ICYMI: Under the Pumpkin Sun

Why does the sun look like a Jack-o-Lantern, and why is it that we tend to see faces everywhere?


Halloween_Sun_2014_2k

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/SDO

The Science of the Pumpkin Sun

Last week NASA released a composite photo of the sun using two different wavelengths of light (specifically, the 171 and 193 angstroms … explained below). In the photo, the sun looks an awful lot like a smiling Jack-o-Lantern.

The image, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on Oct. 8, 2014, shows the sun’s active regions (the areas that appear brighter are the areas that were emitting more light and energy) using the combination of two extreme ultraviolet wavelengths typically colorized in gold and yellow. The wavelengths observed by NASA’s SDO are used to measure and monitor specific aspects of the sun’s surface or atmosphere. The length of each wave is measured in distances called Angstroms (which are about one ten-billionth of a meter, or 0.1 nm).

The wavelengths SDO observes, measured in angstroms, from the sun’s surface outward are:

  • 4500: Showing the sun’s surface or photosphere.
  • 1700: Shows surface of the sun, as well as a layer of the sun’s atmosphere called the chromosphere, which lies just above the photosphere and is where the temperature begins rising.
  • 1600: Shows a mixture between the upper photosphere and what’s called the transition region, a region between the chromosphere and the upper most layer of the sun’s atmosphere called the corona. The transition region is where the temperature rapidly rises.
  • 304: This light is emitted from the chromosphere and transition region.
  • 171: This wavelength shows the sun’s atmosphere, or corona, when it’s quiet. It also shows giant magnetic arcs known as coronal loops.
  • 193: Shows a slightly hotter region of the corona, and also the much hotter material of a solar flare.
  • 211: This wavelength shows hotter, magnetically active regions in the sun’s corona.
  • 335: This wavelength also shows hotter, magnetically active regions in the corona.
  • 94: This highlights regions of the corona during a solar flare.
  • 131: The hottest material in a flare.

The wavelengths used to create the Great Sun Pumpkin are marked in bold, and, according to NASA, they are “markers of an intense and complex set of magnetic fields hovering in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona.”

But, why do we see faces everywhere?

Scientist Carl Sagan hypothesized that humans are “hard-wired” to identify human faces and that, from an evolutionary perspective, there was a definite survival advantage for humans to be able to do so. The result is, according to this line of thinking, that we are primed to see faces even when what we’re looking at is a random occurrence in nature (Man on the Moon anyone?), or a grape juice stain on the carpet, or interior wood paneling from the 70s. You get the idea …

This “psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant” is called pareidolia. It’s also attributed by some to be the idea behind the creation of the original Rorschach Test, which was widely used in the 1960s. The test relied on inkblots to incite pareidolia in test subjects in an attempt to identify perceived significance of the images as a way to detect underlying thought disorders in patients.

Pareidolia is one of many interesting aspects of human psychology. If this is particularly interesting to you, there are many free, open courses, like the East Tennessee State University’s OpenBUCS Introduction to Psychology course, available online and on a variety of platforms, offering the opportunity for anyone with an interest to explore the basics of psychology at a collegiate level without enrolling at a university or committing to paying tuition dollars.

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