The Sun – Our Star

Rocket Launch
Rocket Launch

Scientists have continued to follow in Tyndall’s footsteps, expanding our horizons way beyond his blue skies, to explore the great questions above our heads beyond the skies and to the Sun, our star. In the 150 years since Tyndall, scientists have built increasingly sophisticated telescopes in a quest to answer the most fundamental questions about our universe.

Indeed, today it’s even possible to place sophisticated technology beyond our atmosphere to peer into the depths of space. One such satellite is gazing at the star that first inspired Tyndall to investigate the colour of the sky.

Our sun is just one of over 200 billion stars that that make up our galaxy. It’s 1.4 million miles in diameter and burns at a temperature of 5,500°C at its surface. But despite being our nearest neighbouring star, much is still unknown about the sun.

Helen Mason

Helen Mason
Helen Mason

Helen Mason is working to change that.

Helen Mason “How could you not be fascinated by the sun when you see images like this?”

Look at these, they look like computer graphics from a film. This is from…

Helen Mason “Sci-fi film. This is real. This is from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and what you can see here is a huge eruption on the sun. If you imagine the size of the Earth it’s almost the size of the tip of my finger.”

What are the big, outstanding questions about our star?

Helen Mason “Well, there’s been an outstanding question which we’re tackling. When you have an eclipse you see the atmosphere of the sun, the corona, and although the surface of the sun is about 6,000°, the corona is a million degrees, and that’s intuitively something quite bizarre.”

Cause the heat’s coming from the core, so it’s…

The Sun, Our Star Image
The Sun, Our Star Image

Helen Mason “The heat’s coming up from the core, but you don’t naturally expect something cool, about 6,000 and then a million degrees. So one of the real questions is why? What heats that corona? It’s a very difficult problem. We are making some progress although we haven’t absolutely cracked it yet.”

Helen’s pursuit of knowledge may be noble, but there are those who question the validity of fundamental research like hers. From rockets to particle accelerators, blue-skies research costs billions of pounds, and to some this is an utter waste of taxpayers’ money.

If I was to ask the question, well, what use is this knowledge? How would you answer that?

Gazing at the Sun
Gazing at the Sun

Helen Mason “All knowledge is useful, so scientific endeavour in itself is useful. Understanding why something behaves in the way it is. I think there is an inspirational element there when people want to know about where they are, who they are, what’s happening up in the heavens, what’s happening with the sun. Civilised society is about why, you know, why doesn’t work like that? What happens? And I think if you take that away then you just say, well how do I make this particular device? How do I build a better car? How do I do that? Those are different questions. I just don’t think they should squeezed out of the curiosity-driven science altogether.”

Blue-skies research is important because knowledge has its own worth, but its value also comes from the benefits it brings. It’s responsible for all manner of progress, from cancer treatments to nuclear power, so when it comes to allocating funds, do you try to anticipate the benefits the work might bring, or simply finance research for its own sake?

Now, this dilemma is something that John Tyndall was well aware of as far back as 1873. He said that, “Scientific discovery may not only put dollars in the pockets of individuals, but millions into the exchequers of nations, the history of science amply proves, but the hope of doing so never was, and never can be, the motive power of investigations.”

Natural Knowledge

In other words the acquisition of money, the generation of profit, or even solving a particular goal, cannot be the only reason for funding a particular piece of research, because the acquisition of knowledge is priceless.

Now, you might think that persuading society to support the pursuit of knowledge through blue-skies research is a modern phenomenon, but you’d be wrong. It’s a fight that has existed at the heart of science from the very beginning.

The Royal Society
The Royal Society

Founded in 1660, to recognise, promote and support excellence in science the Royal Society is a fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists, all of whom have in some way contributed towards our understanding of the world. So at first glance it can appear that this place was founded solely for the blue-skies the dreamers.

But a book written just a few years after the society was founded shows that things aren’t always what they seem.

The title is, ‘the History of the Royal Society of London for the improving of Natural Knowledge’. This is an idealistic view of science, the curiosity-led exploration of nature. But things, of course, are always more complicated.

Natural Knowledge
Natural Knowledge

And you can see that even here, in this picture, at the side of the title page. There are four figures in the picture. Central is King Charles II, who’d given the society its Royal Charter five years before. And then there’s this figure here, this angelic figure. It’s thought that this is a Greek representation of fame. You see it’s placing a wreath on King Charles’ head. So this is saying, “To Charles, if you give us money, if you fund us, then you will become famous.” Why?

Well, you can see that by looking into the background of the picture. The figures are surrounded by the instruments of science, the achievements of science.

So, there’s a telescope here and clocks, and there’s a gun here. There are things that would enrich the country industrially and economically, as well as enriching knowledge. So this picture is saying, “if you invest in science, then, yes, you will become famous, you will advance knowledge, but also, you will advance economic interests of the country.”

The natural philosophers of the Royal society had realised that to pursue pure knowledge, to understand the world, you need money. And so the Royal society went into overdrive. It kept its promise to deliver wealth and innovation to the country. This was no place for airy-fairy ideas, like emulating fish. Instead, they put science to work on immediate practical problems, both abroad and on home soil.

They worked on everything from clocks to guns, even brewing. All things that would contribute to the economy, create wealth and, of course, for the King, fame. But it also had an unexpected consequence. By actively going out and asking for money, the Royal Society had introduced a new concept into science. Because science was now no longer just about curiosity. It was about targeted research for economic gain. And that’s a tension that has been acutely felt ever since.

The Sun – Our Star | Helen Mason | Science Britannica

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