A computer's spot in the Sun

By Phil Plait | June 22, 2009 6:00 am

All the astronomy sites are buzzing over this amazing image of a sunspot:

Click to embiggen.

I don’t blame them… it’s gorgeous! And it’s not even real! It’s a computer-generated model of the magnetic field in a sunspot; near the center the field lines are mostly vertical and around the edges they are mostly horizontal.

But to me, as a scientist as well as an appreciator of gee-whiz images, it’s this shot that tickles my brain:

Sunspot 3d view

Click it to see it cromulently embiggened.

I know, it doesn’t seem like quite as much to look at, but it is: it’s the first time a computer has modeled in detail the magnetic field line strengths of a pair of coupled sunspots vertically, in three dimensions, into and beneath the surface of the Sun!

Wow. You have to understand, magnetic fields are the devil’s own work to model; they’re fiercely complicated. The equations are tough enough to solve, but the field lines interact with one another as the gas moves around, making this sort of modeling just as painfully hard as it could be. We understand quite a bit about sunspots in general, but in detail they are still a mystery; models like this will help us grasp those details. The resolution is incredible; the computer modeled points in the virtual Sun just 10 to 20 miles apart. That meant it needed to keep track of nearly two billion points.

That image is amazing, and beautiful. The way they colored it, it looks like a slice beneath the Earth’s surface… but the width of that image is far larger than the Earth itself. As for the science, check out this animated sequence to see just how this simulation allows scientists to understand the movement of the gas in a sunspot, too. You can see the gas flowing outward from the center, and the convection inside the Sun driving parcels of gas up and down.

Holy crap.

And just as amazing is the computer itself that did this work: NCAR’s Bluefire, which can perform 76 trillion calculations per second.

I’m glad they didn’t name it Skynet.

This comes at a time when we’re starting to understand how streams of gas under the Sun’s surface relates to its overall sunspot cycle. All of this has been a huge mystery for centuries, and we now live in a time of accelerating understanding of the Sun. And, on top of all this, due for launch later this year is the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a highly sophisticated spacecraft that will study our nearest star in better detail than ever before.

This is a great time to be a science geek. Revel in it.

Oh, and to the Plasma/Electric Universe believers who always froth and foam about how "mainstream" scientists don’t understand magnetism and plasma: you’re looking increasingly marginalized, dudes. You might want to look into a new line of work, like UFOs, or 9/11 theories. Science makes progress while pseudoscience makes excuses… and your field ("field"! Oh man, I slay me!) is looking weaker every day.

Comments (64)

  1. Stone Age Scientist

    Just look at the resolution of the image!!

    Phil, just a sudden idea here: is it possible to infer the age of the sun by the color of its sunspots?

  2. Wow! I feel inspired to go re-read David Brin’s Sundiver.

  3. Stone Age Scientist

    Click it to see it cromulently embiggened.

    Phil, you’ve been watching too many Simpsons.

  4. George

    Nice to see that those number crunching super computers are occasionally used for something else than simulating atomic bomb explosions.

  5. Joseph

    The embiggened image is now staring at me from my dual screen desktop.

    iz soo butiful!

    -Joseph

  6. Joseph

    @ George, aren’t the energies released by a sun spot on par or greater then those that our little bombs can make?

    -Joseph

  7. I’m curious Phil, do any reputable scientists believe, as the talking radio heads do, that sun spot activity is related to the “perceived global warming” (as they say) that’s been happening? Because to listen to Glenn Beck, the two appear to be linked.

  8. uudale

    “As for the science, check out this animated sequence to see just how this simulation allows scientists to understand the movement of the gas in a sunspot, too.”

    What animated sequence? Where?

  9. Scott

    …check out this animated sequence…

    Where’s the link to the sequence?

  10. IVAN3MAN

    Dr. Phil Plait:

    Oh, and to the Plasma/Electric Universe believers who always froth and foam about how “mainstream” scientists don’t understand magnetism and plasma: you’re looking increasingly marginalized, dudes.

    Yeah, where is that bloody “Anaconda” now? He’s been spouting his usual rubbish on the “Magnetic Fields Dominate Young Stars” post at Universe Today for the past ten days.

  11. Link to the animation here.

  12. Cindy

    Stone Age Scientist:

    “Phil, just a sudden idea here: is it possible to infer the age of the sun by the color of its sunspots?”

