The Aztecs thought that their sun god had pockmarks on his face. The ancient Chinese referred to them as stars inside the solar orb. One Renaissance astronomer argued that they were actually undiscovered planets. Today, some believe their appearance is linked to UFO sightings and paranormal activity. Others offer them as an alternative explanation for human-caused climate change. The rest of us wonder if they’re the reason for dropped cell phone calls or static-plagued radio stations.
We’re talking about sunspots, those peculiar dark areas that pop up regularly on the surface of the sun. They usually appear in pairs or in groups on either side of the sun’s equator. Sunspots vary tremendously in size, ranging from less than 200 miles across to many times the size of the Earth. Some small sunspots may last for less than an hour, but larger ones can last up to six months. Some sunspots—such as one in 2004 that measured 20 times the size of our planet—are big enough to be seen by the naked eye.
Astronomers in ancient China noticed sunspots several thousand years ago. The I-Ching or Book of Changes, which dates back to the 12th century B.C., mentions the phenomenon. The first written record of a sunspot sighting dates to 28 B.C., when it was noted that “the sun was yellow at its rising and a black vapor as large as a coin was observed at its center.” On the other side of the world, the Aztecs, who ruled Mexico before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, also paid a lot of attention to the sun. As we discussed, their creation myth featured a sun god with a pockmarked face.
In Europe, people had a harder time accepting the existence of sunspots. That was because everyone—including the Catholic Church—accepted Greek philosopher Aristotle’s idea that the heavens were perfect and unchanging. Instead, when a large sunspot appeared for eight days in A.D. 807, they dismissed the phenomenon as the passage of the planet Mercury across the sun.
However, after the telescope was developed in the early 1600s, the Italian astronomer Galileo and others clearly saw that the sun had dark spots. Astronomer and Catholic priest Christoph Scheiner tried to come up with an explanation that didn’t contradict Church teachings; he argued that the spots actually were undiscovered planets that orbited very close to the sun and were visible only when the planets were in front of the sun. Despite Scheiner’s attempts, Galileo correctly figured out that sunspots were part of the sun itself by closely studying the movement of sunspots over time. By the mid-1700s, European astronomers were recording and compiling their observations of sunspots on a daily basis.
As scientists accumulated more and more data, they began to notice that sunspot activity developed a pattern. In 1843, astronomer S.H. Schwabe was the first to describe the 11-year sunspot cycle.
Since then, scientists used have used an array of tools—including giant solar telescopes that were specially cooled to observe the sun’s light without being distorted by its heat—to learn more about the physics of sunspots.
Sunspots occur because the sun isn’t a hunk of rock like the Earth and the inner planets, but a ball of continually circulating hot gases that doesn’t move in one piece. The interior and the exterior of the sun rotate separately; the outside rotates more quickly at the equator than at the solar north and south poles. Over time, all that messy and uneven movement twists and distorts the sun’s main magnetic field in the same way that your bed sheets get wrinkled and bunched up when you toss and turn in your sleep. The bunched up spots—actually twists in the magnetic field lines—have so much magnetic power that they push back the hot gases beneath them and prevent the heat from rising directly to the surface. In other words, they become sunspots.
Because sunspots are cooler than the rest of the sun’s surface, they look darker. At the same time, the hot gases blocked by these sunspots flow into the areas around them, making those areas even hotter and brighter than normal. This contrast makes sunspots stand out even more.
Sunspots’ Effect on Earth Sunspots are connected with other solar events like flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). A solar flare is a sudden release of energy from the sun, while a CME actually shoots hot plasma from the sun into space. The precise mechanisms that trigger flares and CMEs are not yet known, but the bigger the group of sunspots, the more intense such solar weather tends to be.
Flares and CMEs can send enormous amounts of energy and charged particles hurtling into collision with the Earth’s atmosphere, where they can cause magnetic storms that disrupt or alter radio and cell phone communication and can wreak havoc with electrical grids. In 1989, for example, a power surge triggered by solar energy damaged transformers that were part of the Hydro-Quebec power system. That surge left 6 million people in Canada and the northeastern U.S. without electricity for more than nine hours.
The increase in radiation that accompanies a solar flare is a theoretical health hazard to spacewalking astronauts, crew and passengers in high-flying aircraft, but there isn’t any evidence that people have actually gotten sick from such exposure.It’s unclear if there’s a link between solar weather and changes in the Earth’s climate, because our planet’s climate is influenced by so many other factors—from volcanic eruptions to man-made emissions of greenhouse gases. In the 1600s and 1700s, when there was almost no sunspot activity, coincided with a period of cold temperatures and severe winters in Europe and North America. However, scientists haven’t been able to determine if the two phenomena were actually related, though they think that a decrease in the sun’s ultraviolet emissions may have triggered the change in climate.
UFO watchers and paranormal enthusiasts also see links between the unknown and increased sunspot activity, but there may be more of a correlation with the intensity of a person’s belief in mystical phenomena.
2010-12-31 17:48 编辑：kuaileyingyu