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Science

Flipping Out Over the Sun’s Big Flip

¡Viva la Science!

NASA
You know it’s a good science story when the headline reads, “Sun's Magnetic Field Flip Won't Doom Earth, Scientists Say.” Celebrate the good things in life, folks, and the world not being likely to end in the next few months is as good a reason to throw a party as any I’ve ever heard.

As it turns out, the sun flips its magnetic field about every 11 years. “North” becomes “South” and vice versa. It’s all part of the sun’s cycle of solar weather. When the sun flips its magnetic field, it’s halfway into its period of greatest solar activity, known as the solar maximum (or solar max, if you’re cool like me). We’re in the midst of Solar Cycle 24, apparently, and when the field shift occurs, we’ll be halfway through the solar max.

The magnetic field flip will happen in an estimated 3 to 4 months, and it “will have ripple effects throughout the solar system,” says Todd Hoeksema, the director of the Wilcox Solar Observatory at Stanford University.

Now here’s a part that sounds really Star Trek: There’s something called a “current sheet” that radiates from the sun’s equator. It’s vast, extending outward for billions of kilometers. It’s ten thousand kilometers thick. Seriously, we’re talking about something really enormous, here—Pluto’s orbit looks teeny-tiny in comparison.

The current sheet is affected by those field reversals in the sun. It gets all wavy, for one thing, kind of like a warped vinyl record—so as the Earth keeps orbiting the sun, we move in and out of the current sheet. The movements can create stormy “space weather” around the Earth. (Possibly you are thinking that “space weather” doesn’t even sound like a real thing. I don’t blame you. “Let’s check on the space weather before we beam into that wormhole at warp speed, Captain!” Sure, that makes sense.) Space weather, though, includes things like solar wind, solar flares, coronal mass ejections and sunspots.

Ripples in the current sheet can also help shield our solar system from cosmic rays, superfast particles that are no good for astronauts and space probes (and might also affect our earthly climate, though the jury’s still out on that one).

There’s nothing like considering the grand mechanics at work in our universe to provide some perspective. Though some media outlets (and I use the term loosely) are using the real science behind the sun’s field flip to stir up inane fears—which is what has required NASA scientists to reassure us in the first place that doom be not at hand—rest assured that the universe is ticking along exactly as it’s supposed to.

If you want to know more about current sheets and space weather and the like, take a gander at this very helpful video:

Source: Space.com

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Science

Ruled by Sun and Moon

¡Viva la Science!

Andréia via Flickr

Take a look at the sky. See a big ball of light? If so, it’s probably doing something to you right now. Humans respond to light from the sun and the full moon in measurable ways, two new studies report, and our sleep hangs in the balance.

In one study, a bunch of lucky volunteers went camping in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains for a week. (For SCIENCE!) Before they went, they’d spent some time wearing activity monitors on their wrists. The monitors measured stuff like average activity levels, sleep duration and waking/sleeping times. After a week of monitoring, researchers used a saliva test to measure participants’ melatonin and determine their “natural” circadian rhythms.

During the camping trip, anything except natural light was verboten. No phones, no flashlights, just sunlight and campfires. After their wilderness adventure, during which they slept and woke when they wanted to, participants went back to the lab for more testing. Since all those measurements had been taken earlier, the researchers could see what had changed.

The main difference was in the amount of light individuals were exposed to: Study participants got four times as much of the stuff when camping. A thing to know about melatonin is that it normally rises in the early evening near sunset (to encourage sleep) and drops off in the morning before waking. For many of us, though, a life surrounded by the comforting glow of technology means that we’re getting artificial light at all hours of the day and night—and our melatonin levels reflect it, increasing later in the evening and sometimes not decreasing until after we’ve woken.

The campers’ melatonin levels after their trip, however, rose and fell according to the normal rhythm, chilling out at sunrise and ramping up at sunset. Participants’ circadian clocks shifted two hours earlier on average, indicating that time spent camping—or exposed to natural light—can “reset” the clock and help people fall asleep and wake up more easily.

Those are some pretty dramatic results, and they point to actions you can take if you want to adjust your own circadian rhythms. For example, you might try getting more natural light during the day. In the case of the moon, however, the measurable effect is more subtle and the plan of action isn’t so obvious.

*L*u*z*a* via Flickr

The moon study analyzed sleep data acquired from a previous study in a controlled laboratory setting. It looked at what phase of the moon the sleep data was associated with and found—much to the surprise of researchers—that a distinct pattern emerged. Despite volunteers being unable to actually see the moon in their laboratory bedrooms, their sleep was affected if it fell on a night near a full moon. Sleepers took five extra minutes, on average, to zonk out, plus they got shallower sleep and about 20 minutes less of it.

Do we have an internal clock that responds to cycles of the moon, just like we do for the sun? Maybe. Researchers really can’t say at this early point; this is “the first reliable evidence” that the moon can affect our sleep under laboratory conditions, they note.

Astrology this ain’t.These studies are small—only 8 people in the solar study and 33 people in the lunar—and additional research with larger groups and in other locations globally is needed if we want to draw firm conclusions. Nonetheless, this is science functioning precisely as science is supposed to. In both studies, we have a testable hypothesis, an experiment whose parameters can be repeated and results that can be impartially measured. Damn right, you should be excited.

Sources: Neurorexia, Science News, PubMed Health

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V.20 No.14 | 4/7/2011

Miss Diagnosis

The Slow Burn

By Whitny Doyle, R.N.

For those of us trapped in the 8-to-5 grind, there is nothing more luxurious than sleeping in on Saturday morning and awakening to the twittering birds and the clear sunlight filtering through the window. Pure bliss, right?

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