    Sunspots don’t last long: on the order of a few days to over a month for the really big ones. Sunspots look dark because the plasma there is cooler (~4500 K) than the rest of the surface of the Sun (5800 K).

    Do I even want to know what the Plasma/Electric Universe believers think?

  13. IVAN3MAN

    The above mentioned animated sequence is available here.

  14. FC

    Cindy, while relatively speaking the sunspot area is “cooler” than the rest of the surface, it would be more accurate to say “less hot”. I’m not saying you’re using the word wrong, as matter of fact your usage is correct. It’s just that we’re so used to using the word “cooler” to mean anything less than 28 degrees Celcius, that for a moment I was thinking of a sunspot as being it’s own cool shade on the sun :-) Kind of like those sun apartments on Futurama.

  15. @Brian:

    Well, even if you just look at the last 50 years of warming (when GW really took off), you discover that the warming trend isn’t correlated with the sunspot cycle (which is approximately 11 years long, give or take).

    ‘course, that reasoning is based on things like “facts” and “science”… you know, stuff Glen Beck isn’t too terribly interested in.

  16. Stone Age Scientist

    Hi Cindy @ #11, thanks for answering.

    Hmmm, what’s this about Plasma/Electric Universe believers?? For the past weeks since my arrival here, I’ve noticed that there are many camps strewn about firing canonballs at each other. Isn’t this fun? It’s just like the various denominations of religion!

  17. Evan

    Hmmm, I think that second one could work for a wraparound Compiz background. May need to try that when I get home. It’s too gorgeous not to save.

  18. brettusb

    Phil. That’s beautiful, truly beautiful. Can’t wait to see how stereo imaging and all that jazz can actually show that in the real.. world?

  19. Nemo

    I never thought I’d say this, but I think you’re misusing the word “cromulently”.

  20. Stone Age Scientist

    Btw, Cindy @ #11, you clarified something for me. I knew that sunspots intermittently appear and disappear over the 11-year cycle, but I had no idea of the length of time by which they last.

  21. Stone Age Scientist

    There’s something cromulent about Phil’s turning the word ‘cromulent’ into an adverb.

  22. That second picture reminds me of a background image from one of the “Hell” levels from the original Lemmings game.

  23. sophia8

    It’s completely cromulent within the context.

  24. fizzyb

    It’s also my understanding that if the sun was causing global warming, both the troposphere and the stratosphere of earth would be warming. Instead, the stratosphere has remained steady, or cooled since the late 70’s.

  25. Stone Age Scientist

    Sophia8 @ #22, your cromulence delights me.

  26. Cindy

    Stone Age Scientist:

    The roughly 11 year sunspot cycle is based on the number of sunspots that occur on the Sun over a period of time (there is also a correlation on where on the Sun the sunspots occur). Sunspots are caused when the magnetic field lines in the Sun trap the plasma at the “surface” (or photosphere) and prevent the movement of the plasma (so it can’t complete the convection loop). The basic idea is that right now the magnetic field lines on the Sun are relatively smooth. But the Sun is not solid, so the equator rotates faster than the poles (roughly 25 days at the equator and roughly 30 days at the poles). That causes the magnetic field lines to become twisted and tangled, which produces more sunspots. Sometimes the magnetic field lines become so twisted and stretched that they break and release a lot of energy. That produces a flare which releases a lot of X-rays. You can also get “coronal mass ejections” which are huge clouds of charged particles flung out from the Sun. If those “coronal mass ejections” hit Earth, they cause auroras and can even cause blackouts like in Quebec in 1989. Phil has much more detail on the damage coronal mass ejections can cause in his book “Death from the Skies”. During the 11 year cycle, as the magnetic field of the Sun becomes more tangled, more sunspots are produced. Of course, the “devil is in the details”, so it’s hard to model exactly how the field lines tangle and then untangle (and the orientation of the magnetic field of the Sun flips at some point during the cycle as well!).

    A lot more detail can be found in any basic astronomy textbook. National Geographic had an excellent article on the Sun back in July 2004. Try to find the paper copy because the incredibly useful figures are not found on the electronic version ( I know because I tend to assign this article as a reading assignment in my Astronomy course).

    I am not a solar astronomer, but I teach an Astronomy course at a high school. My Ph.D. thesis was on a certain type of variable stars (cataclysmic variables).

  27. Ryan

    “I’m glad they didn’t name it Skynet.”

    At my university they are assembling an incredibly large supercomputer (when its all up and running its supposed to be >300 terraflops).

