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

2Mar/11

The Sun just tried to punch us

As we've all learned before, the sun is a terrifying beast of energy and magnetic fields that often likes to throw superheated particles, plasma, and many other anti-earth things in our direction.  Well, NASA is hard at work at imaging this gigantic beast, and they managed to capture a doosie of a video.

What you see is a 90 minute time lapse of one of the sun's famed "solar flares."  Essentially, this is what happens when a particular area on the sun undergoes a rapid change in the orientation of its magnetic fields.  As a result, an enormous amount of energy is expelled in the form of a giant arc of plasma.

These solar flares can do all kinds of strange things like mess with telecommunications and the earth's magnetic field.  The really big ones can even have strong effects on the earth's surface, such as  in 1859, when a giant coronal mass ejection resulted in several telegraph poles bursting into flames.

No one is sure what exactly causes these huge fluctuations in activity, although areas of the sun that are generally more active do tend to have a larger number of flares.  One thing is for certain though, they are fascinating, beautiful, and a force to be reckoned with.

via NASA.gov

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.