Layer Upon Layer

“Excuse me, profesora, you wanted me to come to your office?”

“Yes, Maria. Come in, please. I wanted to have a chat with you before you give your class presentation tomorrow.”

“I am a little nervous about it.”

“I thought you might be. I wanted to help with that. I’ll start by saying that your English language skills have gotten much better than you give yourself credit for. Better yet, you’ll be speaking before friends who want you to succeed. I’m sure you’ll do fine. I think if we go over your material together you’ll be more confident. Come open your laptop on my desk where we can both see it. Now bring up your first slide.”

“Yes, profesora. Already you know that the title of my presentation is ‘The Structure of The Sun.’ I only have one slide, this one, that shows a slice of a star like our Sun.”

“How did the star get that way?”

“It condensed from a galactic gas cloud that was mostly hydrogen. I plan to talk about that with waving of the hands because a good picture of it needs to be in motion and I don’t know how to do that yet.”

“Fair enough, just don’t skip over it. Beginnings are important. Now talk me through your diagram.”

“It starts in the middle ¿see the fusion zone? where protons, that’s hydrogen atoms without their electrons, are squeezed together to release energy and make alpha particles, that’s helium atoms without their electrons. The protons have the same charge so they push each other away, but they are beneath many kilometers of mass that push them together. Also, the temperature is very hot, tens of millions of degrees. Hot atoms move fast, so when the protons are pushed together it happens with enough force and speed .. sorry, I need a word, superar?”


“Thank you. The protons are pushed together with enough force and speed to overcome the charge barrier. The actual reactions are complicated. At the end there is an alpha particle, four times heavier than a proton, and there is much more energy than the overcoming used up. The fusion zone makes heat and the heavy alpha particles fall down into the ash zone. The heat must go somewhere. Already the center is hotter so the new heat goes upward into the radiation zone.”

“And it’s called that because…?”

“Because atom motion is so, mm, frantic?”

“Good word.”

“… So frantic that there’s no moving in the same direction together, no convection like when steam rises over boiling water. Heat can only travel by convection, conduction or radiation. If there is no convection, moving heat must go neighbor‑to‑neighbor by conduction which is collision or by radiation which is photons jumping between atoms again and again until they escape. I have read that one photon’s energy can take 10000 years to cross the radiation zone.”

“So how is the next zone different?”

“It is much higher up from the center, nearly ¾ of the way to the surface. The pressure is 100 times less than in the fusion zone. The atoms have more room to move around together and form winds to carry the heat up by convection. But they can’t only go up, they have to come down, too, and that’s why my drawing has loops.”

“Is there a name for the loops?”

“Oh, yes, they are called Bénard cells and they’re very much like what I see looking into a pot of water just before it boils.”

“What’s the orange above the convection zone?”

“That’s the part of the Sun that we see, the photosphere that emits light in a continuous spectrum. The Fraunhofer lines, the dark lines in the astronomer’s spectrum, are the shadows of atoms high in in the photosphere that absorb only certain colors. I was surprised to learn how narrow the photosphere is, not even 0.02% of the Sun’s radius. Anyway, that’s my presentation, but now I have a question. The Sun’s fuel is hydrogen. The books say when the Sun runs out of fuel it will eject much of its hydrogen mass and collapse to a white dwarf. So it didn’t run out of fuel, yes?”

~~ Rich Olcott

Trio for Rubber Ruler

“It’s all about how lightwaves get generated and then what happens.”

Sy and me talked about that, Cathleen.  Lightwaves come from jiggling electrons, right?”

“Any kind of charged particles, Vinnie, but there’s different ways that can happen.  Each leads to its own kind of spectrum.”

“Different kinds of spectrum?  Do you mean like visible versus infrared and ultraviolet, Cathleen?”

“No, I don’t, Sy.  I’m referring to the thing’s overall appearance in every band.  A hundred and fifty years ago Kirchoff pointed out that light from a source can have lines of color, lines without color, or a smooth display without lines.”

“Like that poster that Al put up between the physicist and astronomer corners?”  (We’re still chatting at a table in Al’s coffee shop.  I’m on my fourth scone.)

Astroruler with solar spectrum
Based on N.A.Sharp, NOAO/NSO/Kitt Peak FTS/AURA/NSF

“Kind of.  That’s based on a famous image created at Kitt Peak Observatory.  In the background there you see a representation of what Kirchoff called a continuous or black-body spectrum, where all the colors fade smoothly into each other in classic rainbow order.  You’re supposed to ignore the horizontal dark lines.”

“And the vertical lines?”

“They form what Kirchoff called an absorption spectrum.  Each dark vertical represents an isolated color that we don’t get from the Sun.”

“You’re saying we get all the other colors but them, right?”

“Exactly, Vinnie.  The Sun’s chromosphere layer filters those specific wavelengths before they get from the deeper photosphere out into space.”

“Complicated filter.”

“Of course.  The Sun contains most of the elements lighter than nickel.  Each kind of atom absorbs its own collection of frequencies.”

“Ah, that’s the quantum thing that Sy and me talked about, right, Sy?”

“Mm-hm.  We only did the hydrogen atom, but the same principles apply.  An electromagnetic wave tickles an atom.  If the wave delivers exactly the right amount of energy, the atom’s chaotic storm of electrons resonates with the energy and goes a different-shaped storm.  But each kind of atom has a limited set of shapes.  If the energy doesn’t match the energy difference between a pair of levels, there’s no absorption and the wave just passes by.”

“But I’ll bet the atom can’t hold that extra energy forever.”

“Good bet, Vinnie.  The flip side of absorption is emission.  I expect that Cathleen has an emission spectrum somewhere on her laptop there.”Emission spectrum“You’re right, Sy.  It’s not a particularly pretty picture, but it shows that nice strong sodium doublet in the yellow and the broad iron and hydrogen lines down in the green and blue.  I’ll admit it, Vinnie, this is a faked image I made to show my students what the solar atmosphere would look like if you could turn off the photosphere’s continuous blast of light.  The point is that the atoms emit exactly the same sets of colors that they absorb.”

“You do what you gotta do, Cathleen.  But tell me, if each kind of atom does only certain colors, where’s that continuous rainbow come from?  Why aren’t we only getting hydrogen colors?”

“Kirchoff didn’t have a clue on that, Vinnie.  It took 50 years and Einstein to solve it.  Not just where the light comes from but also its energy-wavelength profile.”

“So where does the light come from?”

“Pure heat.  You can get a continuous spectrum from a hot wire, molten lava, a hole through the wall of a hot oven, even the primordial chaos of the Big Bang.  It doesn’t matter what kind of matter you’re looking at, the profile just depends on the temperature.  You know that temperature measures the kinetic energy stored in particle random motion, Vinnie?”

“Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but yeah.”

“Well, think about the Sun, just a big ball of really hot atoms and electrons and nuclei, all bouncing off each other in frantic motion.  Every time one of those changes direction it affects the electromagnetic field, jiggles it as you say.  The result of all that jiggling is the continuous spectrum.  Absorption and emission lines come from electrons that are confined to an atom, but heat motion is unconfined.”

“How about hot metal?”

“The atoms are locked in their lattice, but heat jiggles the whole lattice.”

~~ Rich Olcott