A few weeks ago, I was commissioned to make a sculpture for a fundraiser to benefit our local chamber of commerce. The piece turned our great, and brought in 1,000 dollars for the charity in a live auction. I however did not fair so well, I slipped on some ice and nearly sliced off my leg while carrying the sculpture out of my shop. At first I thought I would make a wine holder of some kind, or maybe a coffee table, but eventually - after digging through the junk yard that used to be my back yard – I settled on making a sun that could be hung on a house gable.
After completion, I began contemplating what I had just built. The sun is a pretty amazing bit of cosmic conjurey, one might say stellar! So, following my usual and constant quest for knowledge, I did some research on the sun…
The sun, of course, is a star just like Betelgeuse, or Sirius, or the North Star, and is one of more than 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. It orbits some 25,000 light years from the galactic core, completing a revolution once every 250 million years. The sun, compared to other bodies in the galaxy, is relatively young, part of a generation of stars known as Population I, which are relatively rich in heavy elements. An older generation of stars is called Population II, and an earlier generation of Population III may have existed, although no members of this generation are known yet. (I think this is REALLY cool by the way)
The sun was born roughly 4.6 billion years ago, and it is the accepted theory that the sun and the rest of the solar system formed from a giant, rotating cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula, which look a bit like tadpoles. As the nebula collapsed because of its gravity, it spun faster and flattened into a disk. Most of the material was pulled toward the center to form the sun. The sun has enough nuclear fuel to stay much as it is now for another 5 billion years. After that, it will swell to become a red giant. Eventually, it will shed its outer layers, and the remaining core will collapse to become a white dwarf. Slowly, this will fade, to enter its final phase as a dim, cool object sometimes known as a black dwarf.
Like the earth, the sun also has a magnetic field. Oddly, it’s only about twice the strength of earth’s. However, it can become highly concentrated in small areas, sometimes becoming 3,000 times stronger than usual. These twists in the magnetic field form because the sun spins more rapidly at the equator than at the higher latitudes and because the inner parts of the sun rotate more quickly than the surface. These distortions create features ranging from sunspots to solar flares, which can be extremely dangerous to naked planets, which are planets without magnetic fields.
Just like other stars, the sun is made up of hydrogen, and helium. Other elements like oxygen, carbon, neon, nitrogen, magnesium, iron and silicon make up only a small part of the sun’s mass. In fact, for every 1 million atoms of hydrogen, there are 98,000 of helium, 850 of oxygen, 360 of carbon, 120 of neon, 110 of nitrogen, 40 of magnesium, 35 of iron, and 35 of silicon. (I wonder if the ratios are the same for larger stars?)
The sun has also had a major impact on human development on earth, aside from the obvious: providing light and warmth. Ancient cultures often modified natural rock formations or built stone monuments to mark the motions of the sun and moon, charting the seasons, creating calendars and monitoring eclipses. Many believed the sun revolved around the Earth, with ancient Greek scholar Ptolemy formalizing this "geocentric" model in 150 BC. Then, in 1543, Copernicus described a heliocentric, sun-centered model of the solar system, and in 1610, Galileo's discovery of Jupiter's moons revealed that not all heavenly bodies circled the Earth. These advances in our knowledge about space continued. We later realized that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but that the sun was, and eventually we reached space ourselves. To me this is one of humanities greatest accomplishments and privileges. Now that we have the power to explore beyond the constraints of our atmosphere, we must not let our greed and hubris get in the way of the pure wonder and amazement that is our cosmic