I love the idea of creating a little sun in my microwave oven and that is why I’m going to take the time to explain
- why fusion experiments are unlikely to ever create a usable power source,
- why we can predict when solar minima will occur,
- why solar minima correspond to magnetic field changes,
- why the earth’s magnetic field is not about to flip,
- why solar spectroscopy is probably wrong.
The goal of this exercise is to both educate you about how the sun works and to shake your confidence in the intelligence of the physics community.
First, why is the sun like a grape in a microwave oven?
The index of refraction within water is ten times higher than the surrounding space, so within water, the long wavelength of a microwave is ten times shorter – about the size of a grape.
When a wave goes through an object which is the same size as the wave, the waves will get stuck inside and make ‘standing waves’ that add together as more and more waves get stuck inside of the object.
This allows the grape to collect the energy of the microwaves in a very small space. When energy is concentrated enough, the material in the grape ionizes as the charges break free from their molecules, flowing freely over the surface in the form of a plasma.
How does this relate to our sun?
You’ve probably heard about how outer space is full of microwaves and that they call this the cosmic microwave background radiation.
Imagine that our sun is a grape in a microwave. If the index of refraction of the sun is greater than that of the surrounding space, it will absorb the energy of the surrounding space in the form of standing waves which concentrate the energy and cause the material in the sun to turn into a big ball of ionized plasma.
With this picture in mind, you can see how gravity is just a product of standing waves which cause an object like the Earth or the sun to ‘breathe’ and get hot. This gravity provides the pressure which makes the sun or the earth’s core hot.
It helps to picture the Earth as a breathing sphere and imagine how if you jumped, you would be out of synch with that breathing motion. The microwaves filling space are responsible for the breathing motion and they would try to push you back in synch with the breathing motion. That push would feel like gravity.
This link has one of my early attempts to understand the heat of the sun in terms of a collision between matter and antimatter.
More conventionally, we think of our sun as a giant fusion reactor and perhaps we make a little fusion reactor when we microwave a grape, but no one knows how to extract more energy from that grape than the microwave puts into it.
In earthly laboratories like ITER, people are trying to create miniature fusion reactors by re-creating the physics of a solar flare.
When I look at a solar flare, I see a particle beam ejected from a cathode and then bent back into the anode by the sun’s magnetic field. If the cathode and anode are at the same location, there is a loop of current. When a particle beam bends, it radiates synchrotron light and some higher energy particles spray out tangentially from the beam. That is why we detect a bunch of light and charged particles whenever there is a solar flare. There is the additional feature that the particle beam is focused by a magnetic field that it generates itself in a “pinch”. This self-focusing can, in principle, be strong enough to create fusion.
Many fusion experiments aim to create a magnetic field which can stabilize the self-focusing process in a loop. However, in every instance of self-focusing I’ve ever seen, the result is filamentation and disorder. The beam blows up and becomes unfocusable. This is just Coulomb force, scattering, entropy, and Liouville’s theorem in action. Self-focusing brings the particles in such close contact that they collide with one another and blow up the emittance of the beam.
The ‘pinch’ fusion proponents (ITER-Tokamak) believe that if we could stabilize a self-focusing loop of current at a high enough temperature, then the system could produce more energy than is required to maintain the loop of current – as in a gigantic plutonium atom.
But, as an accelerator physics problem, this concept is preposterous because self-focusing is so unstable and as the beam travels around in a loop, it loses so much energy to synchrotron light that without a big external energy source (usually RF from a klystron) it would disappear very quickly. When an incoherent process like fusion becomes dominant, my guess is that the whole thing blows apart no matter what you do. It is a battle between coherent external actions and incoherent internal processes.
If I look at non-‘pinch’ fusion experiments like the Wendelstein stellerator I see loops of plasma being heated in the hopes that the temperature can be increased enough to sustain fusion. The concept embraces the incoherence of the collisions in order to avoid the destabilizing effect of a “pinch” or self-focusing. It relies on external magnets for focusing. I’m still skeptical that the device will ever produce power rather than just use power. The concept is literally lightning in a bottle – or a grape in a microwave.
You are not going to get more energy out of that grape than what you put into the microwave.
