Thursday, July 11, 2013

You are my sunshine

A week of very untypical weather, brilliant sunshine, temperatures near 80 degrees F, almost enough to make you believe that an Irish summer is possible after all. We sit in the garden, watching the contrails high in a deep blue sky as jet liners streak toward America. And the Sun! That strange flower, that tuft of jungle feathers, that animal eye, that savage of fire.

That globe of hydrogen.

Well, mostly hydrogen. A lot of helium too. For every 100 atoms of hydrogen, a few of helium. And that's pretty much it.

Actually there's dribs and drabs of almost everything else. Carbon and oxygen make a pretty good showing, although about a 100 times less abundant than helium, ten thousand times less abundant that hydrogen. Then other familiar stuff: nitrogen, silicon, sulfur, iron. You could collect enough of the heavy elements from the Sun's atmosphere to make an Earth.

Osmium and iridium? Gold and mercury? Yes, that too. But in barely detectable amounts.

Detectable? In the Sun? How? Ah, the wonders of nature. The wonders of science. Every atomic element has a unique fingerprint of wavelengths of light (colors) it emits when in a hot gaseous state or absorbs when cool. The atoms in the Sun's cooler atmosphere absorb light from the continuous spectrum of the hot surface. Those dark "lines" in the rainbow reveal what's there. Voila!

We sit in the garden, squinting at the Sun, that strange flower, that tuft of jungle feathers, that animal eye, that savage of fire (I'm stealing metaphors from Wallace Stevens). That globe of hydrogen and helium, salted with carbon and oxygen and osmium and ytterbium and gadolinium and other stuff you've never heard of.

That million-mile-wide, voluptuous party balloon, celebrating a brief Irish summer.