The science of the Sun – Solar Flares

There was some slight confusion on Saturday for TV viewers when The Cool Stuff Collective moved from 9am Sat ITV1 to 8:10am so a few people think I have changed into Hannah Montana. Hopefully the various repeats the rest of the week will rectify the problem.
The show this week was space themed and so it was worth trying something a little more scientific in future tech. So I got to discuss Solar Flares and Coronal Mass Ejections.
Given the current activity of the Sun and the fact that the main news is covering such solar events it was a real honour to do big science. NASA provided some great footage too.
As usual there were several points I wanted to get across. The rationale for covering CME’s was the potential harm to all our gadgets. Large waves of energy bombarding the Earth could seem scary, in fact they are. I think we avoided any scaremongering in talking about how there were ways to shield devices. In order to demonstrate the power of this invisible wavescollection of particles I used a picture frame of iron filings lined up nicely in a row, then passed a magnet over the row and caused breakages in the visual of an electronic connection.
Explaining Solar CME's
To show that all is not lost I then had a piece of wood covered in Aluminum foil to act as a shield. (I made it perfectly clear it was Monkey’s attempt and that wood and foil is not the ideal thing to blog a CME but it does block a small magnet. (The foil was of course for that home made science effect πŸ™‚ )
Shielding a CME
The other part of the piece that I thought was important was that scientists need help investigating solar flares. The is effectively a crowdsourcing science website. It has made an achievement driven game out of us all being able to look at solar observation footage and spot unsual activity. It is the gamification of science and very educational too. It is well worth a look.
It is always good when we are able to mention something that has some follow on activity, I love the fact that the viewers can go and try something, just as with the Wikipedia show.
There is much more of that to come the next few weeks mixed with some of the big gadget adventures we have filmed on the road.

19 thoughts on “The science of the Sun – Solar Flares

  1. Peter Kalmus

    Sorry but this is poor science. The potential damage comes from charged particles (the Mass in CME) and the earths magnetic field is our major protection. The term ‘waves of energy’ is very misleading and should not be used in this context. The energy arriving from the Sun at the earth is principally light and this is very constant. Aurora are the result of the particles spirally around the magnetic field

  2. I stand corrected. I had read up and added to what I knew already but it seemed that the forces at work in a cme were magnetic. I took a bit of scientific advice on the demo using iron filings and for the audience that seemed a good visual.
    However unlike the rest of the elements in the show knowing this was not my speciality I thought I would get some pieces slightly incorrect.
    Though I understand that the study of cme is really in it’s infancy?

  3. Peter Kalmus

    Sorry, but wrong again. Studies of CME’s have been underway for a long time. In fact, studies of the Sun were a key element of the Skylab experiments of the 70’s and dedicated solar observing satellites have been launched and operated since the 80’s. A lot of the current theories on CME’s originated in the 80’s, although science is all about testing and refining theories so new work is always being performed. The UK has several leading centres of solar science including Leicester University, Rutherford Labs, Birmingham University, University College and St Andrews.

  4. I was basing that statement on what I heard Dr Lucie Green say in various programmes. As with most leading edge science there is a history of study, but more to discover. On the 700 edition of sky at night Dr Green was explaining that the creation of CME’s from the original solar flare has recently been reconsidered. I realize this was for TV but as she was explaining and correcting Prof Brian Cox it does not seem its a cut and dried area.
    The aim of the piece on TV was to get kids interested, to get them to take part in Solar Flare watch website, to get a little bit more insight into the wonders of science. We did talk to Rutherford as well as NASA but it was a 2 minute piece.
    Hopefully the kids who have watched will get the basics and understand that there is more for them to go and find out and research. If you have a definitive place for me to point them to (other than wikipedia) I would be more than happy to update the post πŸ™‚

  5. Peter Kalmus

    A good overview explanation is at

    As the clip has so many basic errors can you get it taken down from the CITV Web Site? or a correction put up there instead? Kids deserve the best education material they can get and as it stands this is just wrong and misleading.

  6. Well not really, appreciate the feedback but its not that bad! it is about analogies to explain it. As I said the iron filings and magnet idea were run by some experts at the labs. Not many other kids shows have bothered to try and explain it. Thanks for the correction though.

  7. Helen Dent

    I am a primary school teacher currently doing ‘Space’ as a topic in Year 5 and was shown this by one of my pupils. It took me time to correct the information in the video and get him to understand what was going on in a fashion that he could take in. I am afraid that they do tend to take whatever they see on TV as being right so there is a great responsibility on TV to respect their audience. Children are fascinated by the subject and there are a lot of good, knowledgeable presenters and items on the subject, I am afraid that this was not one of them.

