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Blame it on sunspots!

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As a computer professional, I have always been amused by what flakey things that some computer consultants blame glitches and snafus on. At first, way back in the CP/M and DOS days they blamed everything on static electricity. More recently they've blamed stuff on sunspots.

Well, maybe they were on to something... We had 6 of out 150 servers go whacko today, more than at any other time. Then I logged on to the Internet and saw the news about the huge solar flare that just happened.

http://dailynews.yahoo.com/fc/science/space_weather

So blame it on sunspots!

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I have a software vendor that absolutely blames glitches on sunspots AND has been able to show me news stories that correspond with the days we had the problems.

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Years ago, back in the days of DOS and BBSes and Usenet, the Net was acting really sluggish for most of one day. I was chatting with a scientist friend and said (totally joking), "Sheesh, what's the problem, sunspots"? He (totally serious) said "Well, yes, it could be that, or it could be...[some other explanation]." I was floored, because I had no inkling that sunspots really migt be to blame.

Maybe those years in the Joe Berg Science Club in high school had finally paid off! (What can I say? The ratio of boys to girls in that club was VERY favorable for the girls, and I always liked the brainy types!)

Linda Z

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These days, at least for the long-haul part of the path, most of the internet is fiber optic and probably not susceptable to solar flares. That's not to say that the "last mile" might not be susceptable. On the other hand, it's a well kept secret that the SDRAM in PC's is susceptable to cosmic rays. I saw a study a few months ago about how A) servers have what was once regarded as vast quantities of memory, increasing the odds of hits and B) the feature size of the memory cells is smaller, further increasing the likelyhood of a cosmic ray disrupting the contents. The gist of the article is that there's a real need for error correction memory in servers.

I'm not an astrophyscist (and I can't even spell it) so I don't know if solar storms produce cosmic rays.

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I don't remember enough physics to explain it completely...but the solar flares do effect the earth's magnetosphere (the earth has a magnetic field).

Magnitism is intimately connected with electricity - so I understand that there is a connecton.

Solar flares also affect the aurora borealis, I understand it increases the effect.

There is such a thing as "solar wind". It is waves of streaming particles. They are increased by solar flares...and have been blamed for some of our satellites falling from orbit...(it takes a very long time).

Now if Zixar were here...he could explain it better and probably would find a few web sites that would even have diagrams and pictures!

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Well, before everyone had a computer, we had to take the blame for things we did wrong.

Personally, I think there's a computer out there somewhere, in some scientist's office, who is tired of getting all the blame.

Ah, sunspots -- the new scapegoat!

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The ultra-quick version: It's not exactly sunspots, it's solar flares that cause all the hoo-hah.

The long and boring version: Our sun is a typical yellow star, spectral class G5. It is a dull and boring star, as stars go, yet it's keeping everyone here alive with its heat and light.

Ol' Sol does this by being a constantly-exploding fusion reactor nearly a million miles across. Explosive reactions, being chaotic like they are, don't necessarily happen in neat little patterns. The mass of all that burning hydrogen keeps the Sun more or less round via gravity, else we'd have a bizarre mushroom-cloud for certain!

Now all the fusion that produces all the energy happens at the very core of the sun, 430,000 miles deep. It can take centuries for a single photon of light to ricochet itself out of the core and up to the surface. There's no guarantee where it will pop out, either, and this is the main reason for sunspots and solar flares.

While it's waiting to be fused into helium, a hydrogen atom gets pushed and shoved around by all its neighbors. Since temperature is really a measure of the average kinetic energy of all the particles in a given space, this naturally makes the little guy HOT. The more times it gets hit, the hotter he gets.

Okay, since all these collisions are completely random, there is a good chance that some regions of the sun will be quieter than others, and therefore cooler. Now, as any good thermodynamician ( ) knows, wherever there is a difference in temperature between two regions in thermal contact, there must be a directed energy flow from the hotter to the colder. (That's the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, for all you Junior Geniuses™ out there.) The hotter particles have more room to run around inside the cooler region, so the hot leaks over into the cold. Since all that energy from the sun has stripped the electrons away from the hydrogen nuclei, that energy flow is really moving charged particles around, positive protons and negative electrons.

