Sun as electrical plasma
October 2, 2008 3:59 AM   Subscribe

Having watched Thunderbolts of the Gods, and found it quite eye-opening, I'm wondering if there are compelling reasons to accept or not to accept the possibility that the Sun is made of electrical plasma, rather than being a nuclear furnace.
posted by Tarn to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
False dichotomy.
posted by flabdablet at 4:04 AM on October 2, 2008

By which I mean: it's a nuclear furnace made of electrical plasma.
posted by flabdablet at 4:04 AM on October 2, 2008

Other than the fact it is physically wrong?
posted by Loto at 4:12 AM on October 2, 2008

Ah, electrical engineers - what it is about them? Some are Young Earth Creationists, others try to get rid of gravity.

The answer is no: even a brief glance hits half of the pseudoscience markers I've come to know and love. The ramifications of the "theory" would cheerfully make just about any science done since the 1920's wrong, including stuff we can safely put in the "If we don't know this, we might as well be brains in jars deceived by demons" category. Where would heavier elements come from? Ignored. Subatomic particles (include the proton) are now nearly massless. Gets the speed of gravity wrong.

Here's a lovely bit. First, those terrible mainstream scientists admit in a journal so old it is now crumbling to dust: "Because the interaction of these forces is not fully understood, there is much that remains mysterious about the birth of a star."

They grasp on this and make a daring counterproposal: An electric star is formed by the equivalent of a lightning bolt in a molecular (plasma) cloud. Just like earthly lightning, cosmic lightning scavenges, squeezes and heats matter along the discharge channel. Where the squeeze is most intense, the current may ‘pinch off’ to give the effect of ‘bead lightning.’ In high-energy plasma lab discharges researchers have found that hot plasma ‘beads’ (known as plasmoids) form along the discharge axis before “scattering like buckshot” when the discharge quenches.

Of course, there's that question of where that lightning bolt comes from. Never addressed.

Nope, just lunatics with webpages.
posted by adipocere at 4:24 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

"If we don't know this, we might as well be brains in jars deceived by demons"

Some call it brains in jars, some call it a universe that's a computer simulation. Tomato.

The sun is a ball of incandescent gas AND a gigantic nuclear furnace, though.
posted by rokusan at 4:51 AM on October 2, 2008

Best answer: IAASP, IANYSP (I am a solar physicist, I am not your solar physicist)

Without going into too much detail, the standard model -- in a nutshell, the idea that the sun is powered by fusion -- allows us to make specific predictions about the behavior, composition, structure, and evolution of the sun and other stars. These predictions have been supported by hundreds of specific observations of the sun, other stars, and other celestial bodies, such as nebulae. For example, given a star of a certain size and at a certain state of its evolution, I can tell you approximately what it's relative composition should be -- how much hydrogen, helium, carbon, and other elements -- we should observe in it (which can be determined via analysis of its spectrum), what it's approximate temperature should be, etc. The standard model makes predictions that agree well with observations of thousands of stars. Likewise, the standard model makes predictions about the structure of the sun that have been confirmed by observation of vibrational modes of the sun (you can go read about helioseismology). The standard model makes predictions about the structure, composition, behavior, and formation of planetary nebulae that are supported by observations. I could go on, but I'll spare you.

The hypothesis (if you could even call it that) presented in the few minutes of the video you linked to that I managed to force myself to watch is not supported by the (vast) empirical data we have about the sun and other stars. The standard model is.

That said, of course, the sun IS made of plasma whose dynamics are dominated by electric and magnetic fields. However, there are explanations for the origin, evolution, and effects of solar magnetic fields that do a good job of describing the observations of field strength, evolution, etc. and which fit nicely inside of the standard model.
posted by dseaton at 5:20 AM on October 2, 2008 [6 favorites]

The sun is a mass...Because it sounds better as a conspiracy?As rokusan pointed out, perhaps, the standard model rhymes sometimes...
posted by Mngo at 3:07 PM on October 2, 2008

Of course, there's that question of where that lightning bolt comes from. Never addressed.

In fairness to the plasma cosmology crowd, current answers to "where did the big bang come from" are also fairly vague.
posted by flabdablet at 9:01 PM on October 2, 2008

Response by poster: I knew about the spectroscopy of stars so I was puzzled by their claim that the series of reactions from Hydrogen to Helium to heavier elements has never been reproduced by experiment--the implication being that the elements come from elsewhere. Also, they treat the fact that the corona is several million degrees in temperature compared to the surface of the Sun, which is only several thousand, as an anomaly that the fusion model does not explain and the electrical model does. I gotta say, I find the idea of the Sun as electrical plasma quite appealing, but, if it doesn't fit the facts, then that's the end of that.

Many thanks for your answers.
posted by Tarn at 11:14 PM on October 2, 2008

Just to follow up a bit, the coronal heating question is a big one, and nobody has come up with a definitive answer to it, probably because there are a number of separate mechanisms that are contributing to this process, so no single answer is going to capture the whole picture. The folks who made that video might contend this is evidence of the failure of the standard model, but I'd argue it's simply a manifestation of the fact that the sun is just a really busy and complicated object, and therefore hard to explain with a single, idealized model.

If that sounds like a cop-out, consider an analogy. Does the fact that we can't predict the weather very well beyond a few days time mean that we don't understand the processes drive various weather phenomena? I'd contend that the answer is no. It's simply a manifestation of the limitations of modeling chaotic systems. Same for coronal heating.

So how can the standard model explain coronal heating? Well, the standard model makes some specific predictions about the boiling, churning plasma in the outer layers of the sun. The motion of this plasma drives magneto-acoustic waves that travel outwards along the sun's magnetic field and through the corona. These waves carry large amounts of energy, and, as they pass through the corona, the damping of these waves causes them to dissipate this energy as heat. Until the mid-90's nobody had actually observed any such waves, but recently there's been a slew of observations of waves with many different characteristics. So this explanation for coronal heating fits nicely into a picture that explains many other properties of the sun and other stars without the need for a theory that sort of maybe explains this but fails to explain many other basic properties stars.

Another mechanism that plays a role in heating the corona to very high temperature is magnetic reconnetion. Reconnection is able to transform huge amounts of potential energy (stored in the solar magnetic field) into kinetic energy and heat. Reconnection explains both how solar flares may heat coronal plasma to temperatures higher than 20 million degrees and explains most of the other properties of solar flares, coronal mass ejections, microflares, etc. Meanwhile, the standard model does a good job of explaining the long-term evolution of the sun's magnetic field, which is ultimately responsible for generating the conditions that cause flares; another case where a mechanism that is pretty clearly involved in generating high temperature plasma in the corona fits nicely into the complete picture of the sun.

So I would argue that even if you think the best reason to buy into the "Thunderbolts" theory is the coronal heating question; there are better explanations for the behavior of the corona that actually, you know, make sense.

If you're interested in this electrical plasma idea, you might be interested in reading some about reconnection, which is pretty amazing and is real science (as opposed to the ideas in that video, which are, well, pseudoscience).
posted by dseaton at 1:57 AM on October 3, 2008

dseaton, I'd be interested in your take on this piece by Eric Lerner, which is failing to set off my pseudoscience alarms; he seems to be using actual numbers to argue specific points. I don't know enough about the field to make an informed judgement on what's presented. Is Lerner presenting some valid criticisms here, or is he merely using data selectively to support a preconceived view?
posted by flabdablet at 5:21 AM on October 3, 2008

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