Previously, I introduced a bizarre pseudoscience website that claimed to revolutionize modern astrophysics. It doesn’t actually do that. I thought I would show exactly why, and teach some cool astrophysics at the same time. This is part 4 of the series. You can follow along with what I’m debunking here. Previous installments in this series are here.
So it’s been quite a while since I’ve done one of these (almost six months, in fact, although in my defense I got very busy with school) so I can understand if you’ve forgotten what’s going on, or started reading this blog sometime since August. To summarize, The Electric Sky, a website (and book) written by Dr. Donald E. Scott, essentially claims that nearly all of modern astrophysics (and most of physics in general) is wrong, because it underestimates the potential (ha) of electrical reactions between astronomical objects.
The Electric Sky is Scott’s tour de force, examining everything from black holes to galaxies to neutrinos, looking at mysteries and problems with current (ha) astrophysical explanations for these phenomena and attempting to explain these with electricity. Of course, it’s all bullshit. Dr. Scott isn’t a scientist (his Ph.D is in electrical engineering) and his “theories” overlook basic physics, make numerous beginner mistakes, misrepresent actual scientific research, ignore contradicting data, and invoke all manner of special pleading, appeals to authority, and other fallacious reasoning. In short, it’s the creationism of the astrophysics world.
Dr. Scott is hardly alone in his pseudoscience. He is part of a large community of people (see here, here, and here for more of these websites) and this specific branch of pseudoscience is called the Electric Universe (EU) theory. It has many proponents, though almost none of them are scientists, and the scientific consensus is strongly opposed to this “theory,” mostly because it’s not even remotely true.
There are very few resources on the internet that make a comprehensive rebuttal of all the claims these people make, so I decided to go through Dr. Scott’s entire website, paragraph by paragraph, and point out all the mistakes, bad arguments, and misuses of science I can find. My hope is to provide a resource for anyone trying to argue against one of these people, and a reference for anyone looking to understand EU without getting bogged down in all the pseudoscience. My secondary goal is to explain some of the more unfamiliar concepts of astronomy and astrophysics to a lay audience, because science education is cool.
This particular chapter of Scott’s website is focused on the Sun. I should preface this by pointing out that I actually know very little about the Sun, but Dr. Scott knows even less so it’s okay. To make up for my lack of knowledge, I’ll be relying heavily on Tim Thompson’s takedown of this same chapter, which is remarkably thorough. His understanding of history and the relevant research is far greater than mine, so many of the points I make in this post will come from his work.
Lastly, this chapter is extremely long, so I’ll be splitting it into three parts. I really don’t want to write five thousand words of snark all at once, and I doubt anyone could take that much science in one sitting. So parts 2 and 3 will be released a bit later.
So with all that out of the way, let’s jump in!
Dr. Scott starts off by summarizing his “model” of how an electric Sun works:
In this day and age there is no longer any doubt that electrical effects in plasmas play an important role in the phenomena we observe on the Sun.
The major properties of the “Electric Sun (ES) model” are as follows:
- Most of the space within our galaxy is occupied by plasma (rarefied ionized gas) containing electrons (negative charges) and ionized atoms (positive charges). Every charged particle in the plasma has an electric potential energy (voltage) just as every pebble on a mountain has a mechanical potential energy with respect to sea level. The Sun is at the center of a plasma cell, called the heliosphere, that stretches far out – several times the radius of Pluto. As of 9/9/2012 the radius of this plasma cell has been measured to be greater than 18 billion km or 122 times the distance from the Sun to Earth. These are facts not hypotheses.
Dr. Scott is correct here. All of these statements are facts. The heliosphere is the region filled with particles from the solar wind, which we’ll cover more in part 2. The measurement that Dr. Scott is referring to was made by Voyager 1 in 2012, when Voyager crossed what’s known as the heliopause, the boundary between the heliosphere and interstellar space.
- The Sun is at a more positive electrical potential (voltage) than is the space plasma surrounding it – probably in the order of several billion volts.
I’m not actually sure if this is true or not, but I’m willing to bet it’s not, just because Dr. Scott seems to think it is. For the record, I can’t find any evidence that suggests this to be true, and Dr. Scott never provides any citations for his arguments, so I can’t be sure where he got this idea from.
