Tuesday, 25 February 2020
SUNSHINE AND SUPERNOVAE
What is sunlight, actually? Yes, it's light from the Sun but so much more than that. Sunlight is both light and energy. Once it reaches Earth, we call this energy, "insolation," a fancy term for solar radiation. The amount of energy the Sun gives off changes over time in a never-ending cycle.
Solar flares (hotter) and sunspots (cooler) on the Sun's surface impact the amount of radiation headed to Earth. These periods of extra heat or extra cold (well, cold by Sun standards...) can last for weeks, sometimes months. The beams that reach us and warm our skin are electromagnetic waves that bring with them heat and radiation, by-products of the nuclear fusion happening as hydrogen nuclei fuse and shift violently to form helium, a process that fires every star in the sky.
Our bodies convert the ultraviolet rays to Vitamin D. Plants use the rays for photosynthesis, a process of converting carbon dioxide to sugar and using it to power their growth (and clean our atmosphere!) That process looks something like this: carbon dioxide + water + light energy — and glucose + oxygen = 6 CO2(g) + 6 H2O + photons → C6H12O6(aq) + 6 O2(g).
We've yet to truly get a handle on the duality between light as waves and light as photons. The duality of the two-in-oneness of light; of their waves and alter-ego, particle photons is a physicists delight. Einstein formulated his special theory of relativity in part by thinking about what it would be like to ride around on these waves. What would space look and feel like? How would time occur? It bends the mind to consider. His wave-particle view helped us to understand that these seemingly different forms change when measured. To put this in plain English, they change when viewed, ie. you look them "in the eye" and they behave as you see them.
Light fills not just our wee bit of the Universe but the cosmos as well, bathing it in the form of cosmic background radiation that is the signature of the Big Bang and the many mini-big bangs of supernovae as they go through cycles of reincarnation and cataclysmic death — exploding outward and shining brighter than a billion stars.
In our solar system, once those electromagnetic waves leave the Sun headed for Earth, they reach us in a surprising eight minutes. We experience them as light mixed with the prism of beautiful colours. But what we see is actually a trick of the light. As rays of white sunlight travel through the atmosphere they collide with airborne particles and water droplets causing the rays to scatter.
We see mostly the yellow, orange and red hues (the longer wavelengths) as the blues and greens (the shorter wavelengths) scatter more easily and get bounced out of the game rather early.