Solar Shenanigans

Big doings on old Sol, it seems.

What we don’t know about the sun is a lot. I find this mildly disturbing, since we rely on the sun for our very survival. But at some point you just have to accept the fact that some most things are beyond our control.

In early February I was reminded of a blog post I wrote in 2013 entitled, There’s a Freakin’ HOLE in the Sun! It sprang to mind because the sun is acting all weird again. This time, however, social media (and, in fact, media in general) took this information and ran with it, whereas in 2013 it was a mere afterthought. I think that says more about the evolution of our sources of information than it says about the evolution of the sun.

But on February 2nd of this year, scientists observed something going on with the sun that they’d never seen before. It started fairly routinely, as a solar prominence. These happen all the time. It’s those loopy, jet-like bursts of plasma that shoot out into space from the sun’s surface, only to fall back again and subside. They almost look like a breaching whale, if both the whale and the water were on fire.

There was nothing special about this particular prominence. As a matter of fact, they seem to burst forth from the sun at this location, around 55 degrees latitude, every 11 years in the sun’s 22-year cycle. But this one decided to get creative. Part of the plasma broke free of the jet and got sucked up toward the sun’s pole, causing it to get caught up in a vortex, and then it completely circumnavigated the sun at about 60 degrees latitude.

It seems that the sun is experiencing some frightfully stormy weather, because when scientists measured how long it took for this plasma to circumnavigate, it was determined that it was traveling at the rate of 60 miles per second. Holy moly. You wouldn’t want to be crossing the street when that sucker blasted past.

I think this event is pretty cool in and of itself, but the media had to take it to a whole new level. The headlines were screaming that a piece of the sun broke off. Poppycock. It was plasma. Saying that the sun broke apart under these circumstances would be like saying a piece of Hawaii broke off when Mauna Loa erupted. Everybody calm down.

Scientists aren’t sure why this polar vortex happened, but we learn more about the sun every day. We do know enough about it to predict that it is approaching the solar maximum in its cycle, and that will most likely happen in the summer of 2025. During this time, the sun’s magnetic poles will switch places. Again, this is routine. It happens every 11 years.

But the sun has been unusually active during the last few years of this cycle. As in, it’s acting up way beyond all scientific expectations. Big doings on old Sol, it seems. So yeah, there’s that.

For current images of the sun, check out the Solar Dynamics Observatory website. And hold on to your sunglasses, dear reader. Who knows what surprises the sun has in store for us in the next couple of years.


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Coming Out of Darkness

Hang in there, baby! Spring is coming!

I suspect I’ll never get used to winters in Seattle, after having spent the bulk of my life in Jacksonville, Florida. As of this writing, the sun in Seattle is finally setting after 5 pm again, and that is reason enough for a celebration. In the summer, we get 16 hours of daylight, but in the depths of winter, we’re forced to make do with 8 ½ hours, and that takes its toll on one’s psyche. (And yet I probably sound like a whiny b**** to all the Alaskans out there.)

In the winter here, I feel like I’m holding my breath, keeping my head down, and just trying to make it through to sunnier times again. There’s just something wrong with going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark. By right about now, I’ve usually pretty much had it with darkness. My patience gets about as short as the days are. So seeing sun after 5 pm gives me hope. I say to myself, “Hang in there, baby! Spring is coming! Eventually you’ll get to pack away your SAD light for the season! And your winter clothing! And your windshield frost blocker!”

In Jacksonville, there is only about 4 hours of difference in the amount of daylight from summer to winter. Anyone should be able to cope with that. But I still don’t miss the blistering heat or the politics, so I’ll choose Seattle every time, even if this city does require various accessories and a certain strength of will to muddle through the dark times.

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The Things We’re Overlooking

Other things are happening. Miraculous things.

I feel like we’ve been in crisis mode for years now. Each news cycle is more shocking than the last, and because of that, I’m losing the will to be shocked anymore. I now understand how people can seem lethargic in war zones. It just all becomes too much.

