This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

9Feb/11

What does it take to see the entire Sun?

Well, after thousands of years of speculating, dreaming, and fearing that giant yellow blob in the sky, we are finally able to visualize the sun in its entirety.

Certainly, our knowledge of the sun has grown exponentially over the past century or so, moving from a celestial object of the gods to the giant burning atom smasher that we know and love today.  However, this marks a new step towards being able to use the activity of the sun to make all kinds of predictions about our galaxy.

Of importance for this video is the ability to predict aberrant electromagnetic activity that occurs as a result of the sun's shifting surface.  Generally called "solar flares", these  giant leaping arcs of energy and power have been known to disrupt GPS signals, communication, and other kinds of electronics that rely on wireless fields.

These flares do not completely come out of the blue, we can often anticipate one by looking at activity on the sun's surface.  However, until now, we'd only been able to look at a fraction of the total surface of the sun, meaning that activity on the "dark side of the sun" (kind of a misnomer, I know) was unknown.

Now, by having two circling satellites at opposite ends of our friendly fireball, we can see what's going on all the time, allowing us to more accurately predict solar activity.  Check out the video for more details and pretty pictures!

via NASA

ps, for those who might have noticed a less-frequent number of posts lately, I've been running all over the place getting interviews finished...I promise to take up more slack once things settle down!

21Dec/10

Sunspots!

I just finished reading Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot, and doing so has inspired the astrologist in me to start appreciating the vast and unknown universe that makes up 99.99999% of existence.

Lucky for me, there are plenty of amazing people who devote their entire lives to this cause, such as the folks at the Swedish Solar Telescope.  Located in La Palma, Spain, the telescope recently released a stunning high-res image of one of our sun's most interesting phenomena - sun spots.

Seen above as the dark core that is surrounded by the red hot exterior of the sun, one might think that these are actual "holes" in the sun's exterior.  Actually, they're made up of the same gas that exists everywhere else in the sun, so why do they look so different?  The answer is magnetism.

As They Might Be Giants so righteously declared, "The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas."  It exists as an unbelievably hot ball of fusion in which hydrogen and helium (among other things) are being heated and dispersed at an incredible rate.  This process occurs primarily at the Sun's core, and as these gases make their way outwards towards the surface, it creates a turbulent and chaotic environment in which gases are constantly heating and cooling and moving every which way.

So, where is magnetism in all this?  Well, scientists aren't really sure, but the thought is that as the turbulent sea of gas at the sun's surface moves around, it does so in such a way that creates an incredibly powerful magnetic field.  This creates pockets of magnetic pressure that allows the gas contained within that pocket to cool down, resulting in the dark holes that we know as "sun spots."  (as an aside, by cool, I mean, not quite as earth-shatteringly hot...it's still around 4000K!)

While sun spots themselves do not affect the earth, the magnetic fields that create them certainly do.  Rather than go into the details (I'm just a neuroscientist, after all), I'll appeal to this slightly frightening picture.

Pretty crazy huh?  Those lines emanating from the sun represent its magnetic field, and those around the earth represent our "magnetosphere," a strong magnetic field created by the earth that "protects" us from all sorts of hellish activity the sun routinely throws our way.

So, the next time you're looking at the simple little ball of yellow in the sky, think about all the chaos that's going on were you to take a closer peak at its surface.  Think about the massive oceans of gas that are turbulent enough to eject particles millions of light-years into the solar system, and then you can pick your jaw off of the floor.

via Astronomy Picture of the Day

If you're looking for a more detailed description of this process, then check out the Exploratorium's guide to sun spots.  It covers everything from history to the cutting edge of research in this field, as well as the many ways in which the sun interacts with the Earth's atmosphere.

25Sep/10

Cool Infographic on the E-M Spectrum

Well I wasn't sure exactly what to call this, so I made it as straightforward as possible...I can't think of the number of times I've argued with friends about why microwaves don't make it outside of the box and fry you.  Now you know!

4Aug/10

Birds can see magnetic fields?!?

As if I need yet another fact laughing in my face for needing glasses since I was in the 3rd grade, a new study coming out of Goethe University suggests that robins can SEE magnetic fields.

It has been widely known for some time now that birds often possess the ability to navigate using the earth's natural magnetic field - this is what allows them to navigate in the same direction over long distances.  What hasn't been quite as clear is the manner in which they achieve this amazing feat.

Recent evidence suggests that some birds may simply be doing it the old fashioned way, using a special kind of molecule in their eyes cryptochrome. This molecule becomes activated by blue light coming in through the bird's right eye.  It becomes very sensitive to changing magnetic fields, and turns this information into a darkening/lightening of the bird's visual field depending on the strength of the magnetic field (see below).

When researchers blocked the vision of the birds' right eye, they made random choices in the direction they chose, whereas they almost always went north in control experiments.  Just one more piece of evidence that our feathery friends are more complicated than we give them credit for!

via Discover Science