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Need Perspective? Watch Our Crazy Star, The Sun

This image from Monday shows extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the hot solar material in the sun's atmosphere.
This image from Monday shows extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the hot solar material in the sun's atmosphere.

I often tell my students that one reason to study science is that it puts our lives into perspective.

Yes, the world is a mess and, yes, people can be completely horrible to each other but, hey, check out the veins on this leaf or the spots on that caterpillar. How did they get that way? Isn't that freaking awesome AND beautiful?

Astronomy offers a particular version of this perspective because in its domain everything moves so fast, is so far away, or is just so much bigger than BIG.

In this spirit, I offer this short video meditation on our nearest stellar thermonuclear reactor, the sun.

Last week, our favorite star made news for the giant sunspot it was sporting and the magnificent flares that emerged from those spots.

Sunspots and flares are both phenomena driven by the powerful magnetic fields the sun creates through its "differential rotation" (see if you can find a reason to drop that term into your conversations today). In this case, differential rotation means different parts of the sun are spinning at different speeds. Through differential rotation (see, I used it three times in three sentences), magnetic field lines deep in the solar interior get wound up like springs around a loom, gaining strength until they bow outward and pop through the surface.

In the movie above, we get an eye-popping view of an epic arc of solar magnetic field rising above the surface carrying superheated 50,000-degree plasma with it. As the plasma cools, it forms blobs that rain back down along the magnetic field lines.

It's an eerie, jaw-dropping view of solar reality. Make sure to make the video full-screen. If you can, let the whole four minutes and 16 seconds play out while you keep an eye out for small details. Watch the other parts of the surface boil and ripple. Later in the video, watch the bright patch on the lower right undergo its own smaller eruptions.

The recognition that this kind of Earth-dwarfing, mega-bomb-powered arcade of plasma hell is just another day at the office for the sun will, hopefully, remind you that there's more going on out there than our worries.

I hope that helps.

(Here is a nice NASA description of solar surface physics and how we see it.)

You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.

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