Solar flares with self-focusing often occur in or around sunspots and the number of sunspots fluctuates with the alignment of the planets around the equator of the sun and with the position of the center of the sun relative to the gravitational center of the solar system. These fluctuations are called solar cycles and the amplitude of the cycles is assumed to be unpredictable over long time scales. This never made sense to me since the system looks so transparently simple and linear.
There was a lot of pop-sci press discrediting Zharakova, the physicist who landed on the front-page for her simple model of solar cycles and her prediction that we will have a cold spell centered around 2040, but the bad press came primarily from people who had an agenda: climate change fanatics and people whose solar models disagreed with hers.
First of all, Zharakova is a professor, she collaborates with researchers from other institutes, and she has published her work in peer-reviewed journals. Her publication generated hype because she suggested that we would have a 50-year cold spell similar to the Dalton Minimum or the Maunder Minimum, times when agriculture was poor and the river Thames froze solid. These time periods were not good, but the human race survived, of course.
Her equation is a sum over a bunch of functions with the form Acos(wt+phi) * cos(Bcos(wt+phi)). She made a more complicated function by adding a term for a quadrupolar mode as well and that improved the fit, but, of course, adding more adjustable parameters always improves a fit. Researchers who develop more complicated models are understandably skeptical of her result since it would mean that their work was not necessary.
Zharakova has a talk on youtube, but she doesn’t have pop-sci presentation skills, so it is easy to tune out simply because the style is not terribly ‘commercial’. If you skip ahead to around 25 minutes in, you get to the meat of the presentation. She basically did Fourier analysis of a segment of recent sunspot data and compared that to longer-term and short-term data.
She modeled the sun as having two layers with different oscillation frequencies which mix and it is rather surprising that her fit matches data over both 1000 years and over the past 35 years. It suggests that the oscillations in the sun are quite repeatable and understandable. Other experts insist that it is much more complicated and chaotic (nonlinear) than that.
It might be more complicated, but that doesn’t mean that the simple model is wrong. Call it a first order approximation, but if it has predictive power over 1000 years and over 35 years, that is pretty darn good.
In any case, the model makes a testable prediction. If the sunspots are less frequent over the coming 20 years, she was right!
In response to human-caused climate change proponents, she did not claim expertise in the carbon-cycle, but she said that there is evidence that when the sun’s magnetic field is as weak as it is during a solar minimum, the earth tends to get colder not because the solar output is so greatly reduced, but because the change in the sun’s magnetic field influences the Earth’s magnetic field and cloud formation. She correctly points out that carbon-cycle based climate models do not incorporate the influence of magnetic fields on their models.
To understand the influence of the Earth’s magnetic field, think of current in a wire. The resistance from the particles in the wire causes the magnetic field to swirl around the wire. If you were to shoot charged particles at that wire, they would bounce off or get swept up in the swirl of the magnetic field. This would prevent them from penetrating the wire.
Because the Earth is spinning, there is a current flowing in the opposite direction from the spin and the resistance of particles to that current causes a magnetic field to flow around the planet. Charged particles from the solar wind will be deflected or swept up in the magnetic field, just as they were in the case of the wire.
Wave your hands around and use the right-hand rule to understand the geometry. This is where real understanding originates. People who don’t know how to wave their hands are not real physicists. They are using math as a crutch to understand stuff that other people grasp intuitively.
It is possible that when the sun’s magnetic field gets weaker during a solar minimum, the Earth’s magnetic field gets stronger and the Earth’s core gets hotter. When the core is hotter, the oceans get warmer and more water goes up into the sky to make clouds. This is why the planet cools during a solar minimum, yet you will find research groups at CERN who dispute this explanation and attempt to test the hypothesis that the solar magnetic field directly influences the structure of water molecules and thus their ability to form clouds. I prefer the explanation given in terms of oceans warmed by volcanic vents.
The direction of the Earth’s magnetic field is determined by the direction of the flow of current, but you’ve probably heard news media reports about the magnetic poles of the Earth flipping once every 200,000 years or so, and we’re long overdue for another flip! Heaven help us! Give us more money to study this!
Since the earth clearly doesn’t flip upside down every 200,000 years, the flipping of the poles has been explained by motion in the core of the planet. The consensus is that the core flips upsidedown while the rest of the planet stays upright.
