Phenomena

Sunlight Is Older Than You Think

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Joe Hanson over at “It’s Okay to Be Smart” has a great video on the random walk photons have to make to escape the core of the sun and other stars. Because the high-energy photons born in the star’s core have to bounce their way out rather than flying in a straight line, those photons can spend thousands of years escaping the sun. After that, the eight-and-a-half minute trip to Earth is nothing.

But there’s a key element missing in this explanation: convection! That radiative random walk photons do doesn’t last all the way from the core of the sun to its surface. From a depth of about 200,000 km onward, the dominant mode of transport in the sun is convection, actual fluid motion that carries heat and light much faster than simple molecular diffusion, or Brownian motion, does. That’s why the surface of the sun shines with convection cells similar to the ones you’ll see in your skillet when heating a layer of oil.

Fluid motion beyond molecular diffusion is also a big part of the other flows Joe describes in the video. If you had to wait on Brownian motion in order to smell your morning coffee, it would be cold long before you knew it was there! (Video and image credit: It’s Okay to Be Smart; sun surface image credit: Big Bear Solar Observatory/NJIT)

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