The Sun’s Magnetic Show

galileo sunspot rotation

Do you recognize the name Galileo Galilei?

Galileo was the classical astronomer who made the drawing above. I have little idea what his writing actually says—it’s in Latin—but it’s clear enough what this early diagram is all about.

It’s a drawing of his observations of the sun.

And it’s proof, discovered way back in Galileo’s time but not accepted until much later, that the sun actually rotates.

How do we know that?

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Spots on the Sun

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Have you ever looked at the sun, and seen something like this?

Now, before you decide to look at it right now and see what you see, it’s my responsibility as an amateur astronomer to remind you of the safety risks. Focusing your eyes on the sun is dangerous—there’s a reason our eyes automatically flinch away.

How dangerous, you ask? Dangerous enough to burn and even scar your retinas, permanently damaging or even destroying your vision.

Yes, I’m serious.

Now, all this is not to turn you off solar observing entirely. There are safe—and cheap—ways to look at the sun, and see its spots.

But what exactly are sunspots?

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The Solar Neutrino

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Ever heard of a neutrino?

Well, I guess now you have. But what exactly is a neutrino?

Don’t worry, they’re not harmful. They’re passing through you this very second and you’ll never notice them, not in your whole life. They’ll never hurt you because they just don’t interact with matter—including you—in the way you’d expect.

I’ll bet now you’re wondering where they even come from.

Well, as the diagram illustrates, they come from the sun. They’re kind of a side-effect of the nuclear reaction that powers the sun, and they radiate out from the sun in droves. But that’s not even the coolest bit.

We know how many neutrinos should come from the sun if our theories about its power generation are right. So if we can count them, we can prove those theories correct.

That’s when we encounter a bit of a problem. We can’t actually detect neutrinos.

So how the heck do we count them?

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Energy Flow from the Sun’s Core

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Ask any climate scientist how we should power our world without fossil fuels, and they’re bound to tell you about wind and solar power.

You might be surprised to know that both of these come from the sun. Solar panels collect the sun’s energy directly, but we wouldn’t even have wind if not for the sun.

Why? Because in order to move, you need energy. And not just you. I’m talking about every speck of material on Planet Earth that shifts an inch. It’s because it has energy.

That energy can come from a lot of places. Earth is still a dynamic world with a hot interior, but it’s not hot enough to sustain all the life and other movement on its surface. A lot of our planet’s energy comes from the sun.

But here’s the big question. How the heck does it get here?

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Our Sun: Helioseismology

sun photosphere

We can’t see below the surface of the sun.

That makes sense, really. We can’t see below the surface of the Earth, either—we have to get creative if we want to find out what goes on below the crust.

In the sun’s case, we can’t see below its photosphere because the gases within are so dense, light can’t escape. And we depend on light to see anything.

So…if we can’t see inside the sun, how do we study it?

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