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Episode 57: Doom from the Sun on December 21, 2012

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Recap: For the final 2012-related episode, the one major science claim not yet covered is something from the sun doing something bad to us on December 21, 2012. With protective eyewear recommended, this episode peers into the basic claim, the physics involved, the unknown - and the known - about what could happen from the sun that could cause us grief on Earth.

Several Solutions to Episode 56's Puzzler: Several people wrote in to discuss the best evidence that the Apollo program landed people on the moon ...

Chew: Other countries tracking everything, including the doppler shift from the signal, so they knew that it was sent to the moon.

Parrot, AKA Dumbass: The Russians.

Jan S.: Engage them, let the corner themselves, and then go for the jugular.

Robert P.: (1) Retroreflectors. (2) Internal politics with the US. (3) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images of the sites.

Desert Fox: The huge number of people who would have to be involved.

David: Duplication of events and the "mistakes" being repeated over and over, like behavior of dust, no stars, etc. And the Russians or Chinese.

Puzzler: There was no puzzler for this episode.

Q&A: This episode's question comes as a part of a question from Brian B. who asked, many months ago, what a good piece of planetarium software is that you can have on your computer to demonstrate stuff like the fallacy of the galactic alignment that, according to folks like John Major Jenkins and the late José Argüellas, is going to happen on December 21, 2012?

After asking a few friends and doing a bit of experimenting myself with the two main freeware applications out there, I recommend Stellarium. Granted, I may be more familiar with this kind of software than the average person, but I was able to figure out after about two minutes of playing around how to put on the ecliptic grid and galactic grid, move the time to the December solstice this year, and very clearly see that there is no solar alignment with the galactic center.

So, for those of you who listen to these episodes when I put them out as opposed to weeks later, and you need to show your friends that this i'n't happening, I recommend Stellarium. It's free, open-source, works on Linux, Mac, Windows, and I have zero connection with it so there's no conflict of interest you need to worry about.

Though, those Mac users who are running 10.8 will need to disable the new GateKeeper piece of [BLEEP] because it won't let you open it because it's not from the App store nor from someone who got an Apple certificate.

Additional Materials:


Claim: Although there are many permutations to it, the very basic claim to look at during this episode - which is going out just five days before the alleged end of the world or great enlightenment - is just what I said before: Something on the Sun is going to do something that will affect us negatively on December 21, 2012.

I'm torn in this episode between going into great detail on all the different things people say, or whether I should just get straight to the punchline. So I decided to go half-and-half, and for those of you who want the punchline now and want to skip the rest of the episode: No, nothing unusual should be happening in 5 days on the sun that's gonna kill us. And if you're listening to this episode after December 21, 2012, then you already know that.

Bit of History of the Claim

To go into a little more detail, this claim has history rooted well before the whole 2012 phenomenon, but it, like Planet X, has been coopted by the 2012 doomsday people, and it, like Planet X, I fully expect to persist will beyond the next five days.

For more recent history of the claim, something that roughly half of the 30-some-odd hours of Coast to Coast guests I listened to for research for this episode cited Michio Kaku in an interview that he gave to Fox news back in 2008. As an aside, Dr. Kaku for those who don't know is a renowned theoretical physicist who has written many popular books on various subjects like hyperspace. Unfortunately, and this is a bit borrowed from Steve Novella, Kaku lacks one of the three qualities that scientists who are popularizers should have: They need to be able to do science, which Kaku can; they need to be able to communicate science, which Kaku can; and they need to be able to think critically about ways in which they could be fooled and ways in which people can misinterpret them, which Kaku cannot or does not.

Long-time listeners of this podcast - if I can say that after 16 months - probably have an idea of where I'm going with this. But you'll need to wait a bit more.

People have also cited reports from NASA from 2006, or more recent ones from the National Academies of Science from 2008, that warn of the dangers of a very large, energetic solar outburst aimed at Earth that COULD destroy power grids.