But the most heartbreaking aspect of this, in my opinion, is that other things are happening, miraculous things, spectacular things, horrific things, record-breaking things, and we don’t even hear about them because we’re overwhelmed by Trump’s tomfoolery or this nightmare pandemic.

For example, check out this article entitled, “First Ever Image of a Multi-Planet System around a Sun-like Star Captured by ESO Telescope”. And the most amazing thing is that this system is located only about 300 light years from us. On a universal scale, we’re practically neighbors.

And we have a great deal in common. Our suns are very similar, although theirs is younger. And there are two gas giants circling that sun, similar to ours, although a great deal larger and farther out. Soon, astronomers hope to see if there are smaller planets in the system as well.

What an amazing discovery. This is the first time we’ve seen anything like this, ever. We can learn a lot from this system. This is huge. This is incredibly exciting!

And yet it gets lost in the drama that is our current reality. It makes you wonder what else we’re missing.

First ever image of a multi-planet system around a Sun-like star
This image, captured by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, shows the star TYC 8998-760-1 accompanied by two giant exoplanets, TYC 8998-760-1b and TYC 8998-760-1c. This is the first time astronomers have directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to the Sun. The two planets are visible as two bright dots in the centre (TYC 8998-760-1b) and bottom right (TYC 8998-760-1c) of the frame, noted by arrows. Other bright dots, which are background stars, are visible in the image as well. By taking different images at different times, the team were able to distinguish the planets from the background stars.    The image was captured by blocking the light from the young, Sun-like star (top-left of centre) using a coronagraph, which allows for the fainter planets to be detected. The bright and dark rings we see on the star’s image are optical artefacts.

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The Dark of December

The sun’s indifference and neglect in winter is very hard to take.

We are approaching Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It falls on December 21st, and when it finally arrives, I always feel like I’m coming up for air for the first time in months. It’s as if I’ve been walking through J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mirkwood in The Hobbit, and just as I am about to give up hope, I see light in the distance. I’m halfway there. I can do this.

If I can survive the fact that, here in the Pacific Northwest, the sun that day won’t come up until 7:54 am and will be back down at 4:20 pm, I can survive anything. I view that as a triumph.

And after that day, I have slightly longer days to look forward to. More room to breathe. Less time in front of my SAD light. Less time to feel sad. More hope.

I definitely feel an emotional difference with the seasons. It’s hard to take, being plunged into ever-increasing gloom, and having no real control over it. We are all enslaved by the sun, and its indifference and neglect in winter is a bit of a challenge. It’s hard not to take it personally.

But Spring is coming. Glorious, glorious spring! Enduring the dark winter makes me appreciate the rest of the year all the more.

I’ll leave you with this poem. It’s a life raft in the dark. All we have to do is hold on. Light will soon return.

I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
A magical thing
And sweet to remember.

“We are nearer to Spring
Than we were in September,”
I heard a bird sing
In the dark of December.
– Oliver Hereford

On a Dark Trail

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Losing Sunlight

The sun is shining somewhere…

At this time of year in Seattle, the sun sets around 4:30 pm. I never thought I’d experience that. In Florida, there’s only two hours difference in the day length from summer to winter. So this radical change feels really, really weird to me.

I never realized how much sunlight affects me on so many levels. I seem to go into a low energy mode the minute darkness sets in. I’m less productive, less upbeat. The sky seems closer to the ground somehow. The air feels more dense and harder to pass through. Everything takes more strength.

I also feel as though I’m running late all the time. Usually I have my daily blog written each day before dark. Now… not so much. Even though I haven’t changed my routine, this feeling makes me anxious.

If I could figure out how the bills would get paid, I swear I’d hibernate like a bear from November through February. Burrow into a mound of blankets and just sleep. If it weren’t for my SAD light, I’d probably cease to function entirely.