I’d like to take a closer look at how this consensus emerged because I’ve found that there are a lot of consensuses that emerged in the past century which are based on rather weak evidence and conjecture.
Our belief in magnetic pole reversal comes from the 1920s when someone noticed that million-year-old volcanic rocks had a different magnetic field than less old rocks did. If, when volcanic rock cools, it locks in a memory of the ambient magnetic field, then old rocks make it look like the Earth’s magnetic field might’ve been reversed in the past.
By the 1950s, radiocarbon measurements had allowed for more accurate dating of the polarity changes of volcanic rocks, but it seems rather foolhardy to base such a major conjecture on a single piece of evidence: strange patterns in old volcanic rocks.
A breakthrough occurred in the 1960s when towing a magnetometer along the ocean floor revealed a striped pattern as one passed over ridges where the earth’s crust has been spreading. This was interpreted as a signature of periodic flips of the earth’s magnetic field. Ever since then, most geologists have treated the matter as settled.
What are the alternative hypotheses? Why might volcanic rocks look different on a periodic basis? Could the pattern be misinterpreted? Could the magnetometer readings have nothing to do with the volcanic rock measurements?
The point I’m trying to make is that the idea of a flipping dynamo in the core of the planet is a hypothesis – it is not a proven fact. And when you see simulations of a dynamo in the core of the Earth and assertions about its instability and randomness, remember that they are just simulations and reality may be far simpler – and less dramatic!
Just listen to the “expert” on the complexity of the Earth’s magnetic field and ask yourself if he sounds like he is nuts.
None of those simulations have demonstrated predictive power with respect to the behavior of the magnetic field today. In fact, in science journalism, you see a community confused by something as basic as the drift of the magnetic north pole from Canada towards Russia. Something which should correspond nicely to expected variations in the Chandler Wobble.
Consider the possibility that there is no unstable magnetic dynamo in the earth’s core and that the magnetic field of the planet is caused by the spin of the earth relative to the sun’s magnetic field. End of story. Anything beyond that is conjecture and probably overcomplicating things. The Earth’s magnetic poles don’t flip and people are gullible because they’ve been taught to believe anything that “peer-reviewed scientists” say.
Holding this possibility in mind, the flaws in the magnetic dynamo pole flipping hypothesis that I see are:
- The magnetism of volcanic rock depends on the type of rock, so if different types of volcanic rock dominated during different epochs, this would give the illusion of a change in the Earth’s magnetic field. Induced Magnetism in Volcanic Rocks
- Only volcanic rocks with small crystals are magnetically stable, so if the crystal size varied over time, due to rock type or climate, this would give the illusion of a change in the Earth’s magnetic field. A possible cause of high magnetic stability in volcanic rocks
- When you hammer on a magnet in a preferred direction, you can cause its polarity to line up with the strike of your hammer. Perhaps the patterns of polarity result from stress in the crust or earthquakes.
- The detection of samples with reversed polarity could be biased by researchers who are looking for evidence which proves what they think they already know and they end up collecting anomalies rather than a representative sample. It is quite easy to draw the arrow on a rock in the wrong direction and then only publish data for which the arrows were drawn in the ‘right’ direction.
In a simpler alternative to the dynamo theory, if a planet doesn’t spin fast enough relative to the object it orbits, it doesn’t have a magnetic field. The moon is tidally locked (not spinning relative to the Earth) and it doesn’t have a magnetic field. Mars spins slower than it should, and it has a weak magnetic field. And last, but not least, Blackett’s moment was correct – statistically – in the same way that a similar moment is statistically true for quantum systems.
I prefer the simpler theory if it can explain the data and I think that complexity is a form of laziness and insanity. Overfitting of data is the definition of insanity and there are some mad scientists out there.
The real insanity comes out when journalists raise hype about the shifting magnetic pole. They tell people that the cause of wandering magnetic poles is unknown and that the poles are about to flip. This is nonsense.
The media likes to make you afraid because it helps them sell advertising.
Zharakova’s solar minimum is not the end of the world, climate change is not the end of the world, and the magnetic poles of the Earth are not about to flip. Likewise, when the poles move around, this does not spell the end of the world.