- Positive ions leave the Sun and electrons enter the Sun. Both of these flows add to form a net positive current flowing through the Sun (entering at the poles and leaving radially at lower latitudes). This constitutes a plasma discharge analogous in every way (except size) to those that have been observed in electrical plasma laboratories for decades. Because of the Sun’s positive charge (voltage), it acts as the anode in a plasma discharge. As such, it exhibits many of the phenomena observed in earthbound plasma laboratory experiments.
Here, Dr. Scott alludes to the solar wind that I mentioned earlier, and that he’ll focus on later. His argument is that because positive ions (protons) leave the Sun (via the solar wind) and negative ions (electrons) enter the Sun (somehow), that this is evidence of an electric field created by the Sun. The problem is that electrons don’t enter the Sun. They leave the same way as the protons: via the solar wind. Because positive and negative ions are following the same path, it can’t be an electric field that’s causing them to move. We’re three bullet points into Dr. Scott’s “theory” and we’ve already hit a major snag. Whoops.
- The Sun may be powered, not from within itself, but from outside, by the electric (Birkeland) currents that flow in our arm of our galaxy as they do in all galaxies. This possibility – that the Sun may be externally powered by its galactic environment – is the most speculative idea in the ES hypothesis and is always attacked by critics while they completely ignore all the other more obvious properties of the ES model. In the Plasma Universe model, cosmic sized, low-density currents create the galaxies and the stars within those galaxies by the electromagnetic z-pinch effect. It is only a small extrapolation to ask whether these currents remain in place to power those stars. Galactic currents are of low current density, but, because the sizes of the stars are large, the total current (Amperage) is high. An electrically powered Sun’s radiated power would be due to the energy delivered by that amperage. As it travels around the galactic center the Sun may come into regions of higher or lower current density and so its output may vary both periodically and randomly.
So here’s a really weird thing. What are Birkeland currents? Well, Birkeland currents are electric currents in space plasmas that follow magnetic field lines. For instance, think of Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field lines emerge from the magnetic North Pole, circle around, and end at the magnetic South Pole. Electric charges follow these field lines, and because moving electric particles create electric currents, we see currents that overlap the Earth’s magnetic field. These currents are called Birkeland currents.
Earth’s Birkeland currents are responsible for a number of phenomena, most notably the aurorae, or Northern and Southern Lights. Other planets, like Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter, also have Birkeland currents of their own. But here, Scott postulates the existence of galactic Birkeland currents (currents generated by a magnetic field at the center of the Milky Way) which is strong enough to power, presumably, the hundreds of millions of stars in the galaxy. Needless to say, these galactic Birkeland currents don’t exist.
The Sun’s corona is visible only during solar eclipses (or via sophisticated instruments developed for that specific purpose). It is a vast luminous plasma glow that changes shape with time – always remaining fairly smooth and distributed in its inner regions, and showing filamentary spikes and points in its outer fringes. It is a ‘glow’ mode plasma discharge. If the Sun were not electrical in nature this corona would not exist. If the Sun is simply a (non-electrical) nuclear furnace, the corona has no business being there at all. So one of the most basic questions that ought to arise in any discussion of the Sun is: Why does our Sun have a corona? Why is it there? It serves no purpose in a fusion-only model nor can such models explain its existence.
The Sun’s corona is fascinating. Here are some pictures of it. JK here are actually some pictures of it. Of course, current models can explain the existence of the corona quite nicely, so simply saying that they can’t isn’t really good enough here.
The Solar Wind
Positive ions stream outward from the Sun’s surface and accelerate away, through the corona, for as far as we have been able to measure. It is thought that these particles eventually make up a portion of the cosmic ray flux that permeates the cosmos. The ‘wind’ varies with time and has even been observed to stop completely for a period of a day or two. What causes this fluctuation? The ES model proposes a simple explanation and suggests a mechanism that both creates and controls fluctuations in this flow. The standard model provides no such explanation or mechanism. See Solar Surface Transistor Action.
Again, the standard model is perfectly capable of explaining the solar wind. The standard model also doesn’t completely ignore the existence of negative ions in the solar wind, as Scott does throughout this chapter. Watch, he’ll do it again in a few paragraphs.
