June 21 is the official start of summer, and it’s incredible to think that the Sun accounts for nearly 99,9% of the mass of our Solar System and is still nowhere to be seen!
The impressive number is what I learned last night while watching the mindblowing documentary The secret life of the the Sun on BBC2. I intended to watch Great Expectations on DVD, but could not zap, I was stuck to the screen from the moment it came on.
A few facts I quickly jotted down while in awe: Thermonuclear fusion in the core of the sun creates the light. A photon (‘light spec’) travels for a million years or so from the core to the surface, pinball style, before it is set free and comes our way. It takes 8 minutes and 19 seconds for the sunlight to reach our planet.
The light is at the heart of life on earth: plants use the light to make their food through photosynthesis and oxygen is the byproduct. Lucky us, we LOVE oxygen 😉
Ok somehow you already knew this, right? BUT! when they moved on to another known fact of the Sun I was seriously impressed. Actually, Kate Humble presenting the programme had tears of joy in her eyes when she reported on it, live (recorded): she had gone to the city of Cairns in Australia in 2012 to witness a total eclipse of the Sun. With her was a true eclipse raider: a photographer who had seen 17 already, and had tried to capture the perfect moment through his camera lense everytime. They stood alongside a road out in the country together with a herd of eclipse tourists, watching, as the moon slowly moved in beween the sun and the earth. When the eclipse was total, they were covered by the obscure shade of the moon for 2 minutes and 12 seconds, and the effect it had was striking: Exclamations of awe and wonder filled the air as up in the sky our two most familiar heavenly bodies performed their show.
By incredible coincidence of the unique size and position of the moon it exactly covers the shape of the sun, when the eclipse is total, showing a pitch black circle with a rim of fluffy light. This light is the sun’s corona, the ever erupting surface, spitting out solar mass.
At the hight of activity, solar max, the corona causes the solar wind, a storm of light particles basically, blown in our direction, which we can see here on earth as the Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights. This is an amazing light show in the skies of Lapland, best noticeable on a cold night in February. I once saw Joanna Lumley out there reporting on it, and already then I felt it is the one thing you should go see being an earthling. Check out your habitat.
After all of this I did see Great Expectations, and my excitement went full circle, when in the end Pip finds Estella in Mrs Havisham’s darkened boudoir. She seems to copy her stepmother’s behaviour after having lost love, by locking herself indoors with the curtains closed, renouncing the light of day. Pip can’t stand the sight of it and declares he has come back to open the windows and let in the sun. Wonderful last scene of an epic story.
You can see clips of the The Secret of the Sun here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03694kd
Joanna Lumley in the snow here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00dhv1n