May 29, 2020
Recently. a New York Times article drew attention to a corona that’s not a virus and that makes life possible instead of threatening it. The corona or outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere puzzles astronomers because it is, as compared with similar stars, so calm.
We take the sun for granted, unless it disappears for a few cloudy days or burns us at the beach or, less often, disrupts satellite communications. Once every century or so, it might burp enough energy to fry technology and maybe even ignite the Northern Lights over the Caribbean, as happened in 1859. Aside from instances such as these, it’s easy to forget that the local star that warms our faces and wakes our flowers, this “blazing ball of fusion-powered plasma,” is actually capable, at least in theory, of scorching our planet and all of us to a lifeless cinder.
However, a new paper published in the journal “Science” suggests that’s exactly the sort of thing we should expect from the sun, if it behaved like other stars of its kind. But it doesn’t. The good news is, as the Times put it, the star around which we orbit is downright “boring” compared with its solar siblings.
Astronomers at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, after compiling data from NASA’s retired Kepler space telescope, which spent years monitoring 150,000 distant stars, concluded that our sun’s relative calm is among the reasons we are here at all.
After identifying 369 comparable stars in our galaxy, these scientists learned something astounding: The magnetic activity that creates the sunspots, solar flares, and coronal mass ejections on other stars is, on average, five times more intense than on our sun. On many stars that were studied, disruptions were even twelve times more intense. That level of chaos makes life in their orbits virtually impossible.
So why would our sun behave so differently than all the others? One unsettling theory, especially given the “what else could possibly go wrong” start to 2020, is that our sun is currently asleep, but might, at some point, wake up and blast us with deadly levels of radiation. Another idea is that our sun is aging, and because it is now over-the-hill, has fewer bursts of energy to give off.
That sounds reasonable to those of us reaching middle age.
Currently, according to researchers, one theory is not to be favored over another, but what is clear, as the Times observes, is that our sun’s relative tranquility has unquestionably “benefitted our species.” As the study’s lead author put it, “It may be no coincidence that we live around a very inactive star.”
Of course, coincidence is the only reason that anyone already committed to naturalism can feasibly offer. If, however, the blinders of that particular worldview are removed, there’s a third possible explanation: Our host star is uniquely friendly to life because it was finely-tuned by God to support life.
In the marvelous book, “The Privileged Planet,” Jay Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez list the many features that make our earth, sun, and our corner of the universe uniquely suited for life. Not only do we have the right kind of star, we are just the right distance from that star. We are at the right location in the galaxy. We are in a solar system with gas giants that shield us from wandering asteroids and comets. We have a moon just the right size to stabilize our axis and create tides and seasons. We are on a planet with land, liquid water, oxygen, plate tectonics, and a molten iron core to generate a magnetosphere.
Tally up all these factors, as Richards and Gonzalez do, and it’s a dizzying improbability that we would be here at all: something like 1 out of 1 followed by 15 zeroes.
And yet, here we are, bathed in the warmth of a star scientists increasingly recognize as rare and hospitable. Our brightest minds could hardly imagine, much less imagine attempting to design, a better solar system. All of which is why we ought to thank the brightest of all minds, the One that also made our own minds bright enough to discover all of these remarkable things about our privileged planet, our privileged place in the universe, and our blessedly boring sun.