THE SUN — Our Variable Star

This article updated on 25 Nov 2003

“Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the growth in our understanding of the universe is that we understand anything at all.”
- Martin Harwit, from a talk given at the American Physical Society’s meeting in Philadelphia in April 2003. Harwit is an emeritus professor of astronomy at Cornell University and a former director of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

But do astronomers really know what they say they know? The expressions of surprise at each new discovery hints that they don’t. And their theories sound far-fetched. To make their models work they use invisible matter, invisible strange objects, dark energy, and magical magnetic fields that exist without any electrical activity. It suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the universe. Even the closest star, our Sun, defies their understanding.

As if to highlight this fact, the last week has seen nine major solar flares ‘ a historically unprecedented outburst from the Sun. Moreover, this is a period of declining solar activity, when the sun should be experiencing fewer, less-energetic outbursts. With each flare billions of tons of solar matter, known as coronal mass ejections (CME’s), were hurled into space at millions of kilometres per hour in defiance of the Sun’s powerful gravity. The energy released in these unusual outbursts is phenomenal.

X40 Solar Flare November 2003

Click on image to enlarge.

Solar super-flare amazes scientists

A flare released by the sun on Tuesday could be the most powerful ever witnessed, a monster X-ray eruption twice as strong as anything detected since satellites were capable of spotting them starting in the mid-1970′s. “This is an R-5 extreme event,” said Bill Murtagh, a forecaster at the center. “They don’t get much bigger than this.” — Robert Roy Britt, Space.Com

Comment: No one has any basis for saying what the largest matter expulsions from the Sun may be. It is obvious from looking at powerful mass expulsion activity in active stars and galaxies that gravitational models are inadequate to explain what is going on. Gravity is an attractive force only. Recourse to magnetic field behavior magically divorced from electric currents serves merely to reinforce the mystical quality of modern physics without telling us anything about the true cause.

A news item by Jenny Hogan on of 2 November says:

‘The Sun is more active now than it has been for a millennium. The realisation, which comes from a reconstruction of sunspots stretching back 1150 years, comes just as the Sun has thrown a tantrum. Over the last week, giant plumes of material have burst out from our star’s surface and streamed into space, causing geomagnetic storms on Earth.’ The history of solar activity was estimated from sunspot counts stretching back to the seventeenth century. Beyond that, the sunspot numbers were deduced from levels of radioactive beryllium-10 trapped in ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica. When Mike Lockwood, from the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, saw the results he said, “It makes the conclusion very stark. We are living with a very unusual Sun at the moment.”

Sunspot activity

Here is a chart of the Sun's variable sunspot behavior.


The idea that the Sun is behaving unusually is based on an assumption about what is normal for stars like the Sun. We are told that stars are self-consuming thermonuclear engines that have sufficient fuel (hydrogen) to maintain a steady output for millions or billions of years. However, while the Sun”s visible light output varies by only tenths of a percent, its energy in UV and X-rays varies by a factor of 20!

The changing Sun

Above are X-ray images of the Sun captured 4 months apart between 1991 and 1995 by the Yohkoh spacecraft.

There has never been a satisfactory explanation for this variable behavior of the Sun. The sunspot cycle remains a complex enigma that has no established connection with the thermonuclear model of the Sun. However, it has long been known that sunspots are sites of powerful magnetic fields. So theorists have spent decades unsuccessfully trying to model a hidden dynamo inside the Sun that can reproduce the complex tangle of magnetic fields seen above the Sun. This kind of thinking is reflected in the report: “The dark patches on the surface of the Sun that we call sunspots are a symptom of fierce magnetic activity inside.” Notice there is no mention of the powerful electric currents required to generate the magnetic fields. It is pure speculation, stated as fact, that the magnetic field of a sunspot is generated by activity inside the star.

The key to understanding our star, and the first stepping-stone to understanding the electric universe, is that stars are an electrical phenomenon!

