Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Super Flares from the Sun

It's been a long time since I've written anything on super flares. My last year at KU, this was my research topic, in which I was looking at some really big flares on some stars very similar to the Sun.

The thing about those flares is that, in the 200ish years we've been watching the Sun, we've never seen anything that's even close. So can the Sun do anything like those, because if it can, we should be worried. Very worried. A coronal mass ejection or flare of that size would wipe out the entire electrical grid of the world in minutes.

The biggest solar flare we know about, was the "Carrington event" in 1859. This one was large enough to cause currents in telegraph wires strong enough to start fires on the desks of the operators. Even when the batteries that powered the system were disconnected, telegraphs could still be sent. With a much larger system carrying much more energy that is much more stressed today, we'd be in far bigger trouble if that happened again.

So ideally we'd like to know more about how the Sun acts over a longer timescale. The professor I was working with on this was Dr. Melott, and this week he released a paper that looks at a way to look through the historical record for signs that other flares may have hit us.

One of the effects we'd expect is that we'd see a sudden spike in C14, the isotope of carbon used for radioisotope dating. This is created when high energy protons from the sun hit our atmosphere. Usually this is pretty stable, since the Sun is pretty stable on longer timescales.

Drilling ice core samples and looking at the C14 in air bubbles trapped in the ice provide a way to see how much C14 was being created. It turns out that there is just such a spike around 774-775 CE.

While it can't be confirmed that this was absolutely caused from the Sun (a nearby gamma ray burst could similarly irradiate our atmosphere causing the formation of C14, but it highly unlikely), it's still a good bet. If it was the case, it would have been an eruption with some 2x1026 J of energy!

This is still a bit shy of the super flares that were the focus of my research, but it's getting close. So it's not unrealistic that the mechanism that produced those flares could also happen to us. If so, it's not so much a question of if, but when.

Indiana Lawmaker Tries to Give Students Rights They Already Have

Over in Indiana, Sen. Dennis Kruse (obviously a Republican), recently failed to push through a bill to Creationism. I guess it's too much to expect that a guy that writes laws would know something about them. Like that the Supreme Court stated that teaching Creationism in public schools was unconstitutional in 1987. Fortunately, other people knew and that didn't get passed.

Not deterred, Kruse is trying a new typical strategy. It's been the ID/Creationist strategy ever since they got their asses kicked at Dover. They realize they can't teach the non-existent controversy, so instead, they try to get people to question evolution so they can push non-existent criticisms assuming that the teacher is sympathetic to Creationism, or if they're not, enough students can harass the teacher and disrupt the class that the teacher will be forced to give the section up due to the prohibitive amount of time it would take to address every single false "question".

The new bill basically ensures that students are free to question the teachers. Which in truth, they already are. Students are encouraged to ask questions. Teachers can and should be ready and able to answer them.

This bill is new in that the teachers would have to cite the research to support their answer. This is where the trick lies and takes it from simple questioning to harassment. It doesn't say, simply the "evidence", but the "research". So teachers would be forced to have a library of specific research that was done for every given topic. Which often is contrary to how science works, especially on the big topics.

See, the deal is that it is very rare that a single bit of research establishes an entire field. So saying "what piece of research proves common descent" is a question that a teacher can't given an answer to. Because it's not a "piece" of research. It's a body and teachers would now be required to provide, on demand, massive amounts of research.

Thus, all a student would have to do to disrupt an entire week of class, would be to ramble off a Gish Gallop of dishonest Creationist "criticisms" of evolution, and the teacher would now be required to answer every one of them, in detail. That's not conducive to teaching. That's not conducive to learning.

Which is precisely what Creationists want.