Now, Krysilis was right, electricity and magnetism are very closely related. In fact, they are the heads and tails of the same quarter, so to speak. The very definition of electrical current is a charged particle moving through a conductor, and when any current at all flows through a conductor, a magnetic field is generated at right angles to the motion of the particle! Voila, electromagnetism! (Note to sudo, if he's reading this: This is how you objectively define the direction "right" if you're one of the radially-symmetric starfish people of Altair III. If you make a thumbs-up symbol with your right hand, with the thumb pointing in the direction of the current flow, the curve of your four fingers indicates the direction of the resulting magnetic field. If you do it with your left hand, it's backwards, so the hand that correctly models electromagnetic field/current interaction can be universally defined as the "right" hand. This is the magnetic Right Hand Rule, and now you're part of the evil geek conspiracy. Sorry, bud!)

Okay, back to the Sun. We have cooler regions and warmer regions, with charged particles moving between them generating electric currents and the concomitant magnetic fields to boot. We call the cooler regions "sunspots" because that's what they look like through a PROPERLY FILTERED telescope. Note well: if I ever catch any of you trying to look at the Sun through a telescope without a filter, I'll poke your remaining eye out too, just as soon as you've stopped screaming.

The cooler sunspots are darker because their photons have slightly less energy than the rest of the Sun's surface. Sort of a solar dim bulb, as it were. What you don't see through that PROPERLY FILTERED telescope is the huge magnetic tubes of force that result from all this moving charged solar plasma. And I do mean huge--you can drop the entire Earth into a small sunspot. These field tubes arc out of the sunspots and back into hotter spots on the Sun's surface. Since magnetic fields attract and channel charged particles, millions of tons of white-hot burning hydrogen plasma shoot up these tubes and crash back down into the Sun. (This is called a solar prominence.

Most of the time. Sometimes, the particles whooshing through the plasma tubes interfere with the lines of force that make the tube (remember, they're moving, and if they're moving, they're making their OWN magnetic field, which isn't necessarily lined up with the tube's field) and the tube collapses.

When the tube collapses, this HUGE loop of highly-energetic hydrogen plasma goes flying off of the Sun. Many times, towards US. (don't panic--happens all the time) This is called a solar flare. Without the magnetic containment, the particles start to move apart, colliding with each other less, and at different angles. When this happens, the particle collisions aren't strong enough to give visible light anymore, so they give off longer and longer wavelengths as the plasma loop cools and dissipates. This shows up on our doorstep 8-1/2 minutes later as a tremendous burst of radio-wave static. This static affects satellites, microwave telephone relay towers, radio and tv stations, the lot. Heck, turn on your AM radio and tune it to a distant station. Many of those snaps, crackles and pops you hear came straight off the Sun 500 seconds ago. (That's how long it takes light or radiation to reach us from the Sun.)

We're not out of the woods yet. While the radio static reaches us fairly quickly, there's still this huge blast of still fairly-energetic solar plasma particles swooshing through the 93,000,000 miles of space between us. Being matter, it travels quite a bit less than the speed of light, but it's still on its way. The flare ejecta makes it out to our neck of the woods in a couple of days or so. (Do the math--it's hauling booty, even if it isn't light-speed!)

No, we don't have to send Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck up in an impossibly-modified space shuttle to save our bacon. The Earth itself does it for us. Due to the Earth's make-up, our rotating molten iron core gives us a strong magnetic field of our own. The flare is blunted by our field, and the more energetic particles slam into our atmosphere and slow down into a harmless, yet spectacular display known as the aurora borealis, or northern lights. (Or aurora australis, the southern lights, if you're in the southern polar regions.) The stronger the flare, the farther south the aurora reaches. Canada and Alaska get auroras fairly often. It takes a Class-X solar flare to fire the aurora off down around Middle Georgia, but I am lucky enough to have seen it on one occasion. Very neat!

