Why can't we do anything about the weather?

It’s hard to fathom that the warmth you feel (or don’t feel) today was created at a time when Neanderthals were still around. Yet that is not the real mystery. . .

We’re all still reeling from the Met Office’s warning that we may be facing a decade of miserable summers. Perhaps it will help to recall that we don’t know everything about the sun. That burning ball of gas in the sky remains something of a mystery, and not just for its refusal to shine with any consistency over the UK.
 
The centre of the sun is fairly straightforward. Atoms of hydrogen fuse, forming atoms of helium and releasing energy that powers more fusion. That ongoing chain reaction, burning several million tonnes of hydrogen per second, heats the core of the sun to temperatures of roughly 15m°.
 
The laws of thermodynamics tell us that energy moves from hot to cold, and so heat starts moving towards the surface of the sun, where the temperature is a balmy 6,000°. It’s not an easy journey, though. It’s only about 700,000 kilometres, or a trip from the earth to the moon and back, but it takes the packets of energy released in nuclear fusion something like 40,000 years to reach the sun’s surface.
 
It’s hard to fathom that the warmth you feel (or don’t feel) today was created at a time when Neanderthals were still around. Yet that is not the real mystery. The problem that has scientists scratching their heads is the temperature of the outer layer of the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. The temperature of this blanket of ionised gas is roughly 1m° to 2m°. Bafflingly, the further away you move from the furnace at the centre of the sun, the hotter it gets.
 
The solution to this puzzle lies in the region of the sun known as the chromosphere. This is the layer that lies between the surface and the corona. That is why Nasa has just launched a telescope to take a closer look. For the next two years, the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (Iris) will watch the chromosphere from its position in orbit 400 miles above Planet Earth.
 
It’s ironic that Iris’s launch on 27 June was delayed by a power outage that took Vandenberg Air Force Base’s systems offline: that is exactly what Iris may help prevent. The huge quantity of energy trapped in the chromosphere powers the solar wind, a stream of particles that emanates from the sun, as well as events such as the coronal mass ejections that occasionally catapult hundred-billionkilogram gobs of plasma out into space at speeds of up to seven million miles per hour.
 
When those hot plasma balls (they start off at 10m°) head our way, things can get pretty tricky here on earth. Interactions between the plasma balls and the earth’s magnetic field can cause havoc with our power grids and threaten vital infrastructure.
 
The US National Academy of Sciences has estimated that, in a worst-case scenario, a freak space storm could cause a catastrophe that would leave the US government with a repair bill of up to $2trn. Improving our understanding of the chromosphere is one way to tell how badly the sun could hurt us, so the $100m to build Iris and look into the possibilities seems a bargain.
 
The main working part of the spacecraft is a telescope that inspects the ultraviolet radiation coming from the 2,000-mile gap between the surface and the corona. It will take an image every ten seconds or so and analyse the spectrum of radiation for clues to how the heat is moving around to produce such odd changes in temperature. In a couple of years, we may have solved the biggest mystery in our solar system. Then we can sit, shivering under steel-grey skies, marvelling at human scientific ingenuity and wondering why someone can’t do something about the weather. 
 
A field of rapeseed blossoms in the sunshine. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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The Brexit select committee walkout is an ominous sign of things to come

Leavers walked out of a meeting of Hilary Benn's "gloomy" committee yesterday. Their inability to accept criticism could have disastrous consequences

“Hilary Benn isn’t managing a select committee. He’s managing an ecosystem.” That was the stark verdict of one member of the Commons' Brexit committee on its fitness for purpose yesterday. If its meeting on the eve of Article 50 is anything to go by, then Benn’s fragile biome might already be damaged beyond repair.

Unhappy with the content of its “gloomy” provisional 155-page report into the government’s Brexit white paper, leavers on the committee walked out of its meeting yesterday. The committee is a necessarily unwieldy creation and it would probably be unreasonable to expect it to agree unanimously on anything: it has 21 members where others have 11, so as to adequately represent Leavers, Remainers and the nations.

Disagreements are one thing. Debate and scrutiny, after all, are why select committees exist. But the Brexiteers’ ceremonial exodus augurs terribly for the already grim-looking trajectory of the negotiations to come. “As I understand it, they don’t like analysing the evidence that they have,” another pro-Remain member of the committee told me.

Therein lies the fundamental weakness of the Brexiteers’ position: they cannot change the evidence. As was the case with the 70 MPs who wrote to Lord Hall last week to accuse the BBC of anti-Brexit bias, they assume a pernicious selectivity on the part of Remainers and their approach to the inconvenient facts at hand. None exists.

On the contrary, there is a sense of resignation among some Remainers on the Brexit committee that their reports will turn out to be pretty weak beer as a consequence of the accommodations made by Benn to their Eurosceptic colleagues. Some grumble that high-profile Brexiteers lack detailed understanding of the grittier issues at play – such as the Good Friday Agreement – and only value the committee insofar as it gives them the opportunity to grandstand to big audiences.

The Tory awkward squad’s inability to accept anything less than the studied neutrality that plagued the Brexit discourse in the run-up to the referendum – or, indeed, any critical analysis whatsoever – could yet make an already inauspicious scenario unsalvageable. If they cannot accept even a watered-down assessment of the risks ahead, then what happens when those risks are made real? Will they ever accept the possibility that it could be reality, and not the Remain heretics, doing Britain down? How bad will things have to get before saving face isn’t their primary imperative?

Yesterday's pantomime exit might have been, as one committee member told me, “hysterically funny”. What’s less amusing is that these are the only people the prime minister deigns to listen to.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.