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 problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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