosynthesises and stores energy, and then an animal eats the plant, and then we eat the animal. As Mason muses, sun gazing is a process to “cut out the middle man… eat the sun.”

Unlike plants, humans lack the biochemical apparatus to convert electromagnetic radiation into fuel and structure. Sun gazing as a usable source of human energy is detached from metabolic reality.

It is also removed from reality in a thermodynamic sense. Even if HRM was able to exploit some undiscovered atavistic biochemical pathway and was able to assimilate the sunlight entering his eyes into fuel, the numbers do not add up.

I did a few calculations of the amount of energy that could be harvested during Mason’s sun gazing sessions. For the calculation I used the most charitable figures that would maximize the energy available to the sun gazer.

The maximum density of solar irradiance on the surface of the earth is about 1120W/m2 (Watts per square meter). This could only occur with cloudless skies on the equator at midday. Sun gazing sessions are favoured just after sunrise or just before sunset when solar energy reaching the earth’s surface is dramatically attenuated, so the 1120W/m2 is certainly an overestimate.

In this movie I watched multiple scenes of humans engaged in the unnatural and painful act of attempting to fixate on an excruciatingly bright nuclear fusion furnace in the sky. During that activity the pupils constrict… an adaptive response to limit the amount of light traversing the eye and reaching the retina. I estimate the pupil diameter during this activity was about 3mm (probably an overestimate), which converts to an area of 7mm2. At a power density of 1120W/m2, a 7mm2 aperture would transmit 0.008 Watts of energy from sunlight.

Watts are units of power (the rate of energy delivery). Joules are units of energy. One Watt of power delivers 1 Joule of energy every second. Staring at the sun for 44 minutes is an exposure of 2,640 seconds. At a power of 0.008 Watts for 2,640 seconds, the eye could absorb an energy of 21 Joules. Multiplied by two eyes, the total energy absorbed would be 42 Joules.

Nutritional energy is most-familiarly expressed in Calories, not Joules. When the term Calorie (traditionally with a capital “C”) is used as a unit of dietary energy, it actually refers to a kilocalorie. One dietary Calorie is a unit of energy equivalent to 4,184 Joules. The lower end of caloric needs for an adult male is roughly 2,000 Calories/day.

Converting from Joules, a 44-minute sun gazing session at maximum intensity through a pair of 3mm pupils would generate a whopping 0.01 Calories, less than 1% of the Caloric content of a single grape.

The above calculations assume 100% efficiency in conversion of solar energy to calories. No biologic process is 100% efficient. Even plants, who are masters at converting sunlight into useful metabolic energy, do so at an efficiency of only about 6%..

If HRM’s claims defy biology and thermodynamics, how does he remain healthy and well-nourished while only ingesting occasional, coffee, tea, and buttermilk? Apparently by having and incredibly promiscuous definitions of “coffee, tea, and buttermilk.” Toward the end of the movie, HRM is caught chowing down at an Indian buffet.

To be entirely accurate, the movie-makers do not actually see him eating. He is witnessed exiting a restaurant, and the employees at the restaurant enthusiastically recount witnessing HRM eating every selection from the buffet. The moment when HRM is confronted for this indulgence on-camera is worth the price of admission.

In the movie it is implied that we all possess the latent ability to perform this biochemical alchemy. If this ability to survive on solar energy was coded in our genes, it would confer such a survival advantage that it would almost certainly be universally expressed in our species, without the need to be primed through some self-destructive secret practice.

Aside from the pseudoscience and retinal carnage, how was the movie?

Mason is ultimately a sympathetic character. He seems truly earnest in his exploration of sun gazing as a means of self-improvement and in his wish to meet other sun gazers. When he learned that he had injured his retina he demonstrated a true sense of reckoning. He questioned his own decisions to participate in sun gazing and anxiety that he may have encouraged others to participate in a dangerous activity. He also had to come to terms with the knowledge that HRM had misrepresented his relationship with food. Mason vows to contemplate whether or not he will continue sun gazing.

At the end of the movie, however, he is shown to resume the practice, ultimately achieving his objective of 44 minutes of continuous sun gazing.

The frustrating thing about the movie is how little attention and screen time is given to real experts with relevant, science-based information about the dangers of sun gazing and the folly of believing it can be a source of nutrition.

Two voices of reason

There is an odd scene during which Mason tours a lab at the FDA. A PhD photobiologist shows him a light source that is used for research purposes, to simulate the output of the sun. She glibly delivers some of the most rational (and hilarious) lines in the movie. Mason asks her what she thinks about staring at the sun. Her reply “…not during the daylight hours.”

In the next cut she is seated and addressing the camera (Mason does not appear in the scene). She issues this pithy statement:

“…sun gazers claim that if you do that you won’t have to eat anymore…laughs….I don’t think this is going to be biochemically possible.”

She immediately pivots to a much longer PSA explaining the virtues of sunscreen and other measures to minimise skin damage from sunlight exposure.

The other expert who is allowed a moment to deliver a few useful tidbits is the doctor who informed Mason that he had damaged his retina. During a transitional scene she delivers a voiceover explaining that sun gazing risks damage to the retina. Ultimately, she delivers the bad news to Mason, explaining that the sun has injured his retina. In her parting shot, she looks at the camera and says “I don’t think it’s ever a safe time to look at the sun.”

Sadly, the brief but accurate cautions delivered by the photobiologist and ophthalmologist are rare connections with reality in a parade of testimonials and apologetics by true believers.

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“Eat the Sun” puts forward the notion that humans can survive without food, as long as we stare at the sun – unsurprisingly, this is terrible advice
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