Friday, May 14, 2010

Flares and whispers

We've been here before. Let's go again.

Click here to watch a time-lapse movie of a giant solar prominence -- firestorm -- recently observed (on March 30, as one of its first images) by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a satellite telescope in geosynchronous orbit. The eruption occurred over a matter of hours.

I've watched this clip again and again. Before you click on the PLAY arrow, consider this. On the same scale the planet Earth would fit into the arrow, about the size of this letter O. Now, holding that little O in mind, click PLAY

You can also watch the flare again and again here, including a wider field view.

The Indonesian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull are pinpricks of violence compared to this stupendous explosion of energy that flings the substance of the Sun millions of miles into space.

How can the Sun can sustain this outpouring of energy for billions of years without apparent depletion? A century ago this was one of the greatest mysteries of science. No chemical reaction, no gravitational collapse, could possibly supply so much energy for so long.

But as usual, when nature poses a question, she whispers an answer.

How's this for a whisper?

It is nine o'clock in the evening at the Curies' house in Paris, in the year 1902. Marie is sitting at the bedside of her four-year-old daughter Irene. It is a nightly ritual; the child is uncomfortable without her mother's presence. Marie sits quietly near the girl until the restless young voice gives way to sleep. Then she goes downstairs to her husband Pierre. Husband and wife have just completed an arduous four-year effort to isolate from tons of raw ore the tiny amount of a new element that will win them fame. The work is still on their minds -- the laboratory, the workbenches, the flasks and vials. "Suppose we go down there for a moment," suggests Marie. They walk through the dark streets to the laboratory and let themselves in. "Don't light the lamps," says Marie. On a laboratory shelf the precious particles of radium in their tiny glass receivers glow with an eerie blue light. "Look! Look!" whispers Marie. They sit in darkness, their faces turned toward the glowing vials. Later, her daughter and biographer Eve would call it "the evening of glowworms."

Matter into energy. Tiny iotas of vanished matter multiplied by the speed of light squared. Soon, Einstein would show that Marie Curie's glowworm light and the light of the Sun had the same source.