But then I’d miss cuddling in front of the fire, and decorating the Christmas tree, and wearing fuzzy boots and diving into a nice hot bowl of Pho. So I guess I’ll just have to make the effort. Life does go on, and the sun is shining somewhere, after all.

http _theartmad.com_wp-content_uploads_2015_04_Dark-Winter-Forest-3

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Another Earth

I’ll be thinking about this one for a long time.

In keeping with my tradition of being several years behind the times, I just saw a really fascinating movie from 2011 entitled Another Earth. It was a romance. It was a drama. It was science fiction. It was a surprise.

It included three story lines, any of which would have made an excellent stand-alone movie, and they had very little to do with one another, but somehow that still worked. There was a romance that was intertwined with an extreme tragedy. There was a subtle little story about the suffering of an old janitor that I dearly wish they had expanded upon. And then there was the sci fi/philosophical element which fascinated me, and which I want to talk more about.

Spoiler alert. This particular story line was about discovering that there was another planet, capable of supporting life, on the opposite side of the sun. For some reason, our orbits finally misaligned enough so that that planet could actually be seen by us. For years we observed it, but it was too far away to make contact. But the closer it got, the more obvious it was that this planet was, indeed, occupied.

Finally, the planet was close enough to make radio contact, and this is when it gets truly weird. A scientist from SETI makes first contact. And the person on the other end speaks English. And that person has her same name. And her same birthdate. And her same childhood memories.

So now everyone is faced with the concept that each person has another “you” out there on this other planet. If you met your other “you”, what would you say to that person? What would you ask?

And then it is theorized that the moment these two planets caught sight of each other, the synchronicity was broken. We stopped living identical lives, and started off on paths all our own. When you turned left, your doppelganger may have turned right. So now there’s no way of knowing what that place is like anymore. It’s no longer comforting and predictable. It’s actually a tiny bit scary.

And then, as is the wont of millionaires, one decides to create a space program so that a ship could visit this other planet. And he holds a contest so that someone can go along for free. Would you enter that contest? Would you want to go? Would you want to know? Would it be a big do-over for you? Or would it be a do exactly the same? Or a do much, much better or worse?

What would you do if you came face to face with yourself?

If you were expecting me to answer any of the above questions, sorry. I got nothin’. But it’s something I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Another Earth

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Don’t Overdo

Live to mow another day.

Your body is one smart cookie. It tries to talk to you all the time. Are you listening?

It’s really tempting to push through pain and exhaustion to finish up what you’re trying to get done. Believe me. I know. It’s also hard to stop having fun even when your body is protesting. But it’s not as if you get to trade your body in for a newer model if you wear it out. Aside from the possibility of a few replacement parts, this carcass, flawed as it may be, is pretty much it for you. So it’s important to take care of it.

The day I wrote this, I had been mowing the lawn in the hot sun. It was the only opportunity I would have to do it this week, and I really didn’t want my neighbors to give me the stink eye due to my neglect. That, and the lawn does look better when it’s properly maintained. So mow I did.

But I had to keep taking breaks. I was sweating profusely. My heart was pounding. I was getting dizzy. More and more, I had to stop, sit in the shade, drink some iced tea, and lie flat until my heart slowed down a bit. Then I’d mow some more, and sure enough, it would happen again. I’m neither as young nor as thin as I used to be.

At one point I thought I was going to pass out or vomit. Back to the shade. As I lay there, I thought, “You know, I could die. All alone in my yard.” That would suck. I have plans. I’m working toward a future, here!

Suddenly I realized that the lawn was not worth dying for. Common sense, you’d think. But it was actually an epiphany for me. So, the front lawn looks great, but the back yard is choked with dandelions and clover. But, hey, I’m alive. And the bees are thrilled.

Afterward I took a cool bath, and then a nap, and felt much better for it. I bet my body is astounded that it took me so long to wise up. I suspect it feels like that quite often.

