The Touch of Spring Sun 12 Apr 2017

Ninety million miles away, a raging ball of nuclear fusion boils, swirls and provides all the energy we use on earth. Its surface seethes at 11,000 degrees Fahrenheit! To say it is gigantic is a stark understatement. The sun’s diameter is 879,000 miles. The earth is a mere drop in a bucket with a diameter of only 7925 miles at the equator. A million earths would easily fit inside it!

Sun spots and magnetic storms, gamma ray and x-ray bursts blaze out from the sun. Magnetic storms and sunspots have recently interfered with radio communication and interrupted data transmission from earth orbiting satellites and space-exploring probes. Severe radiation outbursts pose potential threats to astronauts.

Impressive? Yes, but our sun is certainly not one of a kind. Indeed, there are billions, trillions, quadrillions, just like it spread across the measureless reaches of space. We see them at night only as pinpricks of light spread from horizon to horizon, in every direction. Those distant diamonds in the velvet-black sky we call stars, but they are actually suns, and many have planets like ours orbiting them.

Aztecs, Mayans, and ancient Egyptians worshiped the sun as a god. In a sense, many modern people still seem to be sun worshipers. They strive year-round for a uniform bronze suntan by cooking themselves in its rays. During winter some, like warm-blooded biscuits, revert to sliding their paling bodies into specially constructed “ovens” called tanning salons to maintain their perfectly “done” tans.

However, be warned. Both the sun and those UV tanning salons rely on the same mechanism. They cause the skin pigment melanin to darken. Use those salons at your peril. Sometimes melanin doesn’t just tan, it goes haywire and produces life-threatening malignant melanomas. Most dermatologists urge extreme caution or complete avoidance of tanning salons. And take caution in the sun.

The sun’s warmth also exercises control over weather. As the ground warms, so does the air above it. Swirling air rises, cools, and forms clouds. The imbalance between cold and warm air causes wind, which can be gentle Zephyrs, or devastating hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, and violent thunderstorms. We’ve seen more than plenty of these recently.

The sun produces only a very narrow band of radiation we can see – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet – which when blended, appear as white light. Many insects can see well into the ultra-violet spectrum that’s invisible to us. Some colors are reflected, others absorbed. The reflected wavelengths produce the colors we see.

Colors are important to us in many ways. They help us identify flowers and food, affect our moods, and betray illnesses. Roses are red, violets are blue, dog food is brown and not for you. Liver diseases cause jaundice, yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes.

Flower and leaf buds burst and unfortunately my lawn grows like mad too. Wildlife and pets shed their winter insulation. By now your cats and dogs have probably donated, free of charge, a copious contribution of their excess hair on furniture and carpets.

The internal “light clocks” of birds lets them know its time to sing and lay eggs. Chlorophyll, the green coloring in plants, uses sunlight to produce plant nutrients. Your sleep is controlled by the production of melatonin in the dark, assisting you in getting a good night’s rest. Its interruption, even by a small nightlight, can result in insomnia.

In short, Old Sol, blazing in the sky is truly a multifaceted God-send. Not too close; not too far away. Treasure it. It won’t always be there. According to astronomers the sun is already about 5 billion years old and will only last another 10 billion or so. Oh well. As Scarlett O’Hara said in Gone With the Wind, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” In the meantime, just welcome its warmth in our fields and forests.

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.