Who Was Nicolaus Copernicus?

When it comes to understanding our place in the universe, few scientists have had more of an impact than Nicolaus Copernicus. The creator of the Copernican Model of the universe (aka. heliocentrism), his discovery that the Earth and other planets revolved the Sun triggered an intellectual revolution that would have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to playing a major part in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, his ideas changed the way people looked at the heavens, the planets, and would have a profound influence over men like Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton and many others. In short, the “Copernican Revolution” helped to usher in the era of modern science.

Copernicus’ Early Life:

Copernicus was born on February 19th, 1473 in the city of Torun (Thorn) in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland. The youngest of four children to a well-to-do merchant family, Copernicus and his siblings were raised in the Catholic faith and had many strong ties to the Church.

His older brother Andreas would go on to become an Augustinian canon, while his sister, Barbara, became a Benedictine nun and (in her final years) the prioress of a convent. Only his sister Katharina ever married and had children, which Copernicus looked after until the day he died. Copernicus himself never married or had any children of his own.

Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit: frombork.art.pl
Nicolaus Copernicus portrait from Town Hall in Torun (Thorn), 1580. Credit: frombork.art.pl

Born in a predominately Germanic city and province, Copernicus acquired fluency in both German and Polish at a young age, and would go on to learn Greek and Italian during the course of his education. Given that it was the language of academia in his time, as well as the Catholic Church and the Polish royal court, Copernicus also became fluent in Latin, which the majority of his surviving works are written in.

Copernicus’ Education:

In 1483, Copernicus’ father (whom he was named after) died, whereupon his maternal uncle, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, began to oversee his education and career. Given the connections he maintained with Poland’s leading intellectual figures, Watzenrode would ensure that Copernicus had  great deal of exposure to some of the intellectual figures of his time.

Although little information on his early childhood is available, Copernicus’ biographers believe that his uncle sent him to St. John’ School in Torun, where he himself had been a master. Later, it is believed that he attended the Cathedral School at Wloclawek (located 60 km south-east Torun on the Vistula River), which prepared pupils for entrance to the University of Krakow – Watzenrode’s own Alma mater.

In 1491, Copernicus began his studies in the Department of Arts at the University of Krakow. However, he quickly became fascinated by astronomy, thanks to his exposure to many contemporary philosophers who taught or were associated with the Krakow School of Mathematics and Astrology, which was in its heyday at the time.

A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu
A comparison of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the universe. Credit: history.ucsb.edu

Copernicus’ studies provided him with a thorough grounding in mathematical-astronomical knowledge, as well as the philosophy and natural-science writings of Aristotle, Euclid, and various humanist writers. It was while at Krakow that Copernicus began collecting a large library on astronomy, and where he began his analysis of the logical contradictions in the two most popular systems of astronomy.

These models – Aristotle’s theory of homocentric spheres, and Ptolemy’s mechanism of eccentrics and epicycles – were both geocentric in nature. Consistent with classical astronomy and physics, they espoused that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and that the Sun, the Moon, the other planets, and the stars all revolved around it.

Before earning a degree, Copernicus left Krakow (ca. 1495) to travel to the court of his uncle Watzenrode in Warmia, a province in northern Poland. Having been elevated to the position of Prince-Bishop of Warmia in 1489, his uncle sought to place Copernicus in the Warmia canonry. However, Copernicus’ installation was delayed, which prompted his uncle to send him and his brother to study in Italy to further their ecclesiastic careers.

In 1497, Copernicus arrived in Bologna and began studying at the Bologna University of Jurists’. While there, he studied canon law, but devoted himself primarily to the study of the humanities and astronomy. It was also while at Bologna that he met the famous astronomer Domenico Maria Novara da Ferrara and became his disciple and assistant.

The Geocentric View of the Solar System
An illustration of the Ptolemaic geocentric system by Portuguese cosmographer and cartographer Bartolomeu Velho, 1568. Credit: bnf.fr

Over time, Copernicus’ began to feel a growing sense of doubt towards the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic models of the universe. These included the problematic explanations arising from the inconsistent motion of the planets (i.e. retrograde motion, equants, deferents and epicycles), and the fact that Mars and Jupiter appeared to be larger in the night sky at certain times than at others.