Electrical Properties of the Photosphere and Chromosphere
The essence of the Electric Sun hypothesis is a description of the electrical properties of its photosphere, chromosphere, and the resulting effects on the charged particles that move through those layers. The surface of the Sun that we typically see from Earth is the photosphere which is a brightly radiating layer of plasma only about 500 km thick. It is analogous to the ‘anode glow’ region of a laboratory gas discharge experiment except that it is in arc mode. It consists of cells of plasma, sometimes called ‘tufts’ or ‘granules’. ‘Sunspots’ are areas where no such granules exist. The granules observed on the surface of the photosphere are in fairly turbulent motion. They change shape, size, and disappear in a matter of hours or days. New ones pop up in their place. The anode glow is often observed in the laboratory to consist of a pattern of small, rotating, regularly arranged spots, whose speed of rotation is sometimes sufficiently slow to be followed by the unaided eye. The analogy between the laboratory gas discharge and the behavior of the Sun is indeed a compelling one.
Terminology! So the Sun isn’t a uniform ball of hydrogen like some people think. It has layers, like the Earth has layers. This picture should help.
The outermost layer of the Sun is the corona, which was already mentioned. Think of it like the upper atmosphere of the Earth: not very dense and highly ionized. It’s also extremely hot (up to 2 million degrees kelvin).
Below that is the chromosphere. It’s a smooth transition between the corona and the photosphere: it’s similar to the corona near the top, and similar to the photosphere at the bottom.
Below the chromosphere is the photosphere. The photosphere is the part of the star that actually emits most of the light. Think of it like Earth’s lower atmosphere, but, you know, really hot.
After that is the convective zone, followed by the radiative zone. These layers are defined by how they transmit heat: either by convection or by radiation. As a refresher, convection is heat transfer through direct contact, while radiation is heat transfer by indirect contact. For example, when you touch a hot stove, that’s convection, but when you hold your hand near a hot stove, that’s radiation.
And lastly, the center of the Sun is called the core. It’s the hottest part of the Sun, with temperatures reaching up to 15 million degrees kelvin. It’s also the densest part of the Sun, and where nearly all the nuclear fusion happens. It’s the powerhouse driving the Sun, and by extension, everything in the solar system.
The photosphere, then, is plasma in the ‘arc’ mode. We say this because the Sun emits power at a rate of over 63 million watts/sq meter from its photospheric surface. This is equivalent to a power output of 40 kW from each square inch of that surface. Some have questioned whether the photosphere’s relatively low temperature (~5800K) disqualifies it from being in arc mode. In 1944 C.E.R. Bruce of England’s Electrical Research Institute proposed that the “photosphere has the appearance, the temperature, and the spectrum of an electric arc; it has arc characteristics because it is an electric arc, or a large number of arcs in parallel.” And, it is difficult to imagine a plasma discharge in anything other than arc mode that could radiate 40 kW of power from each square inch of its surface area. Can you imagine the light from forty 1000 watt light bulbs coming out of a one square inch area?
Here Dr. Scott pretends that the light output from the photosphere is an electric phenomenon. It’s not, of course, but that’s not stopping him. The “arc mode” that he mentions is an electric arc. Electric arcs are used in welding and furnaces, among other things. You might be most familiar with it as lightning.
The temperature problem that Scott mentions is a real one: electric arcs commonly burn at close to ten thousand degrees kelvin, nearly twice as hot as the photosphere. And quoting some random electrical engineer doesn’t make that problem go away. The photosphere is far too cold to be an electric arc.
So why is the photosphere so bright? Well, Dr. Scott mentions that the photosphere outputs 40 kW of power per square inch of surface area. But the photosphere is more than a surface. It’s hundreds of kilometers deep. With hundreds of kilometers of plasma burning at nearly six thousand degrees, it’s not difficult to see why the Sun is so bright.
A cross-section taken through a photospheric granule is shown in the three plots shown together below in figure 1 (on his site; I’m not reproducing his images.). The horizontal axis of each of the three plots is distance, measured radially outward (upward), starting at a point near the bottom of the photosphere (the true surface of the Sun – which we can only observe in the umbra of sunspots). Almost every observed property of the Sun can be explained through reference to these three plots; for this reason, much of the discussion that follows makes reference to them.
Who knew the Sun was so simple we could just pull a couple of graphs out of our ass and explain the whole thing?
The first plot shows the energy per unit (positive) charge of an ion as a function of its radial distance out from (altitude up from) the solar surface. The units of Energy per Unit Charge are Volts, V. The second plot, the E-field, shows the outward (upward) radial force (toward the right in this figure) experienced by each such positive ion. The third plot shows the locations of the charge densities that will produce the first two plots. The chromosphere is the location of a plasma double layer (DL) of electrical charge. Recall that one of the properties of electric plasma is its excellent (although not perfect) conductivity. Such an excellent conductor will support only a weak electric field. Notice in the second plot that the almost ideal plasmas of the photosphere (region b to c) and the corona (from point e outward) are regions of almost zero electric field strength.
