Unraveling the great mystery that is the sun

Apparently, the sun has been burning for about 5 billion years, give or take a little. Can you believe no one wrote down the date? I am sure it has been burning since 1945, based upon my personal recollections. This dispels the myth that I may be much older.

I am told that at first — whenever that was — everything was “without form and void” and it was dark. There was just this big cloud of mostly hydrogen. I’m not sure how we know this, but it must be true because it’s in a science book. 

Times were tougher then. Everything was uphill, and it was so cold that our tongues would stick to metal poles if you licked them. It was 9 miles to school, and we had to milk the cows before we could even start. No, wait, that’s a different story. 

The 5-billion-years-ago story is about a bunch of hydrogen atoms that were close enough together that gravity began to pull them even closer. The cluster of gas became more and more dense. As the atoms stacked up, they began to exert tremendous pressure on the atoms at the bottom. I’m not sure what the bottom was since everything was without form and void, but apparently you still wouldn’t want to be at the bottom of a lot of hydrogen atoms. 

Normally, outside pressure causes things to implode. In this case, though, the pressure caused it to get hotter and hotter until the hydrogen atoms exploded, scattering electrons and protons everywhere. It was a mess, a little like the time I overheated an egg in the microwave. But the heat began to cause the elements to glow just as if God had said, “Let there be light.” 

This can be confusing. If the pressure outside a system is greater than inside the system, the pressure will cause an implosion or a collapse of the structure. However, when the pressure increases, it causes the temperature to rise, which causes things to explode. So, which is it? Can there be an explosion without first an implosion? 

Whichever it was, the flying protons made a mess. When they slammed into another proton, the two stuck to one another and this union formed atoms of helium. But this fusion produced even more energy in the form of light and heat. Remember, heat causes things to expand. At the same time, gravity was pulling things together. Eventually the expansion and contraction reached equilibrium, and we have a ball of gases we call a sun that releases energy. 

I still don’t understand — why does forcing two protons together release more energy than it takes to force them together? It’s things like this that make people not trust physicists. It’s all a little fuzzy there in the middle between stacked hydrogens and a full-blown sun (pun intended).

Physicists can’t agree about the details, so most of us just call it a miracle. I think there is a formula for that someplace, but I’m not up on my miracle physics. 

They tell me protons are still fusing out there in the middle of the sun and it is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit in the core. The gravity has compressed the gas to about 100 times the density of most metals. So why is it still called a gas? Anyway, the protons that are kicked loose can’t get out and are forced to collide with other protons, making more new atoms.

To sum it up, gravitational pressure pushes down on protons, which makes them hot. They collide with other protons and collapse into a new atom and give off heat. Heat makes the gases expand but they can’t because of the gravitational pressure of the protons on top of them. This heat and light makes its way to the Earth where it can be eclipsed by a stupid moon. Makes sense.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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