Hoping to resolve this, Copernicus used his time at the university to study Greek and Latin authors (i.e. Pythagoras, Cicero, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Heraclides and Plato) as well as the fragments of historic information the university had on ancient astronomical, cosmological and calendar systems – which included other (predominantly Greek and Arab) heliocentric theories.

In 1501, Copernicus moved to Padua, ostensibly to study medicine as part of his ecclesiastical career. Just as he had done at Bologna, Copernicus carried out his appointed studies, but remained committed to his own astronomical research. Between 1501 and 1503, he continued to study ancient Greek texts; and it is believed that it was at this time that his ideas for a new system of astronomy – whereby the Earth itself moved – finally crystallized.

The Copernican Model (aka. Heliocentrism):

In 1503, having finally earned his doctorate in canon law, Copernicus returned to Warmia where he would spend the remaining 40 years of his life. By 1514, he began making his Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”) available for his friends to read. This forty-page manuscript described his ideas about the heliocentric hypothesis, which was based on seven general principles.

These seven principles stated that: Celestial bodies do not all revolve around a single point; the center of Earth is the center of the lunar sphere—the orbit of the moon around Earth; all the spheres rotate around the Sun, which is near the center of the Universe; the distance between Earth and the Sun is an insignificant fraction of the distance from Earth and Sun to the stars, so parallax is not observed in the stars; the stars are immovable – their apparent daily motion is caused by the daily rotation of Earth; Earth is moved in a sphere around the Sun, causing the apparent annual migration of the Sun; Earth has more than one motion; and Earth’s orbital motion around the Sun causes the seeming reverse in direction of the motions of the planets.

Heliocentric Model
Andreas Cellarius’s illustration of the Copernican system, from the Harmonia Macrocosmica (1708). Credit: Public Domain

Thereafter he continued gathering data for a more detailed work, and by 1532, he had come close to completing the manuscript of his magnum opus – De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it, he advanced his seven major arguments, but in more detailed form and with detailed computations to back them up.

However, due to fears that the publication of his theories would lead to condemnation from the church (as well as, perhaps, worries that his theory presented some scientific flaws) he withheld his research until a year before he died. It was only in 1542, when he was near death, that he sent his treatise to Nuremberg to be published.

Copernicus’ Death:

Towards the end of 1542, Copernicus suffered from a brain hemorrhage or stroke which left him paralyzed. On May 24th, 1543, he died at the age of 70 and was reportedly buried in the Frombork Cathedral in Frombork, Poland. It is said that on the day of his death, May 24th 1543 at the age of 70, he was presented with an advance copy of his book, which he smiled upon before passing away.

In 2005, an archaeological team conducted a scan of the floor of Frombork Cathedral, declaring that they had found Copernicus’ remains. Afterwards, a forensic expert from the Polish Police Central Forensic Laboratory used the unearthed skull to reconstruct a face that closely resembled Copernicus’ features. The expert also determined that the skull belonged to a man who had died around age 70 – Copernicus’ age at the time of his death.

These findings were backed up in 2008 when a comparative DNA analysis was made from both the remains and two hairs found in a book Copernicus was known to have owned (Calendarium Romanum Magnum, by Johannes Stoeffler). The DNA results were a match, proving that Copernicus’ body had indeed been found.

Copernicus' 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as the father of heiocentirsm.Credit:
Copernicus’ 2010 grave in Frombork Cathedral, acknowledging him as a church canon and the father of heliocentricism. Credit: Wikipedia/Holger Weinandt

On May 22nd, 2010, Copernicus was given a second funeral in a Mass led by Józef Kowalczyk, the former papal nuncio to Poland and newly named Primate of Poland. Copernicus’ remains were reburied in the same spot in Frombork Cathedral, and a black granite tombstone (shown above) now identifies him as the founder of the heliocentric theory and also a church canon. The tombstone bears a representation of Copernicus’ model of the solar system – a golden sun encircled by six of the planets.

Copernicus’ Legacy:

Despite his fears about his arguments producing scorn and controversy, the publication of his theories resulted in only mild condemnation from religious authorities. Over time, many religious scholars tried to argue against his model, using a combination of Biblical canon, Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astronomy, and then-accepted notions of physics to discredit the idea that the Earth itself would be capable of motion.

However, within a few generation’s time, Copernicus’ theory became more widespread and accepted, and gained many influential defenders in the meantime. These included Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who’s investigations of the heavens using the telescope allowed him to resolve what were seen at the time as flaws in the heliocentric model.

These included the relative changes in the appearances of Mars and Jupiter when they are in opposition vs. conjunction to the Earth. Whereas they appear larger to the naked eye than Copernicus’ model suggested they should, Galileo proved that this is an illusion caused by the behavior of light at a distance, and can be resolved with a telescope.

1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus' birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George
1973 Federal Republic of Germany 5-mark silver coin commemorating 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Credit: Wikipedia/Berlin-George

Through the use of the telescope, Galileo also discovered moons orbiting Jupiter, Sunspots, and the imperfections on the Moon’s surface, all of which helped to undermine the notion that the planets were perfect orbs, rather than planets similar to Earth. While Galileo’s advocacy of Copernicus’ theories resulted in his house arrest, others soon followed.

German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also helped to refine the heliocentric model with his introduction of elliptical orbits. Prior to this, the heliocentric model still made use of circular orbits, which did not explain why planets orbited the Sun at different speeds at different times. By showing how the planet’s sped up while at certain points in their orbits, and slowed down in others, Kepler resolved this.

In addition, Copernicus’ theory about the Earth being capable of motion would go on to inspire a rethinking of the entire field of physics. Whereas previous ideas of motion depended on an outside force to instigate and maintain it (i.e. wind pushing a sail) Copernicus’ theories helped to inspire the concepts of gravity and inertia. These ideas would be articulated by Sir Isaac Newton, who’s Principia formed the basis of modern physics and astronomy.

Today, Copernicus is honored (along with Johannes Kepler) by the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) with a feast day on May 23rd. In 2009, the discoverers of chemical element 112 (which had previously been named ununbium) proposed that the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry rename it copernicum (Cn) – which they did in 2011.

Crater Copernicus on the Moon. Mosaic of photos by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO
Mosaic image of the Copernicus Crater on the Moon, taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, . Credit: NASA/LRO

In 1973, on the 500th anniversary of his birthday, the Federal Republic of Germany (aka. West Germany) issued a 5 Mark silver coin (shown above) that bore Copernicus’ name and a representation of the heliocentric universe on one side.

In August of 1972, the Copernicus – an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory created by NASA and the UK’s Science Research Council – was launched to conduct space-based observations. Originally designated OAO-3, the satellite was renamed in 1973 in time for the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Operating until February of 1981, Copernicus proved to be the most successful of the OAO missions, providing extensive X-ray and ultraviolet information on stars and discovering several long-period pulsars.

Two craters, one located on the Moon, the other on Mars, are named in Copernicus’ honor. The European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) is currently conducting the Copernicus Program. Formerly known as Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES), this program aims at achieving an autonomous, multi-level operational Earth observatory.

On February 19th, 2013, the world celebrated the 540th anniversary of Copernicus’ birthday. Even now, almost five and a half centuries later, he is considered one of the greatest astronomers and scientific minds that ever lived. In addition to revolutionizing the fields of physics, astronomy, and our very concept of the laws of motion, the tradition of modern science itself owes a great debt to this noble scholar who placed the truth above all else.

Universe Today has many interesting articles on ancient astronomy, such as What is the Difference Between the Geocentric and Heliocentric Models of the Solar System.

For more information, you should check out Nicolaus Copernicus, the biography of Nicolaus Copernicus, and Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched the Scientific Revolution.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on Episode 338: Copernicus.

Sources:

What is the Milky Way?

Artist's conception of the Milky Way galaxy. Credit: Nick Risinger

When you look up at the night sky, assuming conditions are just right, you might just catch a glimpse of a faint, white band reaching across the heavens. This band, upon closer observation, looks speckled and dusty, filled with a million tiny points of light and halos of glowing matter. What you are seeing is the Milky Way, something that astronomers and stargazers alike have been staring up at since the beginning of time.

But just what is the Milky Way? Well, simply put, it is the name of the barred spiral galaxy in which our solar system is located. The Earth orbits the Sun in the Solar System, and the Solar System is embedded within this vast galaxy of stars. It is just one of hundreds of billions of galaxies in the Universe, and ours is called the Milky Way because the disk of the galaxy appears to be spanning the night sky like a hazy band of glowing white light. Continue reading “What is the Milky Way?”