    The name they gave it is really funny “Scinet” all you have to do is mispronounce that one little c …

    Incidentally this is incredible news for me, since my research involves modeling planetary magnetic field generation (almost the same fiendishly difficult equations they would have used here, a few different approximations though)

  28. Gary Ansorge

    When embiggened one can only say “Wow! How fractal is THAT?”

    Reminds me of some flowers I have growing in my garden, though they’re not as “active”,,,

    70 trillion instructions/sec(is that floating point?).

    I wonder how that compares with the processing rate of ST:NGs Data?

    GAry 7
    PS I’m even more glad they didn’t name it “Steve”,,,

  29. davidlpf

    You know the EU/PU gang are going to spin this so it looks like they were right all along and it is now after many years of them being pests mainstream science is giving in.

  30. Alan

    “You might want to look into a new line of work, like UFOs, or 9/11 theories. Science makes progress while pseudoscience makes excuses… and your field (“field”! Oh man, I slay me!) is looking weaker every day.”

    Well, they could always team up with the “iron sun” camp…been seeing a few of those around on some physics sites lately.

  31. fred edison

    Wicked awesome. A nice, deep slice of our nearest star on your desktop. That 10Mm |—-| bar on the lower left of the sunspot? 6200 miles (10,000 kilometers) worth and 1800 miles shy of the Earth’s width, if you didn’t know.

    For the first model of an entire sunspot, I’d call what they’ve accomplished at NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) damn impressive.

  32. The Other Ian

    70 trillion instructions/sec(is that floating point?).

    I wonder how that compares with the processing rate of ST:NGs Data?

    In “The Measure of a Man”, Data’s processing speed is stated to be 60 trillion operations/second. I guess they just don’t make androids like they used to.

  33. Chris Winter

    That sunspot simulation is an impressive piece of work in every sense. Seventy-six teraflops: Wow! (It seems reasonable to assume they were floating-point operations.) I hope someday to read a little about the programming involved.

    The scale is 10,000 km to the inch. So, eyeballing the center, I make it about 12,500 km in diameter — or about 7,800 miles. Yep, the whole thing is considerably wider than old Earth.

    It would make a good test of science literacy. Show people the picture, ask them what it is.

  34. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Havesome! (The supercomputer, not spots.)

    Btw, I wouldn’t even spot the P/EU denialists a field. They have an arena, or more precisely, a platform from which to spout inanely.

    is it possible to infer the age of the sun by the color of its sunspots

    Nice try, but the Sun is too brilliant to be caught out like that. It’s more the frequency of pimples that is a clue, or rather young stars faces have more and aggressive outbreaks, AFAIU.

    70 trillion instructions/sec(is that floating point?).

    Should be, flops is the usual measure for obvious reasons.

    Btw, I don’t think it is enough, at this time, to simply have more computations to get a Data. Many signs tells us that biological intelligences are embodied (say, that models of neocortex self organize into symbolic thinking; or that people experience phantom limbs). In all likelihood we have to develop simulated embodied AIs in complicated to do artificial environments. Or more mundanely we have to laboriously go through appropriate hardware before we, or perhaps better the AI itself, can reverse engineer a software only version.

    Seems to me the Terminator/Skynet movies got things exactly backwards. But what do you expect from Hollywood, when even the Sun has its spots?

  35. Gary Ansorge

    I expect consciousness is emergent from all the modeling that occurs when our pattern recognition equipment is in full throttle mode,ie, you just need sensory input so the patterns that the computer recognizes can generate an appropriate model, which, as a side effect, results in consciousness. Which is why Data is so danged cool,,,his/its sensory inputs approximate biological systems and his/its resultant internal modeling results in him/it,,,

    I predict no large computational system will ever produce a sentience we would recognize as such unless its data input parallels our own.

    Any bets???

    I loved that animation. Does it imply the magnetic fields are complementary, as in N/S pole complements? I wonder if the big bang has its equivalent big suck?

    GAry 7

  36. Freaking. Spectacular. No Words.

  37. davidlpf

    The iron sun can be part of the electric universe. There are different versions of the electric universe and how they say what a star. Some see currents flowing currents to stars and dependent on how much of this current is what color you see, less current more redder the star and more blue more current. Some say the fusion happens on the surface in “z-pinches” so the underlying layers could be iron. But if you look at the spectrum of the sun, you can see the abundances of elements and see that the sun does not have much iron relative and most of the highly ionized iron is in the corona away from surface.

