Throwing daylight on the Sun

Researching and writing a book about our home star will teach you a thing or two

by Bob Berman
August 04, 2011 10:02 AM | 0 0 comments | 693 693 recommendations | email to a friend | print
They say the best way to learn about anything is to write a book about it. Sure enough, the product of 18 months’ work, The Sun’s Heartbeat, just published by Little, Brown, taught me how amazing the nearest star truly is. Let me share a few of the things that I learned.

Actually, forget about strange new solar information; I wouldn’t know where to begin. Vitamin D? The newly found “Sun-inside-the-Sun?” Its bizarre recent behavior? Instead, I’ll mention some of the characters – like Aristarchus (310‑230 BC), who was the very first to declare that we go around the Sun. It never pays to be too far ahead of your time, and Aristarchus was scorned. But when we praise Copernicus for “his” heliocentric theory, let’s not forget who said it first, 18 centuries earlier.

Fast-forward to Thomas Harriot, arguably the first to record sunspots. Harriot was the go-to science person on two Carnival cruises to the New World with Walter Raleigh, and one of the very few who bothered learning a Native American language and customs. Once back in England he wrote a best-seller, The New Found Land of Virginia. It made him a celebrity, which is how he could afford a telescope even before Galileo had one. In his book, Harriot praised the natives’ bodies by saying that they were “notably preserved in health, and not know many grievous diseases.” He attributed this to their extensive smoking of tobacco, which Harriot lauded because “it purgeth superfluous fleame and grosse humors and openeth all the pores of the body.” Harriot himself took to smoking this miraculous tobacco – and ultimately died of cancer that originated in his nasal membranes.

In the 18th century, when the world tried to learn the Sun’s distance using transits of Venus, the many far-flung expeditions produced astonishing tales. Consider the travails of French astronomer Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaziere, who tried to observe the transit in India. He failed to arrive in time thanks to an outbreak of war (and, probably, delays caused by officials writing his name on visa applications). Appalled, he decided to remain on the Subcontinent to catch the next transit, which would happen eight years later. Alas, when those dysentery-plagued years finally elapsed, he saw nothing because the skies were overcast thanks to an early monsoon. And so Galaziere returned to France, only to find that his heirs had assumed that he was dead and had taken his property.

How about William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, who claimed that humanlike creatures live on the Sun beneath protective haz-matlike clouds? Flash further ahead to Arthur Eddington, the first to figure out how the Sun shines. He was belittled in 1920 because physicists believed that the Sun was too cool to allow the nuclear fusion that he was talking about. His reply: “I am aware that critics think the Sun and stars are not hot enough. I tell them to go and find a hotter place.”

Speaking of which, Tobias Swinton, a clergyman, wrote a 1714 book explaining that the Sun is simply Hell, period. He argued that the popular notion of Hell being far below Earth’s surface was obviously wrong, because any fire there would soon be extinguished from lack of air. Plus, Earth’s interior is too small to accommodate all the damned – especially when one makes allowances for future generations of the damned-to-be.

Brilliant scientists. Astounding knowledge. What a year it’s been. I tell you, I’ll never look at the Sun the same way again.

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