sun - worshipped by earth dwellers
We, on planet earth, have revered the sun for more than a
thousand years. The ancient Egyptians might not have had the
scientific explanations at our fingertips today but they knew
the sun god Ra was not to be angered, as it brought life and
death in equal measure.
The first episode of five programmes in BBC series Wonders
of the Solar System (www.bbc.co.uk/programmes)
really nailed the point that the sun is master of the universe.
It's brilliant and hugely accessible for any audience regardless
of their science acumen.
Sure, there is some big, celestial physics floating about
but the universe is pretty vast and needs the huge ideas.
And, despite the temptation, there's no dumbing down. The
producers have confidence in the audience's ability to process
some complex ideas. It's very refreshing.
And the science you need to appreciate isn't that difficult.
It's a bit like going to see the opera Carmen - despite being
performed in a foreign language, you're still going to understand
the story and although you might not know all the technical
stuff that goes into the singing, you do know what's good
and what isn't.
Basically, there's this star about 90 million miles away -
OK, a long way away - that burns gases at unbelievably high
temperatures (millions of degrees, so no more moaning about
the 30 degree heat in the UK), which warms and illuminates
our planet. The sun sort of farts a lot and blows these hot
gases across space to us and quite a bit further on. With
me so far? Thought so.
These solar winds are actually quite fierce and earth would
be tossed about like a matchstick in a hurricane if it didn't
have a magnetic shield (now it's starting to get technie,
or perhaps Trekkie). This shield (generated by the earth's
spin and iron-rich core) is quite effective at deflecting
the extremely high-velocity winds trying to buffet the world.
The magnificent phenomenon of the Northern Lights (Aurora
Borealis) are the only evidence we see of what's going, as
charged particles from the solar winds fall to earth in curtains
of brilliant green set against a backdrop of an Arctic sky
at night. What's truly amazing is that the solar winds create
similar Northen Lights displays on Jupiter and Saturn as they
continue their travels across the universe.
Always key to the success of these scientific programmes are
the presenters and young Prof Brian Cox is a gem. Cool and
media savvy, he one of just a handful of scientists able to
communicate the complexities of demanding maths or physics
in an engaging and easy-to-grasp way. It's easy to forget
that he's one of the Large Hadron Collider boffins in Cern
when listening to his funny but thought-provoking narrative.
The thought the programme provoked in me was why we don't
make more use of this powerful and limitless (for next few
billion years anyway) energy source. I can't decide if the
human race made energy choices that will lead to a evolutionary
dead-end or if it really does come down to money and power.
I suspect the latter to be true.
Call me a cynic but we fight wars and spend billions to secure
the finite energy sources of oil and natural gas, yet we could
spend the same amount on solar energy and probably satisfy
most of the earth's power demands. And why, given the increasing
scarcity of fossil fuels, is it cheaper to buy petrol but
not solar panels? I thought global markets responded with
higher prices for commodities that are hard to come by.
So space and science say one thing but politics and greed
(hard to tell the difference these days) tell us another.
All I know is that the sun is here to stay so harnessing its
energy should be cheap and universally accessible to everyone.