Blah blah blah. Here Dr. Scott summarizes his bullshit graph. You could read it and be confused, look at his graph and be even more confused, or just read along and let me summarize it without killing your brain cells.
He’s got three graphs. The first graph says that voltage drops as you move outward from the Sun’s surface. The second graph says that positive ions experience an outward force once they reach the chromosphere, that drops off once they hit the corona. The third graph says the inner half of the chromosphere is positively charged, while the outer half is negatively charged.
Notice the admission that Dr. Scott will proceed to ignore for the rest of this series: “Such an excellent conductor [a plasma] will only support a weak electric field.” Why, then, are we trying to redefine electric fields as the dominant forces of astrophysics, where nearly everything is a plasma? One of the greatest mysteries of our time.
All three of these plots are related mathematically. By the laws of electro-physics: E = – dV/dr, and Charge density = dE/dr. In words: The value of the E-field, at every point r, is the (negative of) the slope of the energy plot at that point. The reason for the negative sign in this equation is that the force on a positively charged particle is down the potential hill, not up. This is analogous to the fact that a mass will tend to roll downhill, not uphill. The value of the charge density at each point, r, is the slope of the E-field plot at that point. The two layers of opposite charge density necessary to produce the compound shaped energy curve between points c and e used to be called a ‘double sheath’. Modern nomenclature calls it a ‘double layer’ (DL). It is a well known phenomenon in plasma discharges. Because of the DL positioned between points c and e, a +ion to the right of point e sees no electrostatic force from +ions to the left of point c. The ‘primary plasma’ of the corona and the ‘secondary plasma’ of the photosphere are electrically separated by the DL.
Most of this is irrelevant, but it is interesting. He’s describing the relationships between electric field, electric force, and charge. There’s a bit of calculus in there, but it’s not impossible to understand, even though Dr. Scott seems determined to make it that way.
He also mentions a “double layer.” A double layer is an interesting phenomenon in plasmas where positive and negative charges can separate, usually caused by an electric field. Here, Scott postulates a double layer inside the Sun (of which there is no evidence) to explain a number of things.
The energy plot shown above is valid for positively charged particles. Because a positive E-field represents an outward radial force (toward the right) per unit charge on any such particle, the region wherein the E-field is negative (a to b) constitutes an inward force. This region of the lower photosphere is, thus, an energy barrier that positive ions must surmount in order to escape the body of the Sun. Any +ions attempting to escape outward from within the Sun must have enough energy to get over this energy barrier. So the presence of this single positive charge layer at the bottom of the photospheric plasma serves as a constraint on unlimited escape of +ions from the surface of the Sun.
One last feature of Dr. Scott’s graphs: he predicts that, similar to the force he made up that pushes positive ions outward from the surface of the Sun, he also invents a force beneath the surface of the Sun pulling them all toward the center. This second force is necessary to his model because without it, all the positive ions will simply fly outward and the Sun will disappear. Of course, there’s absolutely no evidence that this force exists, but that’s hardly breaking with tradition for Dr. Scott.
Granule Shrinkage and Movement
In order to visualize the effect this energy diagram has on electrons (negative charges) coming in toward the Sun from cosmic space (from the right), we can turn the energy plot upside down. Doing this enables us to visualize the ‘trap’ that these photospheric granules are for incoming electrons. As the trap fills, the energy of the granule (existing between b and c) decreases in height, and so the granule weakens, shrinks, and eventually disappears. This is the cause of the observed shrinkage and disappearance of photospheric granules.
And here is where Dr. Scott invents an abundance of electrons entering the Sun. Not only is there no evidence that Dr. Scott is right about these electrons, there is quite sufficient evidence to disprove this claim entirely. In fact, here is a very sciencey graph that shows electrons leaving (not entering) the Sun as part of the solar wind. In real time. Kinda puts a big hole in the Electric Sun hypothesis, doesn’t it?
By the way, if you’re interested in more real time solar wind data, you can poke around this site, where I got that graph from. It’s got some interesting stuff.
And that’s it for part 1! Next time, we’ll discover just how many different ways Dr. Scott’s graphs are full of shit, and learn some stuff about plasmas. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments!