5000 Year Old Sunlight (Plus 8 Minutes)

I don’t often expound about science, but this latest bit of trivial has sent my mind in spirals. I recently bought the book Solar System: A Visual Exploration of All the Planets, Moons and Other Heavenly Bodies that Orbit Our Sun by Marcus Chown. I had previously read The Elements by Theodore Gray and loved the format.

Then I read about sunlight. It seems that the actual light part of the phenomenon occurs at the core, where the pressure of billions of Hydrogen atoms create immense heat. Then two Hydrogen atoms collide to create light.

We all know that light travels, well, at the speed of light. I recall the standard eight minute number as the time it takes light to reach the Earth. Not so. Apparently sunlight has to escape the sun first, and this means barreling through lots of other Hydrogen atoms surrounding it (it was formed at the core, remember).

It’s like a bizarre game of football, except the endzone  is about 600,000 kilometers away and there are about a billion defensive linemen smashing into you. With no time outs. Luckily once light is created it never fades or loses energy, so it keeps going, bouncing from atom to atom for 5000 years. Yes, you heard that right. Five thousand. (Okay another site said it was 100,000 years, but no one’s slapped a stopwatch to a photon of light.)

That means, that the sunlight you feel today was created 5000 years ago (plus the 8 minutes it took to travel from the sun through space to Earth).

Okay, if that’s not weird enough, how about taking a picture of the sun through the Earth. That’s right pilgrims, it is possible. You see light isn’t the only think our big ball of fire spews out on a daily basis. It also shoots out these tiny particles called neutrinos. These guys are so small that nothing affects them. They’re like ghosts, zooming through solid lead faster than I can consume a Krispy Kreme doughnut.

At any given second, 100 million million neutrinos are zipping through your thumb. Every once in a while these tiny atomic specks do strike an atom dead on. This can create a tiny zap of light. Don’t go looking for it. You’d need total darkness and a super fine camera to see it. Turns out the Japanese have built said neutrino camera. (What haven’t they built?)

Over a period of 503.8 days and nights, the Super-Kamiokande in Japan took this picture. This is what the sun looks like using only Neutrino particles. And, it’s shot through the Earth. Crazy.

No amount of sunblock will work against that. Just throw in the towel and admit that the universe has stranger things than we could ever imagine.

Tim Kane