S03E20: The Spaghetti Catalyst

The weather tonight (May 3, 2010)  is a cool 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  In some regions temperatures may increase over the next few days to over 15,0000,000 degrees.    Wind-speeds will be in excess of one million miles per hour.  That’s the actual forecast.  If you live on the surface of the Sun.

Keeping the science correct  for an episode typically involves just a little research and maybe a few notes on a napkin.  But  tonight’s episode involved serious prognostication and luck.    Tonight Raj says there are no solar flares.  All I needed to know, back in early March when the writers sent me that line, was that Raj would be right, i.e. that tonight, when the episode would air, that there would be no particles arriving at Earth produced by solar flares.

(Click to activate.) Image of the Sun with a solar flare by NASA's SOHO satellite with ultraviolet light

So I’ve been anxiously reading the space weather every day for the last few weeks and hoping for the best:

April 15:

“Solar activity is very low. No significant flare events are expected.”

Whew.  April 16, the same!  And so on every day April 17 and onward.   Right down for the rest of the month:

“Solar activity is very low. No significant flare events are expected.”

But then, with a small addition on April 30:

“There is a small active region in the NE disk.”

Uh oh.  Then I saw this for May 1:

Two C-class flares were observed yesterday….Unnumbered region, N24 E68 (X=-800,Y= 400). Alpha region. C-class flare possible. Position approximate.

My luck had run out.

What am I worrying about?  The weather report at the top of this entry really does describe the active Sun.    Lines of magnetic field on the Sun can burst open releasing enormous amounts of energy, comparable to millions of atomic bombs within minutes.  Light of all types reach Earth: from radio waves to gamma-rays.  ( My undergraduate senior thesis work was a cyclotron experiment to predict the rate of gamma from solar flares.)   Worse still, trapped charged particles such as electrons protons and atomic nuclei, previously tied to the Sun by magnetic fields, pour out of the opening and some make their way to Earth.   It is as if the Sun produced a giant fart.

X-ray image of the Sun from the Japanese satellite Yohkoh. Unlike X-ray pictures from your dentist, this image is not made by absorbing X-rays. Rather million-degree hot gas in solar flares directly emits the pattern of X-rays that are photographed.

Yohkoh webpage

Ejected particles arrive at Earth a day or so later and can wreak havoc.  Usually we are protected from charged particle radiation by the Earth’s magnetic field which deflects them.  But these can stream into openings in our own Earth’s magnetic field near the poles, releasing bursts of energy that at their worst can disrupt all sorts of radio communications and the power grid.   The largest storms can eject matter and magnetic fields together.  Those magnetic fields can cancel that at the Earth and create an opening for the energetic, and damaging, ionizing particles deep into the Earth’s atmosphere, even reaching the ground.

One among many famous solar events, on Halloween 2003, such a solar storm interrupted satellite communications and even destroyed a research satellite.  Astronauts on the Space Station hid as best they could deep in the station but still saw flashing lights in their closed eyes, due to cosmic rays crossing and ionizing their eyeballs’ vitreous fluid.  In March 1989, a solar storm disrupted power transmission and knocked out power to 6 million Québécois.  In 1958,  radio communication from  the U.S.  to Europe was cut off.   But perhaps the most tragic event was the complete interruption of a critical four minutes of the 1941 radio broadcast of the  baseball playoffs of the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

On a positive note, these charged particles produce beautiful displays of light as they ionize the air in the upper atmosphere creating Auroras, curtains of shimmering light typically only seen near the polar regions, but on the night of Feb 11, 1958 could be seen as far south as Los Angeles.

Aurora ("Northern Lights") produced by charged particles from the Sun hitting the Earth.

(From Astronomy Picture of the Day)

Radiation damage caused by the particles in storms is one of the major hazards to astronauts in space.  Personally I worry more for them about memory leaks from C++ programs.

Raj’s report of no solar flares had been a pretty good bet.  Astrophysicists worldwide have marveled at the lack of solar activity over the last few years.  NASA reports the Sun has not been this quiet in nearly a century.  Fear not though.  The solar activity follows a reliable 11 year cycle.  Every 11 years the orientation of the Sun’s magnetic field changes direction completely.  During the flip, the magnetic field becomes unstable and the number of solar storms increases dramatically.  In 2012 and 2013 solar astrophysicists predict a large number of storms that will disrupt GPS service and perhaps even broadcast of the 2012 Olympics.  Dish Network subscribers may as well order seasons 5 and 6 of The Big Bang Theory (TBBT) on DVD now.

