Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 83.djvu/114

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we come to magnetic storms and auroras, which are almost certainly of solar origin.

Here is a photograph of the sun, as it appears in the telescope (Fig. 4).[1] Scattered over its surface are sun-spots, which increase and decrease in number in a period of about 11.3 years. It is well known that a curve, showing the number of spots on the sun, is closely similar to a curve representing the variations of intensity of the earth's magnetism. The time of maximum sun-spots corresponds with that of reduced intensity of the earth's magnetism, and the parallelism of the two curves is too close to be the result of accident. We may therefore conclude that there is some connection between the spotted area of the sun and the magnetic field of the earth.

We shall consider a little later the nature of sun-spots, but for the present we may regard them simply as solar storms. When spots are numerous the entire sun is disturbed, and eruptive phenomena, far transcending our most violent volcanic outbursts, are frequently visible. In the atmosphere of the sun, gaseous prominences rise to great heights. This one, reaching an elevation of 85,000 miles, is of the quiescent type, which changes gradually in form and is abundantly found at all phases of the sun's activity. But such eruptions as the one of March 25, 1895, photographed with the spectroheliograph of the Kenwood Observatory, are clearly of an explosive nature. As these photographs show, it shot upward through a distance of 1-46,000 miles in 24 minutes, after which it faded away.

When great and rapidly changing spots, usually accompanied by eruptive prominences, are observed on the sun, brilliant displays of the aurora (Fig. 5) and violent magnetic storms are often reported. The magnetic needle, which would record a smooth straight line on the photographic film if it were at rest, trembles and vibrates, drawing a broken and irregular curve. Simultaneously, the aurora flashes and pulsates, sometimes lighting up the northern sky with the most brilliant display of red and green discharges.

Birkeland and Störmer have worked out a theory which accounts in a very satisfactory way for these phenomena. They suppose that electrified particles, shot out from the sun with great velocity, are drawn in toward the earth's magnetic poles along the lines of force. Striking the rarified gases of the upper atmosphere, they illuminate them, just as the electric discharge lights up a vacuum tube. There is reason to believe that the highest part of the earth's atmosphere consists of rarified hydrogen, while nitrogen predominates at a lower level. Some of the electrons from the sun are absorbed in the hydrogen, above a height of 60 miles. Others reach the lower-lying nitrogen, and descend to levels from 30 to 40 miles above the earth's surface. Certain still

  1. Figs. 4, 6 and 7 represent the same region of the sun, photographed at successively higher levels.