The thermonuclear model of stars is a product of its time — the early 1900′s. That it remains essentially unchanged into the new millennium is a measure of the rigidity of the peer structure and narrow focus within academia. We have since discovered that space is full of charged particles (plasma) and magnetic fields. The Sun is a ball of plasma and its behavior more complex than was dreamt a century ago. Eddington, who gave us the standard solar model, did so using gravity and ideal gas laws. He did not know that space is threaded with magnetic fields and flows of charged particles (electric currents), with the Sun as a focus. A beneficiary of Eddington”s model, George Gamow, was moved to write effusively:

According to a Greek legend, Prometheus flew all the way to the Sun in order to bring back to mortals some of the heavenly fire. But even Prometheus would not risk diving into the Sun’s photosphere to see what was under it. However, this feat was carried out by the British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, who was able to find out everything about the interior of the Sun and other stars without leaving his comfortable study at Cambridge University. “It should not be too difficult,” Sir Arthur used to say, ”to understand such a simple thing as a star.” And he had very good reasons for that statement. Indeed, while geophysicists are still unable to agree on the exact value of the temperature in the center of the Earth, which is only about four thousand miles below our feet, astronomers can tell the temperature of the central regions of the Sun and of many other stars within a few percentage points and be quite sure about the figures they quote. [A Star Called the Sun, George Gamow, p.93.]

I included Gamow’s comments as an example of the hubris of mathematical physicists and as a warning. It can be argued that astrophysics is in worse shape than geophysics. There is absolutely no way that anyone can be sure about the temperature of the center of the Sun. Yet confident statements like this are reported daily in the media as fact. It has resulted in the science fiction cosmology of today. More caution would be welcome. The visible activity on the surface of the Sun remains a puzzle. Sunspots are an enigma. When we look through the centers of dark sunspots it is thousands of degrees cooler beneath the bright photosphere.

If we do not understand the Sun, we know nothing about the universe.

“What I believe to be the basic misconception of modern mathematical physicists – evident, as I say, not only in this problem but conspicuously so throughout the welter of wild speculations concerning cosmology and other departments of physical science – is the idea that everything that is mathematically true must have a physical counterpart; and not only so, but must have the particular physical counterpart that happens to accord with the theory that the mathematician wishes to advocate.” [Herbert Dingle, Science at the Cross-Roads, pp. 124-5.]

Of course, Eddington the mathematician would see a star as a simple thing. Mathematicians require simple models to allow a mathematical solution. But as spacecraft have expanded our view of the Sun it is clear that that bright ball of plasma is not ‘a simple thing.’ Even so, Eddington seemed to intuit that stars exhibited electrical effects:

“If there is no other way out we may have to suppose that bright line spectra in the stars are produced by electric discharges similar to those producing bright line spectra in a vacuum tube… We conclude provisionally that bright lines in the spectrum of a static star indicate that either (a) the star is greatly disturbed by ‘thunderstorms,’ or (b) it is a nebulous star.” [The Internal Constitution of the Stars, pp. 344-5].

The problem for Eddington was that the origin of electricity in thunderstorms was, and still is, not understood. Therefore, as a mathematician, he did not pursue the problem. The simple answer is that both the earthly and the solar phenomena are due to the electrical nature of the universe. An earthly thunderstorm is mere sparks beside the global electrical storm that constitutes a star.

Eddington did momentarily consider an external source for a star’s energy:

“In seeking a source of energy other than [gravitational] contraction the first question is whether the energy to be radiated in future is now hidden in the star or whether it is being picked up continuously from outside. Suggestions have been made that the impact of meteoric matter provides the heat, or that there is some subtle radiation traversing space that the star picks up.”

‘Subtle radiation’ sounds like the kind of explanation that might be favored by modern theorists but it was dismissed immediately by Eddington. Today we know there are streams of charged particles moving in space. But Eddington had already decided what must be inside the Sun:

“Strong objections may be urged against these hypotheses individually; but it is unnecessary to consider them in detail because they have arisen through a misunderstanding of the nature of the problem. No source of energy is of any avail unless it liberates energy in the deep interior of the star. It is not enough to provide for the external radiation of the star. We must provide for the maintenance of the high internal temperature, without which the star would collapse.”

