I was investigated by the feds for taking a picture of the sun


A week ago, a rather strange event took place. No, I'm not talking about just the Transit of Mercury in front of the sun on May 9, but an odd result of it.

That morning I was staying at the Westin Waterfront in Boston. I like astrophotography, and have shot several transits. I am particularly proud of my gallery of the 2004 Transit of Venus which is unusual because I shot it in a hazy sunrise where it was a naked eye event, so I have photos of the sun with a lake and birds. Indeed, since the prior transit of Venus was in 1882, we may have been among the first alive to deliberately see it as a naked eye event.

I did not have my top lenses with me but I decided to photograph it anyway with my small size Sony 210mm zoom and a welding glass I brought along. I shot the transit, holding the welding glass over the lens, with all mounted on my super-light "3 legged thing" portable tripod. Not wanting to leave the lens pointed at the sun when I removed the glass, I pulled the drape shut, looked at photos and then tilted the camera away. I went off to my meetings in Boston.

At 10am I got a frantic call from the organizer of the Exponential Manufacturing conference I would be speaking at the next day. "You need to talk to the FBI!" he declared. Did they want my advice on privacy and security? "No," he said, "They saw you taking photos of the federal building with a tripod from your hotel window and want to talk to you." (Note: It probably wasn't the FBI, that was just a first impression. The detectives would not name who had reported it.)

Of course, I had no idea there was any federal building out the window and I did not take any photos of the buildings. In fact, I'm not quite sure what the federal facility is, though I presume it's at the Barnes Building at 495 Summer St. -- they never told me. Anybody know what's there? Google maps shows a credit union and a military recruiting office, and there was suggestion of a Navy facility. Amusingly the web page for the recruiting center features a (small) photo of the building.

Nothing to justify them having a surveillance crew constantly looking into the hotel rooms of guests and going nuts when they see a camera on a mini-tripod.

I talked to hotel security. Turns out they had gone into my room! Sadly, though police can't enter your room without a warrant, hotel staff usually can. Two Boston detectives were put on the case. After talking to hotel security, I thought it was over, but no, the next day after my talk, I had the detectives waiting for me in the hotel.

First of all, I was concerned the hotel had given them my name. The hotel insisted the Boston innkeeper statutes require they do this. In reality, such statutes were found facially unconstitutional last year by the Supreme Court in City of Los Angeles v. Patel. In a facial challenge, the law is declared inherently invalid regardless of the specific facts of a case. The Boston police don't believe this ruling applies to their law yet. So now my name is in police records over photographing the sun. Yes, when they met me, they realized I was just an astro-nerd and not a terrorist casing out the sun for an attack. (General conclusion, it's too bright, so do it at night.)

To scare me, and to justify their actions, they said the unnamed complainers (probably not FBI) had been "unsure if it was just a camera" (ie. pretending it might be a gun) even though it looks nothing like it. And when I closed the drape -- they were watching me live -- they imagined it was because I had seen them and was hiding.

Mostly I laugh but the other part of me asks, "what the hell has gone wrong with this country?" Feds peering into our hotel rooms? Being afraid of a cheap lens (on an expensive camera, admittedly) on an ultralight tripod? Getting a police record for taking a photo out your hotel window, not even of the nondescript building that I would have no idea is a federal building? Having to demonstrate to not one, but two detectives that you're just a harmless nerd? Not good. (They did Google me but did not clue in that I was on the board of the organization suing the NSA and other intelligence groups over the illegal mass wiretapping going on.)

Above you will find my evil picture of the sun -- not that bad for a $150 lens, actually -- and a picture of my room when I returned to it, with the camera pointing up and into the room. Yes, I took a picture of the buildings after all this, though I did not take one in the morning. That's Mercury in the lower left corner of the solar disk. The dark area in the middle is a sunspot, another good location for an attack.

Welcome to the new America. And of course I need to add "don't search my room or give my name to police without contacting me" to my list of things a good hotel should do.

(BTW, I see many duplicate comments pointing to the story of the Economics professor pulled from a plane for doing some diffEQs on paper in the plane seat on his way to a conference. I think the whole nerd world saw that story already.)


Reminds me of this story where a nerdy guy is assumed a terrorist.


Ironically if they had found assault rifles in your room, well, that's just America.

AFAICT there is no downside for the informer on this one. Does the FBI ever ridicule their ignorance, or shame them for wasting everyone's time? Until there's some disincentive, self-appointed good citizens will call the FBI over stuff like this--better safe than sorry.

I am particularly proud of my gallery of the 2004 Transit of Venus which is unusual because I shot it in a hazy sunset where it was a naked eye event

Actually, it was sunrise. Surely you remember getting up before dawn for it.