    Complaints can be made to ITV via but I am not sure how effective this route is

  8. Helen, I really appreciate you telling me this. It was a tricky subject to try cover in a short piece and one that I wanted to not scare anyone, but it was coming up in the news. I certainly do not want to misinform or confuse the viewers.
    What was the specific path or analogy you took to explain it?
    Have you encouraged your pupils to the ? I would be interested if the information there is of the right tone.
    I had researched and read up, on top of my existing science knowledge and it was statement such as in this video that formed the basis of the piece.
    “We know that the Sun kicks out these vast solar storms. Each one of these storms is a billion tons of material traveling at a million miles an hour, so they’re not inconsequential.
    But nobody quite knows why they happen, what causes them to be triggered. For the first time with STEREO, we are actually being able to track these storms continuously all the way from the Sun right out to the Earth from a position which is not near the Earth. So we are actually able to stand back and look at the storm coming from a distance.”
    The elements relating to the magnetic effect (and hence the visual prop) were based on and the text ” Aside from the visual effects of this CME series, scientists warned that electric impulses caused by disruptions in the magnetic field due to the ionized particles may damage infrastructure such as power grids and telephone lines not adequately protected against induced magnetic current”
    I understand the combination or level of presentation may not have suited everyone but I do not think it is factually incorrect based on my research sources.

  9. Helen Dent

    Your research sources point out that a key element of CME’s is the material that is being ejected and yet you kept talking about waves of energy. I don’t think you mentioned the particles once. The analogies I used were based around considering the magnetic fields as being like an invisible balloon that was being filled with matter from the solar winds but like a balloon when it expands it gets a thinner and thinner skin and eventually pops and lets the matter out in a rush. We don’t know when it will release the matter and that unpredictability is still being studied.

    When I did my research it was a joke that studying a single solar flare could lead to a PhD but certainly in the mid 80’s it was shown by Harrison et al that CME’s could lead to flares rather than them being caused by flares as was an early school of thought.

  10. Thankyou
    I see, I did say waves not particles, though I thought that due to the particle/wave duality theory and the references to things such as solar wind it just came out as wave. I said the sun was pushing out other energy and not just the light and heat that we see and feel. I also said a CME is a big ball of energy that shoots off into space. It was then I said that space was not empty but full of waves of energy. I only said wave once. The rest was open to interpretation referring to collections of energy, and things flying through space.

    I really wanted to focus on the crowdsourcing of the scientific observations on the web as that is the core point. That to me is the most exciting development opening up the STEREO observations to allow anyone to help the scientist (and hopefully inspire some people to pursue it further).

  11. Helen Dent

    A friend once told me when I started waffling at University in a tutorial that when I was in a hole to stop digging. I think that this explanation is starting to get worse than the article. Do you have a science background? Even though my year 5’s are very bright, I don’t think I would want to start them on Quantum Physics this year!

  12. I have a computer science background and work in a lot of technology areas. Bio link and wikipedia entry is at the top of the page.
    I will cease the excavation now πŸ™‚
    Thank you again for the feedback.

  13. Alan Jones

    Computing should not be confused with Science in any construct. Its engineering at best

  14. I was thinking it might just be easier to remove this post as it seems to have become fuel for some seemingly personal retribution elsewhere on the. I had used the term waves in the post. Although I had said ball of energy on the show when referring to CME’s.
    I will get a transcript done so we can avoid talking about what might have been said or not, though it would appear to be diminishing returns on all our time.

  15. The post is back, having removed the offensive off topic comments. The comment and conversation is still here.

  16. If the person who is claiming to be Peter Kalmus on here would contact me I privately (contact tab above) I would appreciate it. Otherwise there may be a misuse of identity going on as I cannot believe someone of the real Peter Kalmus status and standing would be engaging in some of the other petty activity on the web. I may be wrong of course !

  17. Minecraft is undoubtedly a unique game. I’ve been playing it for a short time now and I am uncertain if I enjoy it. The gameplay takes a different approach, would you guys have any recommendations to spice it up? What about recommending some other servers to learn multiplayer? I appreciate your your help!

  18. for attention of epredator

    Lucie Green was on the Museum of Curiosity 07/11/2011

    She decided that she’d like to put invisible CMEs into the museum. She described them as undetectable until they’re about 1 million miles from the Earth.

    In other words we only have a short warning before this particular type of CME hits us. The quantity of particles that can potentially strike the Earth has the same mass, approximately, as that of Mount Everest.

    By particle I’d assume that we’re also having to contend with wave effects. Has the wave/corpuscular theory been made obsolete?

    I can see that someone might have a go at you for ignorance if you’d said something palpably wrong. I don’t think you have.

    With a basic understanding of quantum electrodynamics don’t we all accept these days that energy can manifest itself in more than one way?

    best regards,

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