There we have it. The thermonuclear engine inside stars is required to save Eddington’s mechanical stellar model! Yet for decades the solar neutrino counts have been telling us that that model is incorrect.

If we can find a reason why the Sun is the size we see, given its mass, without requiring internal heat then an external source of energy is possible. A few pages earlier, Eddington seems to deal with electric charge in the interior of a star when he invokes the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution law for a gas at uniform temperature in a gravitational field. It simply says that the lighter molecules will tend to rise to the top. He writes:

“In ionized material the electrons are far lighter than the ions and tend to rise to the top… But this separation is stopped almost before it has begun, because the minutest inequality creates a large electrostatic field which stops any further diffusion.” The calculated result is “a deficiency of 1 electron in every million tons of matter. … The electric force, which varies in proportion to gravity in the interior, is absurdly weak, but it stops any diffusion of the electron outwards.”

Eddington’s argument is too simplistic. It seems aimed to keep the model simple rather than realistic. Thermal ionization of hydrogen only becomes significant at a temperature of about 100,000K. Therefore, atoms and molecules will predominate through most of a star”s volume, where the gravity is strongest. That applies to the entire star in the electric model. The nucleus of each atom, which is thousands of times heavier than the electrons, will be gravitationally offset from the center of the atom. The result is that each atom becomes a small electric dipole. It is significant that if you want to discover the physics of atomic and molecular dipole forces you need to turn to chemistry texts. Such is the problem with specialization. The atomic and molecular dipoles align to form a radial electric field that causes electrons to diffuse outwards in enormously greater numbers than Eddington’s simple gravitational sorting allows. It leaves positively charged ions behind which repel one another. That electrical repulsion balances the compressive force of gravity without the need for a central heat source in the star.

Important Consequences of the Electric Star Model for the Sun

1. A star is formed electromagnetically, not gravitationally, and is powered thereafter electrically (by Eddington’s “subtle radiation”).

2. Near the Sun, galactic transmission lines are in the form of 0.3 parsecs wide rotating Birkeland filaments (based on those detected at the center of the Milky Way). Their motion relative to the Sun will produce a slowly varying magnetic field and current density –’ in other words a solar activity cycle. To that extent, all stars are variable. And just like real estate, location is vital.

3. An electric star has an internal radial electric field. But because plasma is an outstanding conductor it cannot sustain a high electric field. So plasma self-organizes to form a protective sheath or ‘double layer’ across which most of the electric field is concentrated and in which most of the electrical energy is stored. It is the release of that internal stored energy that causes CME’s, nova outbursts, polar jets, and the birth of stellar companions.

4. In a ball of plasma like the Sun the radial electric field will tend to be concentrated in shells or double layers above and beneath the photosphere. A double layer exists above the solar photosphere, in the chromosphere.

5. The photosphere and chromosphere together act like a pnp transistor, modulating the current flow in the solar wind.* It has an effective negative feedback influence to steady the energy radiated by the photosphere so that astrophysicists can talk of a ‘solar constant,’ while the Sun”s other external electrical activity (UV light and x-rays) is much more variable. Because the photosphere is an electrical plasma discharge phenomenon it also expands or contracts to adjust to its electrical environment. That explains why the Sun ‘rings’ like an electric bell.

6. Double layers may break down with an explosive release of electrical energy. A nova outburst is a result of the breakdown of an internal stellar DL. Hannes Alfvén suggested that billions of volts could exist across a typical solar flare double layer.

7. A star is a resonant electrical load in a galactic circuit and naturally shows periodic behavior. Superimposed is the non-linear behavior of plasma discharges. Two stars close together can induce cataclysmic variability or pulsar behavior through such plasma discharges.

8. The correct model to apply to a star is that of a homopolar electric motor. It explains the puzzle of why the equator of the Sun rotates the fastest when it should be slowed by mass loss to the solar wind. (The same model applies to spiral galaxies and explains why outer stars orbit more rapidly than expected. The spiral arms of the galaxy and the spiral structure of the solar ‘wind’ then have an obvious connection).