  38. Utakata

    Sorry, I know this isn’t the most scientific observation, but…

    …anyone else reliving their acid trips by looking at those?

    O.o

  39. SteveG

    I downloaded the mpg file (save target as) and played on Media Player using Slow speed and Repeat (looping it).

    (I may have zoned out for a while watching it…)

    Very cool.

  40. Gary Ansorge

    40. Utakata

    ,,,flash back to the,,,what was that decade again???

    Gary 7

  41. Davidlpf

    If you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there.

  42. Mig

    Wow! @Utakata, I have got to start taking drugs. If that animation can fascinate me so, can pull me in so deeply, straight– how much more so, twisted? Just beautiful. Thanks, Phil!

    (Ah, screw the drugs. Back to the pretty pictures!)

  43. coolstar

    The point here, which Phil EVENTUALLY gets to, is not that the image is beautiful (real sunspot images are often more so, and any good fractal artist can produce an image as cool), it is that the image is the RESULT of physically realistic, fiendishly difficult (Phil got that right) simulations.

  44. Gary Ansorge

    Davidlpf:

    It’s not the ’60s I have trouble recalling, it’s the ’90s,,,Which is when/where/how I got my nick name.

    GAry 7

  45. Big Al

    How do scientists determine the magnetic polarization af a given sunspot? I keep reading about the sunspots of each cycle being reversed from the previous cycle, but nowhere have I seen an explanation of how it’s observed or measured. Could someone provide a short answer or a link to an explanation? Thanks.

  46. Gavin Flower

    Davidlpf

    I was 10 years old in November 1960 – of course I remember the sixties…

  47. Nik

    Re Skynet, of course we in Britain have had one for years. Ironically Skynet is the name of one of our military satcoms networks. Despite our substantial history of failed attempts at world domination I can assure you it has nothing to do with genocidal robots and plans to destroy humanity ;)

  48. Petrolonfire

    You might want to look into a new line of work, like UFOs, or 9/11 theories.

    Those are job options? HotDurnit! Where do I apply? ;-)

    “Iron Sun” theory – wouldn’t an iron sun be a pulsar?

    Suppose it’d have a very flat surface from being all ironed out? ;-)

    But would it end up rusting if too many comets hit it? ;-)

    And did you hear about the “wooden Sun” theory?

    …..

    …..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    ……..

    It ‘woulden’ work! ;-)

  49. Utakata

    Same here, GAry 7…it was the 90’s in big wharehouses full of speakers, pounding 4 for the floor from dusk till noon. Acid didn’t want me to stop dancing. Neither did the visuals…

    …odd that I became a full fledge otaku a decade later though. It’s where I got my handle.

    But back to the topic though…the images above remind me, just as with religion, that science is always 1000 ly’s ahead or more of anything that any “trip” can produce.

  50. Stone Age Scientist

    Cindy @ #26, you are a mind-saver.

  51. And just as amazing is the computer itself that did this work: NCAR’s Bluefire, which can perform 76 trillion calculations per second.
    I’m glad they didn’t name it Skynet.

    And I’m glad they didn’t call it NASCAR either…

  52. Big Al

    csrster, thank you.

  53. coolstar (#45) if I may be so bold: what’s your problem? I talk at length about the modeling of this spot, yet you seem to think my main point is how pretty it is. You come here and dog me, insult me in several posts, and every time it’s not only uncalled for, but blatantly wrong.

    So again: what’s your problem?

  54. Sean

    It’s as if the sun has a giant blackhead on its face

  55. Damon

    You were doing fine until you blew it at the end of the article with your arrogant “UFOs and 9/11″ comment. Way to show your true colors. Completely disavowed everything preceding it as questionable and dubious.

    Your elitism towards people with imagination and ideas is staggering. UFO and 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists (which have nothing in common) are actually skeptics themselves– skeptics of the status quo.

    Learn to write objectively next time.

  56. Michael Kingsford Gray

    This post got a mention in the 27 June edition of New Scientist magazine.
    (Page 10, “SOUNDBITES”):

    “It’s gorgeous! And it’s not even real!”
    Blogger Phil Plait gets excited about the first 3D computer-generated image of a sunspot’s magnetic field.

  57. Al

    Phil, Did you know you got printed in New Scientist 27th June

  58. AJ in CA

    @#17 Evan: (Re compiz background) Hah! I was just thinking that myself :) It’s so hard to find a good skydome panorama…

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