Okay, so what's the problem? Why do flares cause so much havoc? Back to moving charged particles, remember that electricity and magnetism are different manifestations of the same force, so their effects are reversible and interchangeable. Since we have a strong magnetic field of our own, what do you think happens when several million tons of charged particles slam into it? (Think it over for a second, the answer should be fairly easy...)

If a moving charged particle (an electric current) generates its own magnetic field, then a charged particle encountering a different magnetic field, must therefore generate an electric current in that field! Electromagnetic "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," so to speak. So, even though we're safe from being baked by Sun Plasma Pie a la mode, these chaotic solar droppings generate all sorts of weird eddy currents in our magnetic field, indeed, in the ground of our very planet!

This is how flares can disrupt power grids with surges and brownouts. It isn't so much being pelted with cosmic rays or gamma rays (flares generally aren't that strong), but all that copper in all those wires acts like a giant antenna to pick up these induced fluctuations. The sensitive electronics inside your PC don't like spikes or dips in their electro-diets, because spikes and dips correspond to the 0s and 1s of their binary language. A few flipped bits is all it takes to glitch a program or crash a computer.

Satellites get it hard because they don't have the atmosphere to protect them, and they are farther away from the Earth's center, so the magnetic field protects them less. This is partly why space stuff is so expensive--you have to design it to work in a rather hostile environment.

So that's the long and the short of it. There's one more thing that bears touching upon, and that is that you can actually SEE all this stuff if you have a very special, very expensive filter for your telescope. Normally, telescope solar filters cut out 99.9999% of the Sun's light, but they pass the rest of the spectrum across the board. This lets you see sunspots, but that's about it. If you splurge on a hydrogen-alpha filter ($2,000 and up) it passes only that very narrow band of red light from excited hydrogen. This is the light that all those prominences and flares shine in. Looking through a scope equipped with an H-a filter is one of the neater things you'll ever see in astronomy. Instead of a quiet white ball with a few dark spots on it, the solar surface comes ALIVE in H-a light. You can see the boiling turbulence of the plasma, see prominences snap off the surface and become flares--it's extremely impressive. I wish I could afford one! That's the nice thing about star parties--getting to look through all the other nifty equipment.

God bless!

Zix

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Zixar wrote:

"[W]herever there is a difference in temperature between two regions in thermal contact, there must be a directed energy flow from the hotter to the colder. (That's the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics . . . ."

That's not the Zeroth Law, boy.

Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics

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Sun spots and solar flares aside, there is another source to be considered when dealing with those mysterious glitches. That source; Lightning.

Cloud to cloud and earth to cloud lightning can cause tremendous damage in an electrical circuit. A lot of folks don't realize that induced electrical pulses are what cause most damage. Zixar explained that very well when he spoke of the relationship between the Earth's magnetic field and moving solar particles (they generate a momentary electrical current as they enter the earth's atmosphere).

When lightning strikes, the same thing happens, only in reverse. All of those moving electrons produce a whopper of a magnetic pulse which causes electron flow in every thing it passes through, including the human body. That's how people are said to be stunned by lightning where no one saw lightning actually strike, but they heard the thunder very nearby. The people weren't actually struck by the lightning, but they were close enough to it that the magnetic pulse generated by the lightning induced a momentary electrical current in their bodies which stunned them. In other words, because of the interrelationship between electricity and magnetism, lightning does not have to strike an electrical circuit (or human being) directly to cause damage.

Induced lightning also affects computer circuits, such as the EEPROM, UV erasable EEPROM, CMOS circuits, and Flash RAM, among others. Like Zixar said, "A few flipped bits is all it takes to glitch a program or crash a computer." Just try inducing a couple thousand volts into one of these devices. If it doesn't burn it up, it'll definitely erase anything stored in it.

Just a thought...

Steve.

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Way cool Zixar! Thanks for that thoughtful explanation. I actually understood it - -no joke - it is the first time in my life that interrelated stuff made sense!

IMO, you are a gifted teacher!

krys

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Steve made a good point about lightning--it doesn't have to hit a power pole directly to knock out the electricity to a neighborhood.

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