Examining the shine of the sun

There’s nothing like a little astronomy for making a person feel small and her problems seem insignificant.

I had the opportunity the other day to participate in a solar viewing. Conveniently, solar viewings occur during the day so I didn’t even have to contend with contagious yawning.

In this particular solar viewing, the telescope was set up with a hydrogen alpha filter. Such filters permit only red-orange light and prevent our puny human eyes from going blind, which is what happens when you look directly into the unfiltered sun. (Remember those fifth-grade homemade pinhole boxes that allowed you see a solar eclipse back when you were a kid? The ones your teacher warned you to use instead of looking directly into the sun because you could go blind? Those weren’t empty threats, nosiree, the sun is actually that powerful.)

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The majesty of the size of the earth began as we drove up a mountain to get to the telescope. Because telescopes on mountains have less atmosphere with which to contend, the celestial spectacle is all the better. At the top of that mountain with a view of 50 miles or more, I could literally see the curvature of the earth.

But just barely.

This enormous round orb on which we live is so large, one can barely get high enough on its craggy surface to see its roundness.

Then, before I got my turn looking at the sun through this hydrogen alpha-filtered telescope, the telescope technician (making up his title here, but you get the gist — regular people can’t operate hydrogen alpha-filtered telescopes) pointed to an illustration that showed the size of the Earth in comparison to the sun. The sun was two feet across, and the earth was barely more than a dab I could make with end of a wet Q-tip.

So this earth that just minutes before had awed me with its size barely registers in comparison to the sun.

Which pretty much makes me an ant in the industrial-sized employee kitchen of an Amazon distribution facility.

Or something like that.

Enough with Q-tips and Amazon.

I get my turn to look through the telescope directly at the sun and I see this small reddish-orange circle against a dark reddish background.

“Can you see any prominences?” the technician asks.

A prominence, for those of you who have forgotten your college astronomy lessons because they required too much math, is a brilliant eruption of super hot plasma from the sun’s edge that can extend sometimes thousands of miles into space.

In other words, prominences are the little lines you drew around the circle in the sky you made with the yellow-orange Crayon when you drew a picture of your house in kindergarten. A prominence is the visible phenomena we imagine when we think of the sun’s rays.

“Hmm, it looks smooth to me,” I said, pulling my face away from the telescope.

The technician who expected great oohs and aahs gave me a puzzled look. Then he realized he was looking at woman who might possibly be old enough to have (slightly) failing eyesight.

“Oh! You can adjust the focus right here,” pointing to a dial that looks exactly what you might use on a pair of binoculars to sharpen the view. Even though I’m not a hydrogen alpha-filtered telescope technician, I was allowed to adjust this dial.

“Oh my God,” I said.

I think using the Lord’s name was appropriate in this setting.

I could see prominences now, eight minutes and 20 seconds after they appeared (that’s how long it takes the sun’s light to reach earth). Magnificent slow-motion flame-shaped features circled the sun. Just one of them dwarfed that little dab that represented the size of the earth in comparison to the sun.

It was awesome. In the traditional definition of that word, not the cool kids’ use of it.

Suddenly, my little life, occurring in the blink of an eye of the life of the sun, seemed, well, less than little. I’m just a bug crawling on the face of the earth. And whatever I think is so important right now really isn’t relevant. At all.

Knowing my speckitude (not a word, but I’m making it one now) was actually quite comforting. Like, I can quit worrying about wasting my time or ruining anything. I’m not not that big or powerful.

In the end, the sun still shines.

4 responses to “Examining the shine of the sun

  1. Sometimes I wonder how I raised such a daughter–doesn’t peel potatoes, doesn’t debone chicken, spectitude??? You are unique!

  2. Hi Monica, One really begins to get a perspective of our place in the Universe when one looks through a telescope. My first time was age 9 when I visited the Dunlop Observatory north of Toronto. The Dunlop had a 100 inch reflecting telescope and on that night I looked at Jupiter and its prominent moons. A year later I bought my first telescope, a 2.5 inch refractor and began my own exploration of the night sky. Then I became a member of the Royal Astronomical Society and eventually built my own reflecting telescope as a teenager. I did solar projections to look at sunspots and watched partial eclipses when they crossed paths here in Toronto. I’ve never stopped being awed by the immensity of space and time and how small and insignificant in the grand scheme of the Universe our home planet is. But even in its insignificance on a cosmic scale, that has not stopped me from being fascinated by a germinating seed, the birth of a baby robin, the emergence of a Monarch butterfly, or a beautiful sunrise.

    • Ah, so you’re one those types who CAN operate complex, expensive telescopes. How fascinating! I am grateful for those moments when I am mindful enough to appreciate the great and small.

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