Time to check the latest report for solar activity on May 2, which would let us know if Raj will be  right tonight:

An unstable nest of magnetic fields emerged over the sun’s northeastern horizon yesterday, and it is crackling with C-class solar flares.

Image taken on May 1 this year of the current active region on the Sun that I am worrying about.

Image by P. Lawrence at Spaceweather.com

Sounds grim. But C-class are among the weakest solar flares we have.  They are fun for amateur astronomers to look at, but shouldn’t disrupt Sheldon’s GPS nor, more importantly, your reception of tonight’s episode of TBBT.

15 Responses to “S03E20: The Spaghetti Catalyst”

  1. David Saltzberg Says:

    If anyone has a picture of the aurora in Los Angeles from 1958 I would like to include it here.

    • Tony Says:

      I notice you didn’t put up a blog post regarding tonight’s (May 10) episode.
      Frankly, this show is an embarrassing mess. YOU”RE the “science consultant”, so presumably your job allows you to step in and correct wrong elements of science culture as well as equations. You must REALLY be in thrall to the whole Hollywood thing, if you allow the show to depict a top female physicist as a whore. Shall we all blame you for this horrible garbage? If you have no say in the matter, then how can you face yourself in the mirror, knowing that you sheepishly allow your name to be linked to such a crass mess? Worthless. You’re officially totally worthless.

      • David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. Says:

        “You must REALLY be in thrall to the whole Hollywood thing, if you allow the show to depict a top female physicist as a whore.”

        Um… I think someone needs a stick or so of dynamite down his throat. Not much… just enough to blow his head out of his arse.

        Does Tony really think that David S. is in charge of scripting? And let’s face it: the whole point of the top-ranking female physicist being a very sexually adventurous person (when – for some reason – it is very often assumed that scientists have no bloody sex-lives – nor even the inclination to have them).

        “Worthless. You’re officially totally worthless.”

        No he’s not, Tony. But any reports of you having any reasonable intellectual capabilities would seem to be.

  2. Photovoltaik-Info » Blog Archive » What happened during the accretion phase of the early solar system? Says:

    […] S03E20: The Spaghetti Catalyst « The Big Blog Theory […]

  3. David Says:

    Wait! … Did you say … 2012?!?!?!?! :-O


  4. Links #12 – The one about Lost Says:

    […] The spaghetti catalyst from the Big Blog Theory. […]

  5. Brakk Says:

    That’s an interesting discussion, but I don’t assume the shows I’m watching are actually happening live.

    • David Saltzberg Says:

      I agree that you can’t consider most shows as live because often there are hours, if not days, between two scenes. However real time and story time appear to me to be at least highly contemporaneous. For example, in S0308: The Adhesive Duck Deficiency, the Leonid meteor shower occurred on the same night as the show aired.

      • Stephanie Jane Says:

        I really appreciate your attention to the scientific details, and I love reading this blog every week. Thanks for all you do to make the show so believable and well rounded. And that tid-bit about the meteor shower is a good one, I didn’t realize it was that same night! That is really cool.

    • sohcahtoa Says:

      I was thinking about that, too–what about repeats. It’d be funny to have the broadcast be an application with some logic to it for real-time dynamic content.

      But I also thought–why not get it wrong on purpose and make people freak out and think the show takes place in an alternate universe? Or do people already think that?

  6. Justin M. Says:

    Awesome post, really informative.

    I’ve been finding that I enjoy reading your posts as much as I enjoy the show itself. After every episode, I’m waiting for your post to tide me over to the next one.

  7. sohcahtoa Says:

    I know this is OT for this post but since this blog covers all the math/science-y stuff…

    Have there ever been any references on the show to digital steganography?

    I think it would be funny to have one of the characters email photos to everybody else (vacation/whatever), and everybody notices that the photos have nothing to do with whatever the original subject was.

    Then it would turn out the actual photos are encrypted in the photos that were sent out.

    Anyway, sorry if this is spammy.

  8. NeoTechni Says:

    “In 2012 and 2013 solar astrophysicists predict a large number of storms that will … perhaps even [disrupt] broadcast of the 2012 Olympics.”

    We can only hope.

  9. oecie Says:

    I want to ask, how the process of occurrence of solar storms?
    These are truly extraordinary. mighty Allah who has created the heavens and the earth.

  10. Tradução: “S03E20: The Spaghetti Catalyst (O Espaguete Catalisador)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita por Hitomi a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 3 de Maio de […]

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