The Earth is spinning on an axis that moves around for many different reasons: yearly equinoxes, lunar apse cycle, Chandler wobble, 27,000-year precession cycle, the 41,000-year tilt cycle, and the 100,000-year eccentricity cycle. Despite the complex claims of a certain Berkley scientist to have debunked Milankovitch cycles, they still seem like the concept with the best empirical support.
In the opposite direction of the Earth’s spin, there is a drag which creates an electric current. This electric current determines the magnetic field of the planet.
When the tilt axis of the Earth’s spin changes, the axis of the swirling current which gives rise to the magnetic field tries to follow these changes, but there is a lag and that lag is seen through variations between the geometric north pole and the magnetic north pole.
There is also a weaker solar magnetic field when the sunspot cycle is at a minimum. I think of the solar magnetic field as an electrical soup through which our planet travels and the thickness of this soup has an influence on the electric current within the Earth that determines the Earth’s magnetic field. Thicker soup flows more slowly and weakens the Earth’s magnetic field. Since the Maunder Minimum, we’ve had an increasing solar magnetic field (soup thickness) and a corresponding decrease in the Earth’s magnetic field strength. As we enter a period of reduced solar magnetic field, I think that the Earth’s magnetic field strength will increase a bit rather than continue to decrease and flip upside down – as reported in the popular media.
When you see articles on flipping poles and statements about how no one knows why something is happening, please know that from the perspective of experts, most science journalism is painfully wrong.
It is even wrong when it comes to something as basic as the lifecycle of stars like our sun.
When will the sun die? This is a question that keeps many a child awake at night until they start to understand that billions of years is a long, long time.
Almost everyone says that the sun will die in 5 billion years, but because I love to find weaknesses in the things we think we know for certain, I am going to explain why the sun could die in 4 billion years instead of 5.
The reason is a discrepancy in the estimates of how much metal is in the sun. If there is more metal, the sun dies more quickly.
Twenty years ago, astronomers thought they had the sun sorted. Direct and indirect ways of inferring its metallicity both gauged the sun as approximately 1.8 percent metal — a happy convergence that led them to believe they understood not only the length of their solar yardstick but also how the sun works. However, throughout the 2000s, increasingly precise spectroscopic measurements of sunlight — a direct probe of the sun’s composition, since each element creates telltale absorption lines in the spectrum — indicated a far lower metallicity of just 1.3 percent. Meanwhile, helioseismology, the competing, indirect approach for inferring metallicity based on the way sound waves of different frequencies propagate through the sun’s interior, still said 1.8 percent.
What Is the Sun Made Of and When Will It Die? | Quanta Magazine
This is a big deal because a systematic error in solar spectroscopy measurements would mean that the ages of all of the stars and galaxies in the universe have to be decreased.
How old are the stars we see from the sky? Spectroscopy tells us that the stars we see are between 8 million years to 8 billion years old (Arcturus, Alpha of Bootes). Our sun is estimated to be 4.6 billion years old. These numbers would all be too large.
What is the oldest galaxy in the universe? Spectroscopy tells us the age of a galaxy and the redshift tells us how far away it is, but if the spectroscopy has a systematic error, then the oldest galaxy would be considerably younger than the 13.8 billion years we’ve believed.
How do we know that the universe is 13.7 billion years old? This would mean that the cosmological constant would need to be revised and all of the Nobel Prize-winning claims about dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe would need to be revised as well.
If gravity is the same as acceleration, then does the accelerating expansion of the universe cause gravity? After that, claims tying accelerating expansion of the universe to the gravitational constant would need to be revised and claims tying the standard model of particle physics to big bang cosmology would also need to be revised (thrown in the trash).
In short, a house of cards would fall and decades of work by tens of thousands of people would become worthless.
There is understandably some resistance to rejecting the accepted, spectroscopic estimate of the amount of metal in the sun in favor of multiple, alternative measurement methods which are all in agreement.
Personally, I like having multiple, independent measurement methods in agreement, but I understand how reluctant scientists would be to let go of solar spectroscopy. It seems so straightforward and foolproof.
Nevertheless, we like to think that we know things for certain when we don’t and when it comes to the cosmos, it is better to remain a bit skeptical. It is important to remember that animations of exploding stars and universes are entertainment, not science.
