No More Sunspots?

Sunspots come and go in an 11-year cycle. Our sun has acted that way for centuries. With a few exceptions.

The sunspot cycle changed about 23 years back. I think we’ll learn a great deal by studying what’s happening, but at this point scientists aren’t quite sure what to make of the new ‘normal.’


The Story So Far

We’ve been studying the great light in our sky and the lesser lights for a very long time. Then, a few centuries back, natural philosophers became scientists.

We’re learning that what we had discovered is just part of a vast cosmos.

That seems to bother some folks. I’m not one of them. I like living in an era where much of what I learned in my youth is either outdated or simply wrong.

I’ll be talking about sunspots, stars, and what we’re learning about them. A great deal of that is being uncovered ‘now,’ in the years since I was born. But like I said, the basics we’ve known for much longer.

How long we’ve known about sunspots depends partly on where you look.

Folks in Korea and China may have observed dark spots on the sun about 28 centuries back. Some scholars think that’s how we can read what’s in I Ching.

How folks living before today’s filters and other tech would examine our sun’s surface with comparative safety, I don’t know. Maybe something along the lines of a camera obscura.

The trick with observing our sun isn’t getting an image big enough to see. It’s blocking most of the light so we can see without blinding ourselves.

Theophrastus recorded sunspot observations a few centuries later. He studied with Plato and then Aristotle.

Apparently Theophrastus was more into Aristotle’s preference for observation and less attached to Plato’s theory of forms. That may help explain why his works were standard references until the Renaissance.

Jumping ahead about a millennium, Adelmus noticed a sunspot, but thought it was Mercury crossing the sun’s face. That was in March of 807. I’m pretty sure he’s Athelm, a monk who was Archbishop of Canterbury. Or maybe someone else.

John of Worcester, another monk, made the first drawing we have of a sunspot in 1128.

Fast-forward to the 1600s. A bunch of folks observed sunspots during that century, too.

Galileo and Christoph Scheiner both said they saw them first. Both apparently missed that honor by a few millennia, but didn’t have today’s information storage and retrieval tech. If they’d read I Ching, I like to think they’d have claimed something else as an achievement.

Galileo argued that sunspots were on our sun’s surface in his 1613 Letters on Sunspots.

I suspect that helped inspired later accounts of the Church seeing science as a threat. I’ve talked about Galileo’s less-than-winsome personality and 17th century politics before.1

Also why I think this universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn’t flat; Adam and Eve aren’t German; and thinking is not a sin. And that’s another topic. (September 23, 2016; August 28, 2016; July 22, 2016)


Our Inconstant Sun


(From NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A solar flare erupting on August 31, 2012)

Is the Sun Changing?
Monica Broba, Sky and Telescope (January 2018)

“About 290 million years ago, a volcano erupted in what is now eastern Germany. The blast lifted trees straight out of the ground and coated them with liquid rock. Beneath this debris, an entire forest fossilized. Last year, scientists studied tree rings from these ancient trees — but not to learn about Earth. They wanted to learn about the Sun.

“To the naked eye, the Sun looks like a uniform whitish sphere. But the solar surface is often mottled with dark spots, like the peel of a ripe banana. These sunspots emerge, live for a few hours or days (or longer), and then decay. Occasionally, 150 or more spots dot the solar surface. During these times, we observe many eruptions of high-energy radiation and, sometimes, superheated material, which can blast through space and hit the planets. At other times, hardly any spots show up at all, and the Sun stays fairly quiet. The Sun smoothly cycles between these two states, ramping the number of sunspots up and down every 11 years….”

Those eruptions of superheated material hit earth’s magnetosphere on occasion. We started calling them coronal mass ejections, CMEs, recently.

They didn’t affect us directly, apart from lighting up the aurora. Not that we know of, anyway. That changed in 1859. Folks had started using telegraphs.

Electrical telegraphs made long-distance communication a whole lot faster than anything we’d had before.

Nearly-instantaneous data transmission helped turn meteorology from a study of past weather to a predictive science. (August 11, 2017)

Telegraphs used a growing web of telegraph lines. Wires and changing magnetic fields interact, and — I am not going to get distracted by the Biot–Savart and Ampère’s circuital laws. The point is that when a wire and/or magnetic field move, we get electrical current.

Science and Jobs For Humans

On September 1, 1859, astronomers noticed an unusually bright flare on our sun. Auroras that night were spectacular, and seen as far south as the Caribbean.

