Probing The Sun's Spots

Reporting in the journal Science, Göran Scharmer, of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and colleagues looked closely at the stringy penumbra region of a sunspot using the Swedish Solar Telescope. Sunspots form by magnetic fields interacting with boiling hot plasma — but exactly how the plasma flows in the penumbra region wasn't well understood.

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Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira. This week, we have something for our fun-in-the-sun series. Fun - or maybe this - better to say fun with the sun, I think, on this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: It's about the sun, that's the spoiler.

FLATOW: It's about the sun. And we had a sun piece on a few weeks ago about what to do with the sun.

LICHTMAN: So it's continuing ed, really.

FLATOW: It's continuing...

LICHTMAN: It's a continuing ed piece. It turns out that scientists are still looking at sunspots, and I say still looking because there are sort of one of the earliest astronaut, I mean, people have been looking at them for 400 years. Galileo was interested in them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: But they now have bigger telescopes. And a study out this week, sort of looks at the anatomy of a sunspot and how the plasma flows within that structure. So just as a little recap - which I needed to do - went back and relearned - sun has - is made of hot plasma that's boiling to the surface of charged gas.

FlATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And sunspots are formed when you have a magnetic field that comes out of the sun in sort of a vertical way, so that dark spot is where the boiling motion that happens all over at the surface of the sun gets interrupted.


LICHTMAN: And so it's a little bit cooler. It's still pretty hot, I mean. It's not like you want to hang out there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: And then around that black spot...

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: have these sort of stringy things called the penumbra, and this study is about the penumbra.

FLATOW: And on your video - in our Video Pick of the Week up there, sunspots on our website at, it's such a beautiful image of a sunspot.

LICHTMAN: It's really mesmerizing.

FLATOW: It's - it looks like an iris or an eye, and it's just absolutely fascinating.

LICHTMAN: It's really worth taking a look, even the scientist I talked to, Goran Scharmer, said, you know, this is - this stuff is just so fascinating and beautiful to look at. And, of course, people have said it all the time.

FLATOW: And it doesn't lose its beauty to him.

LICHTMAN: It has not. I think, actually, you know, we were talking earlier about finding - pleasure of finding things out. And it seems that, you know, it's sort of taken on new beauty when you understand it better, when you can deconstruct what you're looking at.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, we can, of course, we can't look at the sun with our naked eye. We don't want to tell anybody to do that.

LICHTMAN: Do not do that.

FLATOW: We, you know, there are ways to look at it, through a lens on a piece of paper or something like that.


FLATOW: But you can actually see it on the ground sometimes, speckling through leaves coming through. I've actually seen the sun projected on the ground that way. But it's part of the fascination we have with the sun.


FLATOW: And your video is just beautiful, right?


FLATOW: It's nothing else. It's just a beautiful look at the sun.

LICHTMAN: It does have that going.

FLATOW: It has gorgeous - but then learning why it's beautiful is intellectual value.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I think you're right. And you know what, that's a good point, that we can't look at it directly so these views of it seem almost kind of magical because it's something that we are sort of encounter every single day, but these telescopes just give us a new look.

FLATOW: It's our Video Pick of the Week. It's up there in our website at You can also download it on iTunes as a Podcast, if you have a podcast. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: And it's great having you (unintelligible) with another fun in the sun.

LICHTMAN: Fun in the sun.

FLATOW: Fun in the sun.

LICHTMAN: If you have suggestions for other fun-in-the-suns, send us an email.

FLATOW: Send them in. Send them in.

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