But, before consigning all of our wonderful pop-sci movies to the dustbin, we should at least have a mechanism for a systematic error in solar spectroscopy.
In solar spectroscopy, we compare the light the sun emits to the light we measure when we bounce light off of various molecules in a laboratory on Earth. We then use the abundance of certain wavelengths of solar light to estimate the abundance of different metals in the sun.
When our sunlight detector is on the Earth, we have to account for how the sun’s light is absorbed by the atmosphere and by the solar wind. If the light at the wavelengths which represent metals is absorbed less strongly than the light at the wavelengths which represent helium and hydrogen, a systematic error in the estimate of the metallic composition of the sun will occur.
If we put our sunlight detector in space, we still have to account for the solar wind and the bandwidth of the detectors we use. There is no such thing as a detector with a flat frequency sensitivity across all frequencies. Each detector covers a certain bandwidth and it has to be calibrated. Our calibrations and estimates of errors are, unfortunately, not as immune from our expectations as we would like them to be, so we have to look very carefully to be sure of a result whenever complex error estimates are involved.
But a mistake isn’t a mechanism and I am looking for a mechanism. A question I find interesting is: “How much light does empty space absorb in the presence of a gravitational field?”
In big-bang cosmology, it is zero, but in steady-state or tired-light cosmology, it is non-zero. In fact, in empty space, it may have a non-linear spectral response over vast distances, but that would be “new physics” and since we’ve only ever seen quantum interactions with empty space over small distances, the physics community has assumed that standard-model quantum interactions are the only possible way in which light interacts with empty space. This could be a mistake. One way to formally investigate such a mistake would be to find out what can be salvaged from our theories if we give light a tiny bit of mass. The other way is to compare our present, Lagrangian, Lorentzian predictions to Galilean, Eulerian predictions within a tired light framework.
- The sun is like a grape in a microwave and that is why fusion experiments are unlikely to ever create a usable power source.
- The sun is not that complicated to model and we can predict when solar minima will occur.
- The earth gets colder during a solar minimum not because the heat generated by the sun is so dramatically reduced, but because the magnetic field changes the amount of heat generated by the Earth’s core and that changes the amount of evaporation and cloud cover.
- The Earth’s magnetic field changes all of the time for predictable reasons and it is not about to flip. In fact there are good reasons to believe that it has never flipped before and that the scientists who came up with that theory were deluded.
- Scientists are deluded about a lot of things and may not have a good grasp on how to do solar or stellar spectroscopy. This would spell the end for many branches of physics and that is why the issue is brushed under the rug.
How did I do? Did I manage to shake your confidence in the physics community and inspire you to do your own thinking? If so, I have suceeded in my goal.
This was composed from material I first posted on quora.com.
The image in the header is from shutterstock.com where a print can be purchased.
17 thoughts on “Black Hole Sun”
Having the sun sorted made me smile . In1859 we had the Carrington event which was colossal it was a mass ejection which caused absolute havoc to the primitive telephone system. The auroral glow woke the gold miners in the Rockies ( men are always looking for gold ) and reached equatorial latitudes. If such an event occurred today it would cause at least a trillion pounds worth of damage.
A similar storm missed the earth luckily in 2012 , but in 1989 power was cut off in Quebec for nine hours.
I’m no technical genius but I have ploughed through lots of stuff about the 11 year sun spot cycle which seem all cut and dried. Are these flares predictable ? Can science predict the random nature of those things. Just look at the recent weather conditions surely we muddle through with limited knowledge.
Philosophers claim things are predetermined and scientists tend to agree with them but I’m not so sure.
One thing is certain modern civilisation is very fragile and nature could quite easily turn back the clock.
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A video interview with Valentina Zharkova https://youtu.be/JyyuouPSNEA. Published October 10, 2019.
Miles Mathis on solar cycles and global warming: http://milesmathis.com/goody.pdf
If you go to his “New Papers” page, he’s got 2 updates/additions to this paper, as well.
He had someone create graphs for him on the solar cycle and the alignments of the large planets…
Kirsten, you and Miles should talk. He’s trying to rewrite all of physics. Except I find him almost impossible to read. He can be VERY snarky, and that often gets in the way. Plus, he just assumes that everyone knows what he’s talking about all of the time.