Scientists noticed a “magnetic crochet,” some telegraph operators got shocked and miners in the Rocky Mountains mistook the aurora for dawn.

Maxwell published a set of his differential equations around 1860. Röntgen won the 1901 Nobel Prize for discovering X-rays.

The Orbiting Solar Observatory 7’s SEC caught a 256 × 256 pixel image on December 14, 1971. A human, David Roberts, eventually noticed it. He figured it was a glitch. Then he saw another one, farther out.

Roberts was an electronics technician, so he had scientists look at the data. They confirmed that it wasn’t a glitch. Roberts had spotted the first clear evidence of a CME. (February 17, 2017)

Humans are pretty good at solving ‘what’s wrong with this picture’ puzzles. But AI is getting pretty good at that sort of thing, too. Some AI systems ‘look’ through the flood of data coming from today’s observing tech.

That doesn’t mean that folks like Roberts will become obsolete.

Their jobs may, but not the people. I think there’ll always be room in science and other fields for our sort of ‘smart.’

Robotic road vehicles recently moved from research and development to product design. And that’s yet another topic, for another post.

Our jobs, what we do to help others, will keep changing. Some will disappear, or become recreational options. We will keep changing, too: more slowly. But we’ll still be ‘human,’ with the kind of ‘smart’ that’s kept us alive during one of Earth’s ice ages.

I think the fellow was right.

‘Computers are designed to get correct answers based on huge amounts of information, all of which is right. Human brains are designed to get correct answers based on almost no information, most of which is wrong.’

Forests, Mountains, and Change

About that German volcano, another eruption won’t threaten Chemnitz.

My guess is that the Zeisigwald volcano was in a mountain range separating most of Europe from an equatorial ocean, but haven’t confirmed that.

The volcano is long since gone, along with the mountain range. The Pyrenees and Alps formed much more recently, and that’s yet again another topic.

Earth wasn’t quite the way it is today. The atmosphere had about 115% more oxygen. The Great Dying wouldn’t happen for another 39,000,000 or so years. Pangea wouldn’t break apart until tens of millions of years after that. (June 23, 2017)

The territory we call Germany, along with the rest of Europe, was in northern Pangea. Some critters living in the area, like Palaeohatteria, would have seemed familiar. It was about 60 centimeters, two feet, long and looked quite a bit like today’s lizards.

The forest itself had trees and undergrowth, like today’s woodlands. But forests have changed as the ages rolled past. A lot.2


A Spotless Sun


(From NASA/SDO/HMI, via Sky and Telescope, used w/o permission.)
(“The spotless Sun of July 21, 2017.”
Sky and Telescope)

Is Our Sun Slowing Down in Its Middle Age?
Monica Bobr, Sky and Telescope (July 21, 2017)

The Sun, now halfway through its life, might be slowing its magnetic activity, researchers say, which could lead to permanent changes in the sunspots and auroras we see.

“The Sun has changed its figure, researchers say, and might keep it that way.

“The structure of the Sun’s surface, where sunspots live, appears to have changed markedly 23 years ago. That’s when solar magnetic activity might have started slowing down, Rachel Howe (University of Birmingham, UK, and Aarhaus University, Denmark) and collaborators speculate in paper to appear in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (full text here)….”

I’m quite sure this isn’t a sign in the sky, portending End Times, a somewhat-tardy Mayan Apocalypse, or cancellation of next year’s Super Bowl. I figure it’s the start of another grand solar minimum, or something else. Right now we don’t know.

I also figure that “permanent” changes in sunspots aren’t likely. Permanent changes in how sunspots change, maybe.

Sunspots have disappeared before. Somewhere along the line we started calling that sort of thing Grand solar minima.

Grand solar minima happen at apparently-irregular intervals. I’m guessing that they’re not “random,” but have more complex cycles than the sine-wave-like 11 year maxima and minima we’re familiar with. But like I said, right now we don’t know.

Sunspots and Grand Solar Minima

We’ve noticed that Grand solar minima happen at about the same time as regional or global climate changes.

That could be a string of coincidences.

I’d be less surprised if we learn that solar activity affects Earth’s climate. It wouldn’t be the only factor. I’ve talked about science, climate change, attitudes, and getting a grip before; and probably will again. But not to day. Not so much.