9. The current that powers the Sun can be viewed as flowing in along the wavy polar magnetic field lines, then from the poles toward the equator. That current flow manifests as huge sub-photospheric flows of gas. In the mid-latitudes the circuit is completed as the current flows outward in a current sheet called incorrectly the solar ‘wind.’

10. The transfer of charge to the solar wind takes place through the photosphere. It occurs in the form of a tightly packed global tornadic electrical discharge. The importance of the tornadic form for us is that it is slower than lightning, being under the tight control of powerful electromagnetic forces, and less bright than lightning. The intense, equally spaced solenoidal magnetic fields of the photospheric tornadoes gives rise to the surprisingly evenly spaced magnetic field lines of the Sun.

Solar plasmoid

11. Encircling the Sun”s equator is a ring current forming a doughnut-shaped plasmoid. It is visible in UV light and is a source of stored electromagnetic energy. Occasionally the plasmoid discharges directly to lower levels of the Sun, punching a hole, that we call a sunspot, through the photosphere. A sunspot group can be compared to regional lightning on Earth. Scientists were surprised when they discovered ‘awesome plasma hurricanes’ just beneath a sunspot. Electric discharges in a plasma naturally drive such rotation. Sunspots of the same magnetic polarity are drawn toward each other, which is inexplicable if they are simply magnetic phenomena. However, two parallel electric current filaments following the magnetic field lines are naturally drawn together.

12. Sometimes the slow discharge that forms a sunspot may trigger a stellar lightning flash, resulting in a more sudden and powerful release of stored electrical energy. An x-ray flash is the signature of such lightning. That arc may result in a CME. The corona often dims as power is withdrawn from the solar plasmoid.

13. The conventional thermonuclear story of stellar evolution is incorrect so we do not know the age of the Sun, or its character in the past or future. The inexplicable and drastic global climate changes on Earth in the past may have found an answer at last in the variable nature of stars.

The Bottom Line

Our Sun, like all stars, is a variable star. We must learn to live with the uncertainty of a star that is a product of its environment. We can expect our Sun to change when it enters regions of interstellar space where there is more or less dust, which alters the plasma characteristics. In the meantime, we can only look for reassurance by closely examining the behavior of nearby stars. A few massive CME’s are the least of our concerns.

* I am indebted to Professor Don Scott for this insight. He points out that the complete shutdown of the solar wind for two days in May 1999 is understandable with his transistor model. It is inexplicable on the thermonuclear model since there was no change in the Sun”s visible energy output that accompanied the phenomenon.

Update 25 November 2003:

Louis Lanzerotti, of the New Jersey Institute of Technology/Bell Labs, released the following startling report on November 14, 2003. It is a result of observations from the Ulysses spacecraft, which is orbiting over the poles of the Sun:

Data from Ulysses show that the solar wind originates in holes in the sun’s corona, and the speed of the solar wind varies inversely with coronal temperature. “This was completely unexpected,” said Lanzerotti. “Theorists had predicted the opposite. Now all models of the sun and the solar wind will have to explain this observation.”

I missed an opportunity. This finding could have been predicted from the electrical model of the Sun.

The standard model of the solar wind has it “boiling off” the Sun so that you would expect a direct correlation between coronal temperature and solar wind speed. That is precisely the opposite of what the Ulysses spacecraft saw.

In the electric model of the Sun, where the solar electric field is strong in the coronal holes, protons of the solar wind are being strongly accelerated away from the Sun. Their random motion becomes less significant in a process called de-thermalization. Outside the coronal holes, where the coronal electric field is weaker, the protons move more aimlessly. As a result they suffer more collisions and move more randomly. The degree of random movement of particles directly equates to temperature. So the solar wind is fastest where the corona appears coolest and the solar wind is slowest where the corona appears hottest — as Ulysses found.

Wal Thornhill

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