For the transit of Mercury, it was foggy here in the morning, and I was hoping it would gradually clear so we could get a naked eye view (with binoculars), but sadly it stayed overcast until it was over and then cleared. I was thinking of our morning expedition in 2004.

Feds peering into our hotel rooms?

There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation. - Pierre Eliot Trudeau

I am sure nothing goes on in hotel rooms that we wouldn't want to share with the Feds.

Yes, I certainly know when it was but my brain typed the wrong word.

When I watched the Venus transit in 2004 it was early afternoon, and someone in Far East could have been watching it during sunset...

The reason viewing a transit of Venus naked eye is a rare thing is that truly serious transit observers, who did it to try to make scientific measurements in the prior centuries, would be strongly interested in observing the whole thing from 1st to 4th contact. They took long expeditions to do so. To observe a partial transit requires you be an amateur. To see this, you need some luck -- clear skies but enough haze to make the sun safe to look at. We had that in Ontario in 2004.

I'm sure that prior to 2004 there were many who observed a naked eye transit by accident, but most would not have known what it was or been looking for it. Amateur astronomy as a hobby was much rarer in the 16th-19th centuries, though of course it existed and those who could not travel may well have seen it naked eye.

Most of the pictures I have seen of the transit in naked eye haze are from the east of North America, but perhaps there are others from east Asia. There are some theories suggesting that the Maya recorded seeing a transit naked eye, but may not have known what it was.

It would be likely and appropriate if an Australian were to have been the first to see it naked eye. Captain Cook's trip to Tahiti was an expedition to observe and time a transit of Venus in 1769. From there, Cook was ordered to hunt for a new continent -- and he made the European first visit to the great unknown southern land, as he called it.

The people with the very first chance to see the 2004 transit naked eye would have been those on the very NW tip of the New Zealand North Island, folks in a path in Africa from central South Africa up to a tiny corner of Portugal, and then potentially some folks in northern BC, the Alaskan panhandle and the NWT. Maybe the tip of Kaui`i.

Evidently the War on Nerds has begun.


Well, clearly the economics professor was a member of the Al-Gebra network and was carrying elements of math instruction. His partially derivative works were clear proofs of him synthesizing dangerous contrapositive analytics.

No doubt these were quite foreign to someone not familiar with basic math...

Should we switch to roman numerals, much like the "freedom fry" debacle?

It is a good thing you are (I presume) not in the habit of doing Math problems (differential equations) and leaving the paperwork around the room. That would have made for a double whammy. We would all be wondering like whatever happened to that Brad Templeton guy?


They seem to be ignorant as well as paranoid. Most newspapers and TV news reported on the transit.

I thought it was places like North Korea where tourists had to be careful not to photograph buildings lest they be military installations. There is an installation near my home that has signs forbidding photography, however. My wife has made me promise not to stop, pull out a pad, and conspicuously sketch the no cameras signs. It's a routine circle with slash sign, icon of a 35mm camera. One wonders about the enforcement of such a policy against dashcams, of course.

It's also the second location in Ottawa I'm aware of with no stopping signs either side of a stop sign.

Given their history of hysterical over reaction, well...I just wouldn't go there.

Hi Brad,

One of our astronomy profs at UW, for whom I observed and researched, studied stellar-interior fusion processes circa 1980. He was following a citation of an American publication in a (wait for it) Russian journal at the Library of Congress, and could not find the article, so he inquired. He was told to wait, and after half an hour two unidentified "men in black" approached him and demanded to know why he wanted an unpublished article with national defense classification.

He explained that he was an astronomy professor and that this was his field of research. When they kept pressing him he showed them the quoted and cited material in the Russian journal.

They "...had to let him go..." Nothing has really changed.


Officially, it's a MEPS building, not a recruitment office.
MEPS centers are where military recruits go after being recruited but before being accepted into the military. They perform a variety of medical exams and finally swear you in to the military in these buildings. The MEPS center I went to when enlisting was heavily fenced/surveilled and had armed guards and metal/hazmat detectors in the foyer. Curious to me that there would be this level of surveillance of surrounding buildings just for MEPS, but possible I guess.

I went to Washington DC on vacation in 2004. Took the excellent night tour to see all of the monuments and buildings lit up. When we got to the capital, I took my very small tripod out because I was shooting photos with available light and needed longer exposures than usual. I was stopped by the Capitol Police, who said that they do not allow ANY tripods at the capitol as they could be mistaken for missile launchers.

I own and operate a 10 inch SCT telescope in public places, as I do astronomy outreach. My telescope ahs been mistaken for a TV camera, a spotlight, etc.

I need to make a big sign that says TELESCOPE.

In Boston. I wonder if my 120mm refractor is scarier, with the big long tube. Perhaps it matches the public image of a telescope

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