Looking Inside The Sun

Looking Inside The Sun

SpaceRip has put up a very interesting video about Dr. Robert Stein, professor of Physics and Astronomy at Michigan State University, who has long envisioned a day when he could use supercomputer programs to “see” through the roiling surface of the sun and glimpse its dynamic interior. He describes his quest and offers ideas about what drives the violent outbursts known as coronal mass ejections, or CMEs, known to disrupt the electrical systems that power our civilization.

Here are some of Dr. Stein amazing words and commentary:

“I was looking to understand what the process of convection is, what the structures look like and how things behave and evolve.

I didn’t know what was going on and so when I looked at these visualizations it helped me understand what was going on and listen to people who actually observe the Sun I’d find out what they were actually seeing.

I was interested in fluid dynamics which is how fluids behave. When we say fluids we don’t just mean water or things like that, we also mean gases. I was interested in the atmospheres of stars.

I first started off doing some stuff in the evolution of stars, but again that sort of fluids come up because stars are gases and you’re interested in how they behave.

Everything I’ve done in my research career has used computers. I think I have worked on almost every supercomputer that has existed. I started with IBM that had vacuum tubes and a rotating drum memory with 2000 words of storage, not bytes, words with storage. They wrote the codes in and put it through some kind of pre-compiler and it punched throughout a new set of cards in symbolic assembly language, which you then put on the right place on the drum so that the time it took to execute an instruction, the drum would have rotated around once to reach the next instruction

As the power of computers increased two things happened: we went to do more complex problems including more physics, and we could do them on much larger scales.

If you’re studying something here on earth, you can work with it and you can run experiments to see how it behaves.

In astronomy, we can’t take a chunk of the Sun, and so we have to observe it from a distance.

All the information in astronomy comes from the light that we analyze, so astronomers have become experts on getting the last bit of information out of light astronomy.

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We use telescopes mainly as a big light bucket, it’s not our eyes only. When you make something that’s huge and a lot of light goes in, the better; and the bigger it is the more light it can collect. We use as big telescopes as we can to get as much light as we can.

When you have a lot of light you can break it down into very narrow color bands, so you can get a lot more information out of it. but there’s a side effect also for the Sun, which is what I’m interested in because the Sun is close enough, we actually only see its huge size, no details.

If you take a picture of it with a telescope and you can enlarge it, you can look at all the pieces. As you can see fine structures on earth, we can see things on the Sun that are about 70 kilometers in size right now. And we’re building a new telescope that should be able to see things that are about 30 kilometers in size, and for the Sun that’s really a very small scale.

And of course, the more information we get means there’s more stuff to model because there’re new things that we see that we never expected to see. So you’ve got to go back and want to model things on finer structures and shorter time scales, and so you need bigger computers that are faster to model these things the better.

If you were to just make a model without anything to compare with, we would not know if it was right or wrong or nonsense. It’s only by comparing the results of these simulations or models that we make, that we have some confidence that we’re doing something right.

When we say we simulate something is we’re making a model of it, but it’s a model that involves solving a set of equations to figure out how this thing behaves, and those equations are solved numerically on a computer, helping to examine what happens in the convection on the Sun when we get into these large-scale computations.

In the 3D picture of this animation, our goal was to see how magnetic field comes up through the surface of the Sun, and what effect it has. We start by looking down on the surface of the Sun, and we see a pattern of bright and dark regions. The bright regions are where it’s hot and the dark lanes around them is gas that has cooled off and starts being pulled back down by gravity.

We’re looking at the magnetic structures. What we see are visualizations of the field lines tracing the structure of the magnetic field, and we see that it starts off as a sort of large loop which then breaks up into sort of little finer structures as it’s rising up towards the surface.

That’s actually being brought to the surface by two effects — one is that it’s buoyant so it’s floating up to the surface, and the other is that it’s in one of these rising hot fluid columns which are carrying it up to the surface. The convection itself is bringing up gas to the surface, but it’s also breaking it down into much finer structures.

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As it gets near the surface and the convection itself develops into much finer structures, you see it coming up and it has all of this fine filigree kind of pattern as it comes through the surface. Because it was part of this large loop of the magnetic field, it has these legs which are going way down deep into the Sun, and they stay there; that’s what forms the active regions where you get the sunspots.

It has become dark because the magnetic field in these legs has inhibited the convection from carrying heat to the surface, so it is cooled off and when it cools off it becomes darker.

Every time I talk to people who are observing things, and they give me new ideas about what I should look for, I go back and I look at things in a new way and I discover new things.

Science actually makes people interested in the world around them and makes them look at what’s around. Begin to see that is exciting so that young people want to have careers in astronomy.

If you don’t have young people entering the field, curiosity is going to die out without people understand that it really makes a difference.”

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