Of course, then there are the other people who point to more, shall we say, "sketchy" lines of evidence: [clip from Coast to Coast AM, April 10, 2011, Hour 2, starting 20:37 in; then Hour 3, starting 3:13 minutes in]

Solar Cycles and Outbursts

With that said and done with and me not commenting on it but more putting it out there for, perhaps, comic relief -- though I do plan on doing an episode in the future on crop circles -- we can start to get into the background information required to make an informed decision about what could happen.

Our star, unimaginatively named, "The Sun," goes through a cycle that lasts roughly 22 years. It's not exact, and it changes length by a few months from cycle-to-cycle. Once every 11 years, the sun's magnetic field flips around about 180°. 11 years later, it flips again, thus starting the 22-year cycle over.

A manifestation of this on the surface that we can see is the better known 11-year sunspot cycle. During solar minimums, there are very, very few sunspots. Somewhere around 1 per month, though there have been multi-month stretches with zero sunspots during solar minimumœ. During solar maximum, there are many more sunspots.

Sunspots are manifestations of tangled magnetic fields. And, within them, the magnetic fields can be 1,000s of times stronger than the average field of the sun. Sunspots very often occur in pairs, and they have opposite magnetic polarity. As sunspots grow and change, the magnetic fields get more and more tangled, and they can snap, releasing solar plasma in a whip-like effect that we usually see as a flare.

The flare is visible at Earth at the speed of light, after about 8 minutes 20 seconds. The charged particles that are released and their accompanying magnetic field take longer. If moving really fast, they can get here in maybe a day or so. In general, it takes the solar wind about three days to get to Earth.

The sun can release other things, such as a coronal mass ejection abbr. as "CME." The cause of these is thought to be much the same as solar flares, and the effect is very similar, only larger -- a massive amount of material is ejected from the sun and goes streaming out into space. On average during a solar minimum, there's a CME around once every five days. During solar maximum, there are around three a day.

Remember though: Space that we experience has three spatial dimensions. Not one.

If the Sun releases a flare or CME, that does not automatically mean that we are going to get hit by it. In fact, chances are rather small that we'll be hit by it because it could be released in any direction and Earth is in a very specific direction.

But in the event that Earth is in the path of one of these events, the basic sequence of events are that the charged particles are deflected by Earth's magnetic field. Since the field has holes, some get funneled down the north and south magnetic poles, where they interact with molecules in the upper atmosphere. That's what an aurora is -- these energetic particles being absorbed by molecules in the atmosphere and then the molecules release that energy as light.

The geomagnetic field on the sun-facing, or "day" side of the planet gets compressed a bit. The particles stream around and pass down Earth's magnetotail, which is basically the magnetic field that gets extended beyond Earth due to the constant solar wind.

When the magnetic field lines snap back on the night side, it can release large amounts of energy, on the terawatt scale, which is the average amount of power in a lightning bolt.

If there's a really really big solar event that impacts Earth, then the field reacts the same way. The difference is in the amount of deflection. The field on the day side that gets hit can be depressed so much that the particles make their way into the upper atmosphere. But, other than to satellites, the space station crew, and maybe airplanes, the issue is not with the charged particles but with the changing magnetic field.

There exists a fundamental law in electronics called Faraday's Law of Induction. What this law states is that an electric current will be created in the presence of a CHANGING magnetic field. So, if you move a magnet really quickly along a piece of metal, and you had the right equipment, you would produce and be able to measure a very small electric current that you produced.

That's the issue here and is about the only legitimate reason for people to be worried on a regional or global scale for something like this to happen. If we're hit hard enough, then the large deflections in Earth's magnetic field can create currents in wires. As in, railroad tracks, telephone lines, cable TV lines, and, say, power lines.