The longest day – Summer Solstice 21st June 2011

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June 21st, 2011 is Summer Solstice – the longest day of the year.

This is the time when the Sun is at its highest or most northerly point in the sky in the Northern Hemisphere and when we receive the most hours of daylight. If you live in the Southern Hemisphere it is the reverse, so you will be having “Winter Solstice.”

Also known as “Midsummer” the Summer Solstice gets its name from the Latin for sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still). The Sun reaches its most Northerly point and momentarily stands still before starting its journey South in the sky again until it reaches its most Southerly point “Winter Solstice”, before repeating the cycle. This is basically how we get our seasons.

It’s not actually the Sun that moves North or South over the seasons although it may appear so. It’s the Earths axial tilt that causes the Sun to change position in the sky as the Earth orbits the Sun throughout the year.

Why Are There Seasons
The angle of the Sun and the Earth's seasons. Image credit: NASA

Summer Solstice/ Midsummer is steeped in ancient folklore especially in Northern Europe with the most famous place directly related to it being Stonehenge, where the sun has been worshiped for thousands of years.

Stonehenge Credit: bistrochic.net

The Sun reaches its most Northerly point in the sky at 17:16 UTC momentarily and from that point forward starts to make its way South. This means the days will get shorter and shorter until Winter Solstice in December.

Darwin vs. the Sun

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Today, we take it for granted that the Sun produces energy via nuclear fusion. However, this realization only came about in the early 1900’s and wasn’t confirmed until several decades later (see the Solar Neutrino Problem). Prior to that, several other methods of energy production had been proposed. These ranged from burning coal to a constant bombardment of comets and meteors to slow contraction. Each of these methods seemed initially plausible, but when astronomers of the time worked out how long each one could sustain such a brightness, they came up against an unlikely opponent: Charles Darwin.

In a “Catholic Magazine and Review” from 1889, known as The Month, there is a good record of the development of the problem faced in an article titled “The Age of the Sun and Darwinism”. It begins with a review of the recently discovered Law of Conservation of Energy in which they establish that a method of generation must be established and that this question is necessarily entangled with the age of the Sun and also, life on Earth. Without a constant generation of energy, the Sun would quickly cool and this was known to be unlikely due to archaeological evidences which hinted that the Sun’s output had been constant for at least 4,000 years.

While burning coal seemed a good candidate since coal power was just coming into fashion at the time, scientists had calculated that even burning in pure oxygen, the Sun could only last ~6,000 years. The article feared that this may signal “the end of supplies of heat and light to our globe would be very near indeed” since religious scholars held the age of the Earth to be some “4000 years of chronological time before the Christian era, and 1800 since”.

The bombardment hypothesis was also examined explaining that the transference of kinetic energy can increase temperatures citing examples of bullets striking metal surfaces or hammers heating anvils. But again, calculations hinted that this too was wrong. The rate with which the Sun would have to accumulate mass was extremely high. So much so that it would lead to the “derangement of the whole mechanism of the heavens.” The result would be that the period of the year over the past ~6,000 years would have shortened by six weeks and that the Earth too would be constantly bombarded by meteors (although some especially strong meteor showers at that time lent some credence to this).

The only strong candidate left was that of gravitational contraction proposed by Sir William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Hermann von Helmholtz in a series of papers they began publishing in 1854. But in 1859, Darwin published the Origin of Species in which he required an age of at least two billion years. Thomson’s and Helmholtz’s hypothesis could only support an age of some tens of millions of years. Thus astronomy and biology were brought head to head. Darwin was fully aware of this problem. In a letter to a friend, he wrote that, “Thomson’s views of the recent age of the world have been for some time one of my sorest troubles”.

To back the astronomers was the developing field of spectroscopy in which they determined that the sun and other stars bared a strong similarity to that of nebulae. These nebulae could contract under their own gravity and as such, provided a natural establishment for the formation of stars, leading gracefully into the contraction hypothesis. Although not mentioned in the article, Darwin did have some support from geologists like Charles Lyell who studied the formation of mountain ranges and also posited an older Earth.

