“Pinnacles a thousand miles high that from base to summit were fire”


Up close, the solar surface is a striking patch work of granules in this very high resolution picture of the quiet Sun. Caused by convection, the granules are hot, rising columns of plasma edged by dark lanes of cooler, descending plasma. But the high-resolution view reveals that the dark lanes are dotted with many small, contrasting bright points. Constantly present on the solar surface, the bright points do not seem to be related to sunspots that come and go with the magnetic solar cycle. Nonetheless, the bright points are regions of concentrated magnetic fields and are bright because the magnetic pressure opens a window to hotter deeper layers below the photosphere. For scale, the white bar at the lower left corresponds to 5,000 kilometers across the Sun’s surface. The sharp, narrow-band image was recorded in September, 2007 using the Swedish Solar Telescope on the astronomical island of La Palma.

I’m brought to mind of a sequence from Lord Dunsany’s Don Rodriguez (1922), in which the titular character and his manservent, Morano, take an astral journey into the orbit of the sun. Dunsany, refusing to avail himself of contemporary science, incorrectly surmised  metalic elements in Sol’s composition; but he correctly captured the staggering awesomeness of the solar scale:

There is always something tremendous in the form of great mountains; but these swept by, not only huger than anything Earth knows, but troubled by horrible commotions, as though overtaken in flight by some ceaseless calamity.

Rodriguez and Morano, as they looked at them, forgetting the gardens of Earth, forgetting Spring and Summer and the sweet beneficence of sunshine, felt that the purpose of Creation was evil! So shocking a thought may well astound us here, where green hills slope to lawns or peer at a peaceful sea; but there among the flames of those dreadful peaks the Sun seemed not the giver of joy and colour and life, but only a catastrophe huger than everlasting war, a centre of hideous violence and ruin and anger and terror. There came by mountains of copper burning everlasting, hurling up to unthinkable heights their mass of emerald flame. And mountains of iron raged by and mountains of salt, quaking and thundering and clothed with their colours, the iron always scarlet and the salt blue. And sometimes there came by pinnacles a thousand miles high that from base to summit were fire, mountains of pure flame that had no other substance. And these explosive mountains, born of thunder and earthquake, hurling down avalanches the size of our continents, and drawing upward out of the deeps of the Sun new material for splendour and horror, this roaring waste, this extravagant destruction, were necessary for every tint that our butterflies wear on their wings. Without those flaming ranges of mountains of iron they would have no red to show; even the poppy could have no red for her petals: without the flames that were blasting the mountains of salt there could be no answering blue in any wing, or one blue flower for all the bees of Earth: without the nightmare light of those frightful canyons of copper that awed the two spirits watching their ceaseless ruin, the very leaves of the woods we love would be without their green with which to welcome Spring; for from the flames of the various metals and wonders that for ever blaze in the Sun, our sunshine gets all its colours that it conveys to us almost unseen, and thence the wise little insects and patient flowers softly draw the gay tints that they glory in; there is nowhere else to get them.

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