Power Grid Fragility

Let's go back to those NASA and National Academies of Science reports: [clip from Coast to Coast AM, October 3, 2012, Hour 2, starting 6:39]

Now, first, before I really get into that, for those who have a very good ear and have been watching a bunch of conspiracy stuff, you may recognize the voice of Lawrence Joseph. He was also on the television show, "Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura" in season 1 episode 7 that aired in January 2010: [clip from Conspiracy Theory, season 1 episode 7]

Joseph has been singing this tune for a long time. The report, published in 2008, meaning that it probably was started no later than 2006, is freely available online as a PDF that I'll link to in the shownotes. Interestingly, but perhaps not unexpectedly to listeners, there is zero mention of 2012 other than a budget item and a future space mission. There is no mention of "Maya." The word "doom" does not appear in whole nor part of any other word.

The 131-page document does have a section on vulnerabilities, and it does state: "According to a study by the Metatech Corporation, the occurrence today of an event like the 1921 storm would result in large-scale blackouts affecting more than 130 million people and would expose more than 350 transformers to the risk of permanent damage."

But, the lack of a 2012 connection in the official document hasn't stopped Lawrence Joseph. Here's what he said on October 3 of this year: [clip from Coast to Coast AM, October 3, 2012, Hour 2, starting 14:46]

Now, other than him linking it to this year, my point in going through this is not to disagree with the National Academies of Science. Much smrter people than I wrote that report. Nor am I going to disagree with the American Society of Civil Engineers who, in 2009, wrote America's report card on infrastructure and gave it a D overall, with a D+ on energy infrastructure.

Our power grid is not great. It's not hardened against a significant solar storm. It is prone to failure if stuff doesn't work right. And a major outage could affect millions of people for an extended period of time.

And it has before, though to a lesser scale. The solar storm of 1859, also known as the Carrington Event after the guy who observed and recorded the largest-ever seen solar flare, Richard Carrington, was a doozy. The massive sunspots released a solar flare around noon in England, on September 1, 1859. After just 17 hours, the effects reached Earth and the largest recorded geomagnetic storm occurred. Aurorae were seen all over the world, including in the Caribbean.

Since this was 20 years before American inventor Thomas Edison lit up Menlo Park, power lines weren't really an issue. What was an issue was telegraph lines. Operators reported being electrically shocked, sparks were thrown that started some fires, and others were able to operate their machines without having the power on. All because of the induced electricity due to the changing magnetic field.

A weaker event - though the strongest one in many decades if not over a century - was blamed in March of 1989 for knocking out the power grid in Quebec, Canada).

In other words, something from the sun could definitely negatively affect us on Earth by affecting our power grid. The issue and why this is on the Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast is that there's no link for it to 2012, and I'm interested in what Lawrence Joseph says in a week.

Where We Are Today (December 16, 2012)

Which brings us to today.

We, in late 2012, are getting closer to solar max. But, this is currently forecast to be one of the WEAKEST solar maximums in the last century. Back 11 years ago, we had a relatively intense solar maximum and it was extended in time. Around 2005 or so, based on that data, solar physicists predicted that the cycle we're in now would be much more intense and peak around late 2012, early 2013.

Problem is, there's a lot about the sun that we don't know. Some of us joke that the problem is that we have TOO much data, so the simpler models break down. If you followed astronomy news any time from about 2007 to 2010, you may remember that instead of starting back up to a maximum of activity, the sun was quiet. Very quiet. On Coast to Coast, they said "too quiet."

We had an extended solar minimum. Very extended, very minimum. We went weeks without any sunspots. And it lasted about two years longer than expected. Since 2009 -- as in THREE YEARS AGO -- the new estimates were that solar maximum would peak around 2013 to 2014. Not 2012, and not December 2012, and not December 21, 2012.

This is a problem with a lot of pseudoscience: The people latch onto some idea or some warning -- some legitimate nugget of real science -- but then when that's changed or updated, they ignore it. Nearly everyone I hear espousing the idea of a solar something happening on December 21, 2012, still say that it's solar max. It's not.

I'm recording this on December 16 in the morning for the United States. The sun is showing very little activity. It has a few small spots that are rotating to the far side, and there's a small region just forming on the limb rotating into view that may produce some some smaller flares as they develop.

And that's it.

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