Some astronomers attempted to add other methods in addition to gravitational contraction (such as tidal friction) to extend the age of the solar system, but none could reach the age required by Darwin. Similarly, some biologists worked to speed up evolutionary processes by positing separate events of abiogenesis to shave off some of the required time for diversification of various kingdoms. But these too could not rectify the problem.

Ultimately, the article throws its weight in the camp of the doomed astronomers. Interestingly, much of the same rhetoric in use by anti-evolutionists today can be found in the article. They state, “it is not surprising to find men of science, who not only have not the slightest doubt about the truth of their own pet theories, but are ready to lay down the law in the realms of philosophy and theology, in science which with, to judge from their immoderate assertions, their acquaintance is of the most remote? Such language is to be expected from the camp-followers in the army of science, who assurance is generally inversely proportional to their knowledge, for many of those in a word who affect to popularize the doctrine of Natural Selection.”

In time, Darwin would win the battle as astronomers would realize that gravitational contraction was just the match that lit the fuse of fusion. However, we must ask whether scientists would have been as quickly able to accept the proposition of stellar fusion had Darwin not pointed out the fundamental contradiction in ages?

The Sun’s Conveyor Belt May Lengthen Solar Cycles

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The Sun seems to finally be waking up in earnest from the long slumber of the past cycle. Solar cycles tend to last on average about 11 years, but the last cycle – solar cycle 23 – was 12.5 years long. The cause of the most recent lull in the Sun’s activity is somewhat enigmatic, but it may be explained by the “conveyor belt” of plasma that circulates in the Sun’s chromosphere and photosophere. Just how far this conveyor belt of plasma extends underneath the Sun may heavily influence the duration of solar cycles.

In a recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Dr. Mausumi Dikpati of the High Altitude Observatory National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado and her team modeled data from the Mount Wilson Observatory for the duration of the last solar cycle. When they analyzed and modeled surface Doppler measurements of the flow of plasma currents that course underneath the surface of the Sun, they discovered that the flow extended all the way to the poles.

This is in contrast to data from previous, average-length solar cycles, in which the meridional plasma flow – or the Sun’s conveyor belt – flowed only to about 60 degrees latitude. This flow is not unlike thermohaline circulation here on Earth, in which the ocean transports heat around the globe.

Dr. Dikpati said in an email interview, “This is the first time that the Sun’s conveyor-belt has been measured accurately enough for two consecutive cycles (cycles 22 spanning approximately 1986-1996.5 and cycle 23 spanning 1996.5-2009). From these data we now know that cycle 22 had a shorter conveyor-belt reaching only to 60-degree latitude, while cycle 23 had a long conveyor-belt extending all the way to the pole.”

The cycles of the Sun are intricately linked to the magnetic field permeating our nearest star. Gigantic loops of the magnetic field of the Sun are what cause sunspots, and as the contours of the magnetic field change over the cycle of the Sun, more or fewer sunspots are seen, as well as solar flares and other activity. There is always a lack of sunspots between the cycles, but the minimum at the end of cycle 23 was unusually long.

The conveyor belt of plasma flowing in the chromosphere and photosphere essentially drags along with it the magnetic flux of the Sun. Because the extent of the conveyor belt reached a higher latitude, it took the magnetic flux longer to return to the equator, resulting in the delay of sunspots marking the onset of cycle 24.

Dr. Dikpati and her team determined that it wasn’t the speed of the flow of plasma conveyor belt that lengthened the solar cycle, but the extent into higher latitudes, and slower return to the equator. Though the speed of the conveyor belt was a bit higher than usual over the past five years, it also stretched much further than during a normal cycle.

Dr. Dikpati said of using data from previous solar cycles to better refine their model of the conveyor belt:

From the same data source (Mount Wilson data from Roger Ulrich) there is evidence of a short conveyor-belt in cycles 19, 20 and 21 also. All these cycles had periods (10.5 years) like cycle 22. Back beyond that we are hoping that others in the community will search for evidence of the latitudinal extent of the conveyor-belt in even earlier cycles. In fact, theory of the conveyor-belt in high-latitudes indicates that a shorter conveyor belt should be more common in the Sun, rather this long conveyor belt in cycle 23 may be the exception. There is already evidence from Mount Wilson data that, at the start of cycle 24, the conveyor-belt is shortening again, suggesting that cycle 24 is going to be more like cycles 19 – 22 in length.

