Radio Verulam Science Feature 28/11/2016 with Sam Rolfe
This month I was talking about an scientific phenomena called the Maunder Minimum, due to the complete non-recognition of the phenomena by a radio quiz team... The Maunder Minimum is a period in history where there were relatively few sunspots and it is thought to be a factor in the Little Ice Age that occurred around the same time. The language of the quiz master determining the question to be "tricky" due to the fact that it was a science question lead me to the realisation that scientific facts and knowledge, though no more tricky or specialist than knowing about past football fixtures, music, literature etc. is chastised as a knowledge subject - see below for my full explanation.
Also, what to see in the night sky this month.
The Maunder Minimum is the reported reduced number of sunspots between 1645 and 1715. A lot of the data for these observations came from research conducted by a wife and husband team called Annie and Walter Maunder, hence the name. Walter Maunder published two papers about it at the time but despite passing her Cambridge examinations with honours, being the top mathematician in her class and ranked at a 2:1 level, restrictions at the time meant she was not awarded the degree she had completed and hence was not recognised for her contributions to the solar cycles publicly.
The phenomenon was not widely recognised within the community until 1976 when a paper was published by John Eddy. The Maunder Minimum coincides with relatively cold temperatures known as the Little Ice Age, suggesting a possible contribution to Earth’s climate due to the solar cycle, though there are other factors involved and this potential link to climate is still not well understood.
The Sun goes through a recognised cycle of maxima and minima where it is more or less active, where one cycle is 11 years minimum to minimum. When the Sun is active, there are more sunspots, which appear dark, but they are still very hot, but are relatively cool compared to the surrounding atmosphere of the Sun, hence their dark appearance. If plotted on a diagram, the areas in which the sunspots appear form a butterfly wing effect across the surface with the centre of the wings along the equator.
They occur due to concentrations of magnetic field flux which inhibits convection, and the intense magnetic activity causes secondary phenomena such as solar flares (a release of electromagnetic radiation across the spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves at the speed of light, arrival at Earth: 8 mins) and coronal mass ejections (a release of a plasma of electrons and protons from the Sun, take one to three days to reach the Earth).
During a period of 28 years, though only part of the Maunder Minimum, fewer than 50 sunspots were observed, whereas a similar period in recent times would yield 40,000 – 50,000.
Science as the Outsider
I was recently listening to a radio quiz show, in which the answer to the question was the Maunder Minimum, which when about to announce the question the host preceded it with “I think this is a stinker” and when discussing the possible answer with the contestants said “a complex but quite well known phenomena of climate variance, the words ‘quite well known’ might be disputed”. Furthermore he gave the team a point for their plight at having to answer such a “terrifically hard” question and there is “no shame” in not being able to answer it. He would never have used the same phasing if the team were stuck on a question about football, music or Shakespeare.
Such throw away comments about science and knowledge of science is continually damaging to the subject. It does nothing to lessen the unfortunate and deep rooted feeling in our society that science is out of reach and difficult to understand. No other subject is chastised in such a way, the knowledge of music, literature, sport, pop culture and current affairs etc. is accepted as normal and not difficult or tricky. Knowledge of science should be as normal as any subject, people take the time to learn about all sorts of different things, scientific subjects are no different. I often attend pub quizzes in which there is rarely a whole round based on science, and maybe if I am lucky I get one science question in the general knowledge round but the questions are so very basic that most people on the table will know the answer, so I cannot meaningfully contribute at all. And yet an entire round on sport asking questions on 1970’s football league results, the penalty takers in the 1994 world cup draw between whoever and whoever and something about cricket, though ridiculously obscure as far as I am concerned is acceptable and common. Furthermore, I have been to quizzes before where answers to science questions given by the quiz master are fundamentally incorrect, further propagating problems with the understanding of science within our society. Science is more accessible than ever with the advent of factual websites and videos available online providing explanations to scientific concepts and news, the use of accurate scientific concepts in movies and the mountains of popular science books that are available and yet those who are interested and learn about science are still marginalised and treated as eccentric if their knowledge base is in this area and not other well learned subjects like sports, literature and pop culture.
Night Sky This Month
Mercury can be seen low in the west sky around the 11th December when it is at its greatest elongation, you will need full view of the horizon.
The Geminid meteor shower peaks on the 13th and 14th Decemeber, it can have a rate of 120 meteors per hour, though some of the fainter meteors may not be visible due to the full Moon. Best viewing will be from a dark location after midnight.
The Full Moon is on 14th Dec.
Winter Solstice is on the 21st Dec, bringing the beginning of longer days.
Visible planets this month: Venus, Mars, Uranus and Neptune in the evening and Jupiter in the morning.