I need to become a better self-listener. I’m not going to win some prize for pushing myself too far. There are no medals for abusing one’s health. I don’t know about you, but I want to live to mow another day.

Bee and Dandelion

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Reveling in Sunshine

When I lived in Florida, I used to take sunshine for granted. As a matter of fact, I kind of looked upon it as a creator of sweat, sunburn and humidity, and avoided it whenever possible. Mine was a closed-in, air-conditioned existence.

Not so in Washington State. Here, I glory in the sunshine whenever it’s available. (I haven’t gone completely native. I still tend to get hindered by the rain, but I go outdoors every sunny chance I get.) About half the year, I even eat dinner on my back porch.

Recently it actually got up to 70 degrees for a whole day, and I had the opportunity to go hiking with a friend, and afterward we just sat on a lakeside park bench and soaked up the sun. It was glorious.  It was transforming. It was the perfect way to spend the day. Bliss. Simple. Free. It still makes me smile, just thinking about it.

Don’t you just love it when you feel glad to be alive? The sun’s rays and a friend with a sunny disposition. What gifts.

Come on, Spring! Hit me with all the goodness! I can take it!


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The sun is shining and I feel like I’m emerging from the hibernation that is induced by a Seattle winter. I want to get outside and explore! I want to hop on a plane! I want to roll around naked in a field of flowers!

Yeah. That’s not going to happen.

Weather notwithstanding, I still have a job that expects my attendance, and bills to pay and garbage to drag out to the curb. Life has this annoying habit of going on.

I am looking forward to getting off work and spending a few hours each day basking in the sun in my back yard with Quagmire, though. That’s my warm weather Seattle routine. Me and Quag, just the two of us. We can make it if we try.

I’m also looking forward to going to the farmer’s market every week again. And I plan to take Quagmire to the dog park more often. And there’s so much in this town and state that I’ve yet to see. Maybe I’ll do some of that, too.

This restlessness is Spring fever, I know. And it’s also the realization that I’m not getting any younger and there’s so much I still want to do. And the fact that I’d really rather not do all these things alone, and yet here I am, alone, means that I feel like all my nerves are on the surface of my skin.



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What the Clouds Can Teach Us

When you go for weeks on end without seeing the sun or the stars, it’s easy to start to imagine that they’re not there anymore. (And I live in Seattle, so I know what I’m talking about.) The clouds seem to be pushing down on the earth, and there’s this free-floating feeling of claustrophobia that permeates the atmosphere. The world seems a lot smaller than it actually is

At times like this I kind of get a sense of what it must have been like to live in a world without advanced science. If all you can believe is what you see with your own two eyes, it would be easy to think that the world is flat. Magic must seem real. It would be much simpler to believe in a higher power when you yourself feel so utterly powerless. (And by that I mean leaders of any kind who are willing to tell you what you want to hear even though it’s based on no evidence whatsoever.)

But I can live with clouds, despite their ability to obscure and cause despair, because I’ve flown in airplanes above them, where the sun is still shining brightly. I’ve seen photographs of the big blue marble on which we live, and I know that the clouds are shifting and temporal. There is no need to make ritual sacrifices, as the sun will rise again without our help. Just speak that truth as often as you can. Spread the word. Let no one forget.

The scientific method has proven many things I cannot see. That may sound like faith, but faith is a belief in things without proof, often based upon the words of people who lived without science. And even those who choose that fundamental path rely on science every single day, even as they discount it.

If you’ve ever ridden in a car, used electricity, taken advantage of modern medicine, or communicated with anyone by any method other than smoke signals, you are benefiting from science. You cannot function in the modern world without it. But of course you still have the right to believe that it’s evil, if that’s what you really want.

But in the meantime, I will look up at the clouds and know with certainty that the sun is shining above them. And one of these days, I’ll see it again. Because when all is said and done, science prevails. It’s in the very gravity that keeps you from floating away.


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