Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Solar Flair

Fun Fact! Did you know the sun is orbiting the Milky Way,
and completes the orbit every 226 million years? (Image: NASA)
Sun spots --Are they a good or bad thing? As a kid I thought they were evil, because oftentimes when our TV reception got bad, it was said that sun spots were to blame. During one summer they were particularly bad, and I remember watching in vain as the cowboys on my favorite syndicated reruns of High Chaparral were reduced to buzzing and floating ghost images.

Nowadays there is the worry that an active sun spot cycle, which is related to solar storms and flares, will disrupt our GPS systems, impair our cell phones, and erase our Ipods. But I read in the Atlantic today that the sun spots are the weakest they have been in nearly a century. Which would be reassuring, if it weren't for the fact that one well-known period of very low sunspot activity in the latter half of the 17th century, called the Maunder Minimum, was also marked by abnormally cold weather in northern Europe and is sometimes referred to as the Little Ice Age.

But here is some encouraging news about the sun: It probably won't explode for a very long time. We weren't always sure about that. Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke had thought the sun was about to blow, taking all of us with it. He thought this because the first neutrino-detectors, which measure the sub-atomic particles emitted from the inside of the sun, showed a lower neutrino count than scientists expected, suggesting that the sun was entering its dotage.

Scientists now tell us - Not to worry, the sun is in its "main sequence." It has burned at the same temperature for a billion years and is expected to keep burning at the same "rheostat" setting for a billion more. (Nobody touch that rheostat!). We can relax - the sun has used up only a small percentage of its energy potential. But eventually, it will run out of hydrogen, having converted it all to helium, and then ---kablooey!

We earth dwellers like to think of the sun as our own God-ordained heat lamp. We fancy that sustaining our carbon-based life forms is the reason the sun is allowed to burn at all. But actually, we get a miniscule portion of the sun's radiation. For every 1 unit of solar energy we get, the sun vents another 1.6 billion units out into space. 

The sun was on my mind a lot today, because it was the reason I was late getting back from my lunch break. Unusually strong for a January day in Kansas, it had been so warm and radiant on my face as I walked through a nearby park, I was sure it was a sin to waste it. I thought of the book, "Frederick," by Leo Lionni, and the way Frederick the mouse soaked up the sun and colors and stories for his fellow mice, while they hustled to gather seeds and nuts for winter. The hustling mice were cross with Frederick for not pitching in, but when the long winter lingered and the mice had eaten all their food, it was Frederick's stores that sustained them. I knew an arctic blast was coming --they're predicting a plunge starting tomorrow, so it seemed wise to soak up as much of the sun as I could. But I don't have a way to transfer it. I'll be saving it for myself, for I know that we each have to find our own way to keep warmth in the belly.


  1. It always tickles my fancy to look at images of the Milky Way and wonder how the decision is made to pick a point of reference either "above" or "below" our little spiral galaxy. (since there isn't an up or a down, I take a little license with my use of "above" or "below")

    My unscientific survey indicates that the preferred point of reference will portray an anti-clockwise spiral. I notice that yours (NASA's) is clockwise.

    I suppose I'm probably overthinking since, given the best of all outcomes, I will only be able to make it .00004% of the way around, regardless of the direction we're going.


  2. H.B., I'm glad to know which way the galaxy swings. Would hate to be thinking all this time that it runs clockwise only to find out--in the event of any astral travel --that it's the opposite.

    What kills me is - how can they tell in that big swirling dust ball where the sun is?