I put links to a little background near the end of this post. In case you want to read about the the Oort, Wolf, Spörer, Maunder, and Dalton Minima; or Aristotelian physics.3

One of these days I’ll revisit why I think Earth’s climate changes and that we should find out more before monkeying with the controls. Not panicking seems like a very good idea — particularly since we’ve survived some fairly major changes already.4

We didn’t know about solar minima and maxima, Grand or otherwise, until fairly recently.

They’re not mentioned in the Bible, although I wouldn’t put it past someone to come up with a ‘Biblical’ reason for saying they’re not real. Maybe Ecclesiastes 1:10. Joel 2:10 might work, too; although that’s used more by ‘End Times Bible Prophecy’ folks.

I’ll get back to that, sort of.

I don’t see a point in saying that Grand solar minima can’t or shouldn’t exist. That makes about as much sense to me as believing other worlds can’t exist because Aristotle said so, or that we knew everything there is to know about this universe at some arbitrary date.

A Sense of Scale

I also don’t see a point in desperately trying to believe that a 17th-century Calvinist’s Bible study proved that this universe started in 4004 BC.

Some folks try, and seem to feel that it’s an indispensable aspect of Christian belief.

I think and hope they are sincere. But I am convinced they are wrong.

Even if I preferred a tidy little cosmos that was new when Tiān Qiāng sān was Earth’s north star, it wouldn’t change reality.

Like Psalms 115:3 says, God’s large and in charge. I’m okay with that.

Getting back to stars, science, and what we’re learning — Emanuel Swedenborg published “The Principia” in 1734.

His ideas about science, intuition, reason, and religion were colorful, putting it mildly. But he also got scientists thinking about what we now call the nebular hypothesis.

Immanuel Kant, Pierre-Simon Laplace and a whole mess of other folks added to the mix. The nebular hypotheses is still the model that best fits what we’ve been observing. (December 9, 2016)

Fast-forwarding to the mid-20th century, scientists were getting an increasingly-exact idea of when this universe started. Some scientists, anyway. Hoyle, who thought a steady-state universe made more sense, called Lemaître’s hypothèse de l’atome primitif a “big bang.”

There’s a story behind that, but I’m running short on time. I’ll leave it for another post.

How We Know What We Know


(From Efbrazil, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Big bang, 13,800,000,000 years later: mapped onto a 12-month calendar.)

We’ve been observing our sun and the stars for a long time: long in comparison America’s election cycle, anyway.

Looking at the time elapsed since this universe started as one year, it’s not so long. We didn’t show up until “today.”

Folks started building cities about 22 seconds back, Copernicus said Earth orbits our sun a second ago — and we’ve been studying stellar evolution for a fraction of a second.

I don’t think we’d have gotten far if our sun was the only star we could observe. Based on what we’ve seen over the last few centuries, we might conclude that our star didn’t change, apart from more-or-less-regular cycles.

Happily, we can see thousands of stars each night: given clear skies and no street lights. More recently we’ve started studying myriad upon myriad more distant stars. That, and a lot of analysis, lets scientists learn how stars form and change.

Quite recently we’ve started watching stars that aren’t stars yet. We’re even pretty sure we’ve spotted nascent planetary systems.

If I’m going to get this ready in time, I’ll have to put off most of what I wanted to say about stars in general, and ours in particular. Also how our star’s younger years may have affected life on Earth.


Seeking Truth

I said I’ll talk about reality, the Bible, and ‘End Times Bible Prophecy’ folks.

But like I said, I’m running late. I’ll mostly talk about the first two, and give the last a ‘once over lightly’ treatment.

I fine-tuned some of what I thought was so after becoming a Catholic. That’s an ongoing process.

But I didn’t change anything basic, including how I see truth and reality. For starters, I think reality is real. And that I’m not a figment of your imagination, or vice versa.

That may be hard-to-impossible to demonstrate.

