March 28, 2019

Music of the Spheres

Humans have been in awe of the harmony of the heavens since times immemorial. Ancient Greeks believed that celestial bodies made music. In the clinging of hammers Pythagoras heard “a clue from God”, or so a folk myth goes. Stretching strings and plucking them, he discovered an intimate connection between mathematics and music, and that objects produced sound when in motion. He was thus convinced that planets moving in orbit should be humming a heavenly tune, and he sought to find the astronomical harmony of the cosmos.   In our modern times, another polymath longed for a similar fulfilment. In 1926 Arthur Eddington, an English astronomer lamented in his book The…

December 21, 2018

The Long Hand of Darkness

Mist lifts over the Boyne Valley in Ireland as the Sun dawns on the stone tomb Newgrange. A narrow sunbeam streams through the passage just above the entrance. It reaches the floor and slowly crawls towards the back of an ancient crossed-shaped chamber. The beam of the rising Sun expands, flooding the tomb of ancestral ashes and bones with light for 17 minutes. This Stone-age alarm announces the 355th day of Earth’s year-long journey around the Sun. Today darkness yawns and stretches over the North, its longest stretch of the year. In a wheat field nearby, Aisling glances up to see the Sun tracing its shortest arc. It hasn’t escaped…

October 27, 2018

Of sunburns and solar cells

On a recent hike, I endured what was a sharp reminder of the Sun’s might. I stood at the treeline, surrounded by a rocky, lunar-like landscape and thought, ‘I should have put on sunscreen’. But I quickly shrugged it off –  I needed to focus on the new terrain and challenges of navigating. It wasn’t until that evening, sharing a post-hike pizza with my fellow hikers, that the thought returned to me as I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror: tomato-sauce red. I should have put on that sunscreen! This encounter got me reflecting on the Sun’s power. The Sun is an ever-present being in our lives. It’s…

July 17, 2018

The life and fate of our mortal Sun

Today I woke up on the wrong side of the clouds. Having been graced with unusually genial sunshine for more than a month, today looks particularly grim. “Return, alas! return, O radiance dear! And drive from me that foul, consuming Fear” pleads Bradamante in 16th century “Orlando Furioso”. This got me thinking about our 4.6 billion year-old beast and her glittering head. She bewitchingly promises warmth and cheer and when she’s beclouded our moods flop like a wet towel. But what’s going on in that head of hers? At times she scoffs and flares up, spewing fiery flames. She is spotty and certainly has her moods. Last month a scientist even…