By getting a better model of the interplay between the plasma flow and the Sun’s magnetic field, solar scientists may be able to better predict and explain the length of future and past solar cycles.

Dr. Dikpati said, “The conveyor belt also governs the memory of the Sun about its past magnetic features. This is an important ingredient for building prediction models for solar cycles.”

Source: Geophysical Research Letters, email interview with Dr. Mausumi Dikpati

What is a Sun Dog?

A sun dog is an atmospheric phenomenon where you can see additional bright patches in the sky on either side of the Sun. Sometimes you just see bright spots, and sometimes you can actually see an arc or even a halo around the Sun. These are all related to sun dogs, and have to do with very specific atmospheric conditions. If you’ve ever seen a sun dog, you were very lucky, and they only occur rarely.

Sun dogs occur because of sunlight refracting through ice crystals in the atmosphere. The crystals cause the sunlight to bend at a minimum angle of 22°. All of the crystals are refracting the Sun’s rays, but we only see the ones which are bent towards our eyes. Because this is the minimum, the light looks more concentrated starting at 22° away from the Sun; about 40 times the size of the Sun in the sky. At this 22° point you can get arcs, a halo, or just bright spots in the sky.

They can occur at any time of the year and from any place on Earth; although, they’re easiest to see when the Sun is lower on the horizon. As the Sun rises, the sun dog can actually drift away from the 22° point. Eventually the Sun gets so high that the sun dog disappears entirely.

There are no set colors with sun dogs. The light from the Sun is being refracted equally by the ice crystals and so we don’t see the colors broken up as we do with a rainbow.

We’ve written several articles about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about a ring around the Sun, and here’s an article about rings around the Moon.

If you’d like more info on sun dogs, check out this site.

We’ve recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

Green Flash Sunset

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Have you ever heard of a green flash sunset? You might think it’s a myth, but this is a real phenomenon that you can see if the conditions are just right. If you’re watching the Sun dip down on the horizon you might see a green dot appear just above the Sun for just a second. That’s a green flash sunset, and if you saw one, you’re a very lucky person.

Green flashes can occur at sunrise or sunset, and to see one, you need to have an unobstructed view to the horizon. They occur because the light from the Sun is refracted – or bent – as it passes through the Earth’s atmosphere, following the curvature of the Earth. Higher frequency light (bluer light) is bent more than lower frequency light. This is happening all the time, but we’re seeing all the colors of the light spectrum at the same time. But when the Sun is right at the horizon, the redder hues of the color spectrum are blocked by the horizon of the Earth, while the higher frequency wavelengths are still following the curve of the Earth. While the redder light is blocked, the green and blue light is still visible, so we see the green flash.

There are actually a few different kinds of green flashes that can occur. The most common example is an inferior-mirage flash, where a dot of green light appears on top of the Sun just as it’s gone below the horizon. But you can also get a situation where a portion of the Sun’s upper edge turns slightly green, or even a green beam of light appears above the Sun.

We’ve written a few articles about sunsets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about green flashes, and here are some cool pictures of sunsets seen from other worlds.

If you’d like more info on green flashes, check out this introduction to green flashes.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

Chromosphere

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The Sun may look like just a mass of incandescent gas (plasma, really), but it’s actually broken up into layers. The chromosphere is relatively thin region of the Sun that’s just above the photosphere.

The photosphere is the region of the Sun that we see. It measures an average temperature of almost 5,800 kelvin and produces the visible radiation. This is the point where photons generated inside the Sun can finally leap out into space. The chromosphere measures just 2,000 km, and it’s just outside the photosphere.

Even though it’s very thin, the chromosphere changes dramatically in density, from the top down to the photosphere, the density of the chromosphere increases by a factor of 5 million. The upper boundary of the chromosphere is the called the solar transition region, above which is known as the corona.

One surprising mystery is that the chromosphere is actually hotter than the photosphere. While the photosphere hovers around 5,800 kelvin, the temperature of the chromosphere varies between 4,500 K and 20,000 K. Even though it’s more distant from the center of the Sun, the chromosphere is hotter than the photosphere. Astronomers think turbulence in the Sun’s atmosphere might somehow cause this extra heating.