In principle I could convince myself that every argument was an illusion. Or that I’m something you’re imagining, and you’re the one thinking my thoughts. Overly farfetched? Maybe, but I’ve seen some rather odd notions. (August 13, 2017; February 10, 2017)

Part of my job is seeking truth and God. Since all truth points toward God, preserving ignorance isn’t a virtue. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 27, 3135, 41, 74, 2500)

I’ll find truth in the Bible, sacred scriptures. That’s why reading the Bible often is one of my happier obligations. (Catechism, 101133)

The Whole Truth

The Bible is important, but it’s not all that’s important. I’m a Catholic, so I think faith means willingly and consciously embracing “the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism, 142150)

The Bible has God’s revealed truth. So does everything we can observe. I’ll find truth in the natural world’s order and beauty, if I’m paying attention. Appreciating the world’s wonders is a good idea. (Catechism, 32, 41, 74, 283, 341, 2500)

I thought learning how this universe works was a good idea before I became a Catholic, and still do. An interest in science isn’t required for our faith, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

Each time we learn something new about this wonder-filled creation, it’s an opportunity for greater admiration of God’s work. (Catechism, 283, 341)

Doing My Job

Folks who seriously believe the “rapt-cha stuff” aren’t necessarily bumpkins like Non Sequitur’s Eddie.

I don’t know why otherwise-sensible folks occasionally fall for a current ‘End Times Bible Prophecy.’ They pop up fairly often, keep fizzling, and follow pretty much the same script. (August 23, 2017)

I think Jesus is coming back, and that we’ve got work to do in the meantime. Lots of work. (December 3, 2017)

I also take what Jesus said very seriously, including what our Lord said in Matthew 24:3644, 25:13, and Mark 13:3233.

The way I see it, the timetable for our Lord’s return is available on a ‘need to know’ basis. If Jesus didn’t need to know, I sure don’t.

I don’t mind. That sort of thing strikes me as being a very high-level command decision. I’ve got my hands full, just trying to do my job here; ‘working out my salvation.’ And that’s still another topic.

Some of what we’re learning about this wonder-filled universe:


1 Faith, science, and Galileo:

2 Paleontology and a little stellar physics:

3 Old physics, new knowledge:

4 Looking at facts, and thinking:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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6 Responses to No More Sunspots?

  1. sun=God moon is sister H M Mum

    • I’m not familiar with “H M Mum,” and so don’t know quite what that statement means.

      It reminds me of St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun.

      On the other hand, although I like poetry and metaphor, I am also aware that God is not the sun, not literally. And that’s another topic.

  2. Regarding the rapt-cha stuff. I found the idea quite interesting and didn’t question it at all. I assumed my own ignorance of the bible explained why I had never heard of it. I was a totally lapsed catholic for quite some time so never had a Protestant view at all.
    On conversion back to catholicism following Divine intervention, I sought to fill the blanks in my knowledge. After a year of tuning into the various blogs on youtube I did a search on the origin of the rapture and that was the eye opener.
    Finally I found “1Thessalonians 4.14-16”. It clearly states that the dead will be first to be brought up to Jesus and those still living will then be brought up after them.

    • Welcome back on board the bark of Peter!

      And indeed. I grew up in a mainstream Protestant family, for which I am duly grateful.

      The denomination my parents were with was one of many which placed little or no emphasis on the prevailing cultural “rapture” beliefs.

      I couldn’t help but notice ‘End Times’ beliefs, since they were important to very vocal subset of Protestant Christianity which was endemic to my area.

      Their attitudes and beliefs sent me looking for answers that make sense – – – which eventually led me to becoming a Catholic. My experiences have helped me remember that folks who sincerely and passionately believe that they’re right: can be mistaken. Myself included.

      That’s one reason I very often include links to a relevant and authoritative source when I say something about what the Church says. I do my best to be accurate, and check my opinions against official/authoritative sources – – – and figure other folks like to do their own research, too. Links make that a bit easier, I hope.

      Agreed: 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16 is pretty clear about a resurrection.

      Taking “caught up in the air” literally – – – a nifty image, lots of folks taking off like vtol jets – – – seems to be a rather recent thing.

      My preference is to get information about Catholic beliefs from ‘official’ sources. The Vatican and USCCB (USA bishops) have an increasingly wide range of documents, available to anyone who knows how to use Google. Or go through their site navigation.

      The Catechism is available online, free, in English translation, on the Vatican’s site and the USCCB site.

      I recommend checking out what it says about the resurrection and Last Judgment. Maybe it’s not as dramatic as most End Times predictions. But it’s solid Catholic belief.

      Now, the inevitable links: Catechism 997-1001 and 1038-1041. (starting with http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a11.htm#997 and http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p123a12.htm#1038 )

  3. irishbrigid says:

    Missing Oxford comma: “telegraph operators got shocked and miners in the”

    Is this capitalization intentional? “another Grand solar minimum”

    Missing word? “Looking at time elapsed since this universe started as one year, it’s not so long.”

    The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Thanks for taking time to comment!