Ninety million miles away, a raging ball of nuclear fusion boils, swirls and provides all the energy we use on earth. Its surface seethes at 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit! To say it is gigantic is a stark understatement. The sun’s diameter is 879,000 miles. The earth is a mere drop in bucket with a diameter of only 7925 miles at the equator. A million earths would fit inside it!
Sun spots and magnetic storms, gamma ray and x-ray bursts blaze out from the sun. Magnetic storms and sunspots interfere with radio communication and interrupt data transmission from earth orbiting satellites and space-exploring probes. Severe radiation outbursts pose potential threats to astronauts.
Impressive? Yes, but our sun is certainly not one of a kind. Indeed, there are billions, trillions, quadrillions, just like it spread across the measureless reaches of space. We see them at night only as pinpricks of light spread from horizon to horizon, in every direction. Those distant diamonds in the velvet-black sky we call stars but they are actually suns and many may have planets like ours orbiting them.
“Our” sun, rising in the east and setting each evening in the west, influences everything we do. With gratitude we feel its warmth on a cold day, but we’re lucky it isn’t closer, barbequing rather than comforting us. A bit farther away and winter would be eternal; our earth just a frozen rock, spinning lifelessly through space.
Aztecs, Mayans, and ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun as a god. In a sense, many modern people still seem to be sun worshipers. They strive each year for a uniform bronze suntan by cooking themselves in its rays. During winter some people, like warm blooded biscuits, revert to sliding their paling bodies into specially constructed “ovens” filled with ultraviolet lamps to maintain their perfectly “done” tans.
However, be warned. Both the sun and UV tanning salons rely on the same mechanism. They cause the skin pigment melanin to darken. They do so at their peril. Sometimes melanin doesn’t just tan, it goes haywire and produces life-threatening cancers - rapidly developing malignant melanomas. Unless caught very early, these deadly growths can kill in weeks. Most dermatologists urge extreme caution or complete avoidance of tanning salons. In all cases, those planning exposure to the sun should use sun blocker creams with an SPF of 15 or greater.
The sun’s warmth also exercises control over weather. As the atmosphere warms, rising, swirling air bubbles cool, forming clouds and the imbalance between cold and warm air causes wind. Sometimes wind comes as gentle Zephyrs; sometimes as devastating hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes and violent thunderstorms.
The sun produces only a very narrow band of light we can see, bathing earth with seven colors visible to us – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – which when blended, appear as white light. Many insects can see well into the ultra-violet spectrum, radiation that’s invisible to us. Some animals see only black, white and shades of gray. Some colors are reflected, others absorbed. The reflected wavelengths produce the colors we see.
Colors are important to us in many ways. They help us identify flowers, food, affect our moods and betray illnesses. Roses are red, violets are blue, dog food is brown and not for you. A trip to the market for carrots wouldn’t yield a lot of support if we found they were black or purple! Jaundice shows up as yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.
In spring, day length triggers the formation and bursting of flower and leaf buds, the wild growth of your lawn and shedding of insulating undercoat fur on wildlife and pets. By now your cats and dogs have probably donated to you, free of charge, a copious contribution of their excess hair on furniture and carpets. The internal “light clocks” of birds lets them know when its time to sing and lay eggs. Chlorophyll, the green coloring in plants, uses sunlight to produce plant nutrients. Your sleep, or lack thereof, is controlled by the production of melatonin at night, assisting you in getting a good night’s sleep. Its lack, often caused by something as simple as nightlights, can result in insomnia and various illnesses.
In short, Old Sol, blazing in the sky is truly a multifaceted God-send. Treasure it. It won’t always be there. Are you worried? According to astronomers the sun is already about 5 billion years and will only last another 10 billion or so. Oh well. As Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With the Wind, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click firstname.lastname@example.org to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.