The chromosphere is difficult to see without special equipment because the light from the much brighter photosphere washes it out. It has a reddish color, but you can only really see it during a total solar eclipse.

One of the recognizable features of the chromosphere are spicules. These are fingers of gas that kind of look like grass growing on the surface of the Sun. These can rise up in the chromosphere and then disappear again within 10 minutes.

We’ve written several episodes about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Sun’s atmosphere, and here’s an article about how solar astronomers are getting better at predicting the solar wind.

If you’d like more info on the Sun, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Sun, and here’s a link to the SOHO mission homepage, which has the latest images from the Sun.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

Why is the Sun Hot?

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The Sun is the hottest place in the Solar System. The surface of the Sun is a mere 5,800 Kelvin, but down at the core of the Sun, the temperatures reach 15 million Kelvin. What’s going on, why is the Sun hot?

The Sun is just a big plasma ball of hydrogen, held together by the mutual gravity of all its mass. This enormous mass pulls inward, trying to compress the Sun down. It’s the same reason why the Earth and the rest of the planets are spheres. As the pull of gravity compresses the gas inside the Sun together, it increases the temperature and pressure in the core.

If you could travel down into the Sun, you’d reach a point where the pressure and temperature are enough that nuclear fusion is able to take place. This is the process where protons are merged together into atoms of helium. It can only happen in hot temperatures, and under incredible pressures. But the process of fusion gives off more energy than it uses. So once it gets going, each fusion reaction gives off gamma radiation. It’s the radiation pressure of this light created in the core of the Sun that actually stops it from compressing any more.

The Sun is actually in perfect balance. Gravity is trying to squeeze it together into a little ball, but this creates the right conditions for fusion. The fusion releases radiation, and it’s this radiation that pushes back against the gravity, keeping the Sun as a sphere.

We have written many articles about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how hot the surface of the Sun is, and here’s an article about the parts of the Sun.

If you’d like more information on the Sun, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on the Sun, and here’s a link to the SOHO mission homepage, which has the latest images from the Sun.

We have also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast about the Sun. Check it out, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

When Was the Sun Discovered?

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When was the Sun discovered? Obviously the Sun is such an important feature in our lives, and the absolute necessity to all life on Earth. It’s kind of impossible to say when the Sun was discovered, since the first life forms on Earth probably relied on its energy. Humans have been well aware of the Sun for tens of thousands of years, and before modern astronomy had no idea what it was.

So perhaps a better question might be, when did we realize that the Sun is a star?

The Sun is incredibly important to our lives. When the Sun is in the sky, we have day. And when the Sun is below the horizon, we have night. Our biological clocks are programmed on it, and we life our lives by this routine. Ancient peoples thought the Sun was some kind of deity, and many civilizations – like the Inca in South America – worshipped it.

The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras first proposed that the Sun was a burning ball of fire, larger than a Greek Island, and not the chariot of a god. And other astronomers were able to calculate the distance to the Sun with surprising accuracy. In the modern scientific era Lord Kelvin proposed that the Sun was ball of hot liquid that was slowly cooling. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that scientists were finally able to figure out what the source of the Sun’s energy is.

Ernest Rutherford proposed that the Sun’s heat came from radioactive decay, and it was Albert Einstein who used his famous mass-energy equation (E=mc2) to suggest that the Sun was converting mass into energy. And finally, the theoretical concept of fusion was created in the 30s by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Hans Bethe. They were able to calculate the actual fusion reactions in the Sun that convert hydrogen into helium.

I would say then, that the Sun was really discovered in the 1930s, when astrophysicists finally understood the mechanisms working inside the Sun that gave off so much energy.

We have written many articles about the Sun for Universe Today. Here’s an article about how big the Sun is, and here’s an article about the Sun’s future.

If you’d like more information about the Sun, check out NASA’s website for the SOHO spacecraft mission.

And you should check out an episode of Astronomy Cast where we talk all about the Sun. Listen here, Episode 30: The Sun, Spots and All.

References:
NASA: The Sun, Our Nearest Star
NASA: A History of Our Understanding of the Sun – A Closer Look
NASA: The Life Cycles of Stars