Wednesday, July 21, 2010

You are my sunshine

In the past two days I've watched two movies with big-time computer generated images - "Avatar" and "2012" - and I have to admit the special effects are indeed special. (Of course, story-telling always lags behind. Call "Avatar" the latest "Dances with Wolves," where the white guy saves the natives. And "2012" is your typical disaster tale featuring cute kids, parents that love them, a big cast of different ethnic types, some impassioned speeches about saving as many people as possible, and fade-out happiness for the few who survive.)

But at least "2012" reduced the Mayan calendar factor to a cartoon.

Anyway, in "2012" the gimmick was an anomalous outburst from the sun that sent out neutrinos in such numbers that they heated the Earth's interior, causing the continents to float around. "Impossible!," said a scientist character early on. Well, of course. As you read this, neutrinos by the gazillions are blowing through your body, without effect. Relax.

But that doesn't mean that the sun itself can't act up. Solar flares, for instance, can fry satellites and any unprotected astronauts. But in recent years, the sun has acted down.

The sun has a cycle of roughly 11 years - big flares, coronal mass ejections, etc., peaking at the solar maximum; activity pooping out at the solar minimum. But in the last few years, the minimum scheduled to be in 2008 has been really quiet, for a very long time, and the scientists studying the sun don't have clue why. They're studying the speeds of flow of solar matter from the equator to the poles, the solar "jet stream," acoustic oscillations, and so on, but nobody has any idea about what's going on.

So, if you watch or have watched "2012," breathe easy two years from now. As for 2019, the next expected solar maximum ... no promises.

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