Gongol.com Archives: May 2024

Brian Gongol

May 11, 2024

Science and Technology A grand light show

An extraordinary solar storm has pushed the reach of the Northern Lights far beyond normal borders -- giving people even in Alabama and Florida a potentially once-in-a-lifetime view of what's typically reserved for people living much closer to the poles. ■ It's nearly unheard-of for an event to be visible to so many people around the world at the same time merely by looking out their own windows: No matter how large a weather system might be, it's not simultaneously-visible-in-North-America-and-Europe-and-Oceania large. We can share common experiences through our technologies, of course, but almost never can so many people share the same experience just by looking skyward. And it's a phenomenal sight. ■ The people who watch "space weather" note that the geomagnetic storm responsbile for the aurora is the product of a "complex sunspot cluster that is 17 times the diameter of Earth." Our very planet is dwarfed by the conditions causing the special event. ■ The "Serenity Prayer" widely popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous (but celebrated far beyond it) pleads, "Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." ■ Nothing we know how to accomplish on a human scale lights even a candle by comparison with the scale of the natural show going on now. A coronal mass ejection can take up a quarter of the space between the Earth and the Sun. That's too big to comprehend on a human scale, much less to influence. ■ So an extraordinary aurora is a good trigger for some epistemic modesty: We can only know so much and we can act on even less. There are many things we can do, but sometimes nature imposes forces on us far beyond our capacities. That shouldn't be cause for despair, only for humility.

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