Although I openly, and rather immaturely, mock the big purple dinosaur when among friends, I will admit that he taught me to appreciate what the sun gives to us. The popular song featured on the Barney TV show was actually written by a composer named Raffi Cavoukian and goes like this, “Oh Mister Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, please shine down on me.” At least, that is the only part I can recall! At a young age it instilled sense of wonder within me with regards to the sun. Why is sunlight warm? Why do we need the sun? Why does the sun look like that? Why is it bad to look directly at the sun and yet we need the sun to live? What else does the sun do for us that we cannot see? Most of my childhood inquiries about the sun, and hopefully some of yours, will be answered in this post!
The sun appears to be a solid ball just like our Earth, but it is actually all made of gases unlike our rocky planet. Hydrogen and Helium gas make up about 98% of the sun’s mass and play a huge role in its light and energy producing capabilities. The last 2% are trace amounts of other elements including carbon, oxygen and even iron. How is the sun able to provide the light and energy for our whole planet to live and thrive if it is just made of a bunch of gases? The answer is nuclear fusion, a process we have been trying to mimic for years as a potential answer to our non-renewable energy crisis.
Nuclear fusion, in a nutshell, is the process of combining two larger elements to form a smaller element plus excess energy from the reaction. In this case Hydrogen elements combine to form Helium. And I mean larger in size, not larger in mass. I know, confusing right?! That’s nuclear physics and chemistry for you! But try to wrap your mind around it because that is the most important factor of sustainable life on our planet. Thankfully, the sun has enough gases in it to produce nuclear fusion for a sum total of 10 billion years.
If you could look directly at the sun (please don’t, the sun emits so much light energy that looking directly at it can damage your eyes!), you would notice some very interesting features on its surface. Due to the intense moving gases in the sun’s core, the sun has a powerful magnetic field. This magnetic field will sometimes punch holes in the sun’s surface creating cool (as in temperature) dark spots called sunspots. Like pimples all over the face of a prepubescent teen, sunspots dot the sun’s surface. Unlike our hideous acne annoyances, sunspots create beautiful effects here on earth.
- Complex sunspot groups can cause solar flares which eject large amounts of radiation towards Earth. This radiation interacts with our magnetic field at the north and south poles creating the aurora borealis and the aurora australis.
- Another feature of the sun is the sun’s corona, the shimmering crown that circles the sun. Part of nuclear fusion is the release of charged particles. Just think of them as tiny Hydrogen atoms that have a charge, whether positive or negative, and are running towards the surface of the sun. When these charged particles reach the outside of the surface of the sun, they emit this shimmering and cause massive surge of energy called the solar wind. The solar wind, once it reaches Earth, is responsible for warming our planet and providing weather patterns on our planet.
Conclusion: As important as the sun is for providing life on Earth, once the sun runs out of gases to fuse, it will engulf our planet destroying life on Earth. This won’t happen for BILLIONS of years though so for now, look somewhat off to the side of the sun (so you don’t get blinded) and appreciate it for its life giving properties and for beautifying our planet!
Science Word of the Week: Non-renewable Energy— Energy created from sources that will eventually run out. Common sources include fossil fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas.
Work Cited: Most of the info for this post came from the following awesome cites. Thanks guys!
If you read this whole blog post, you are my hero! Thanks for reading. Please feel free to leave me a comment and feedback below. Also, let me know if there is any particular science topic you would like me to look at “through green tinted glasses” and I will write about it.