[Collected via e-mail, September 2004]
Is it true or false that a person can see stars in the sky during the daytime through a tall chimney, or from the bottom of a well?
[Collected via e-mail, January 2005]
My mother read a book written a few years ago, set in the American Civil War, in which an anecdote was put forth in passing that states "if a person stands in the bottom of a well during daylight hours and looks up he or she will see the stars." Is this true?
Origins: There is a persistent belief that the stars in the heavens (which are masked from sight during the day by the light provided by the sun) are easily viewable when regarded from the base of a very tall chimney or from the depths of a deep well or mine shaft. According to lore, such a strictly narrowed field of vision would serve to diminish the brightness of the daytime sky, making the ordinarily invisible stars starkly apparent.
The belief is an old one. Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE) mentioned it in passing in one of his essays, and
Ancient or not, the belief doesn't work in practice. As
So, being at the bottom of a well won't turn the visible daytime sky into a canopy of darkness against which stars will stand out. But will it at least make
Experiments performed in 1946 showed that the dimmest star conceivably visible to the human eye in ordinary open daylight would have to be five times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in our skies (save for the sun itself). In non-open daylight (that is, from a location that severely restricted the observer's field of vision, such as the bottom of a deep well, a long chimney, or a mine shaft), Sirius itself is potentially visible during daytime; however, even for the very, very sharp-eyed, Sirius wouldn't stand out the way typical stars do against the dark backdrop of the night sky. Moreover, Sirius would have to be directly above the viewer's tiny opening, something those in the know have calculated as wildly improbable. (On a typical moonless night, approximately 10,000 stars are visible to the naked eye. Yet, even if your very deep mine shaft had a big opening, you would likely see only 10 to
The belief about stars being visible during the day when one gazes at the heavens from deep wells or mine shafts is somewhat fueled by what people perceive about telescopes: that stars one can't see (or can't see well) with the naked eye become easily viewable when gazed at through its long, dark tube. Sadly, that belief credits the instrument's tube for the magic actually performed by its lenses.
Barbara "through a lens, darkly" Mikkelson
Last updated: 21 May 2007
Ackermann, A.S.E. Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected. London: Old Westminster Press, 1923 (pp. 385-387). Plait, Philip. Bad Astronomy. New York, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002. ISBN 0-471-40976-6 (pp. 103-110).