Solar event was biggest in history

Sunday December 2, 2012

Q: On Sept. 1, 1859, a natural event occurred that is so rare it is believed to happen only once or twice per millennium.

It made telegraph equipment spark and sizzle, disrupting communications worldwide, and pushed the northern lights as far south as the Caribbean. The auroras were so brilliant in the eastern United States that birds began chirping and people thought dawn had arrived.

What had happened?

A: On that morning while observing the Sun, London astronomer and solar expert Richard Carrington was startled to see "two patches of intensely bright and white light" erupting from dark sunspots, then disappearing five minutes later, as reported in "The Writer’s Almanac."

Today’s astronomers understand that this extraordinary phenomenon was a massive solar flare, with energy estimated to equal 10 billion atomic bombs. The flare was part of a ferocious solar storm that raged for about a week, spewing subatomic particles and ionized gas into space and distorting the Earth’s magnetic field. Dubbed the Carrington Event, it was the largest "geomagnetic storm" ever recorded.

Sobering to contemplate is the havoc one of these could inflict on today’s "wired" society, with damage to large electrical transformers and disruption of the power grid. Weeks or even months would be required for repair.

Also vulnerable would be our myriad communication and GPS satellites, though our constantly improved monitoring of the sun’s activities may well give us precious hours of warning for "battening down the hatches" and dodging the worst of the event.

Q: While the number grew plenty fast initially, it has actually sextupled since 1960, using plenty of money, space, resources, advertising attention and more.

What are we talking about here?

A: No, it’s not the people of the world, a number growing at quite a rate, but not as fast as given above.

Rather, it’s the total number of vehicles, counting cars, trucks, vans, minibuses and on and on, according to "Science Illustrated" magazine.

The very first gas-powered vehicle came courtesy of Germany’s Karl Benz in 1885, with a top speed of 11 mph.

While the world population is about 7 billion, the vehicular "population" is currently about a billion strong, a number destined to increase even further, especially as China and India get rolling along.

Q: Looking for the shortest line to get out of a large busy store fast, should you first try the checkout lanes toward the right, left, or middle? Does it make a difference which country you’re in?

A: As long ago as 1933, Edward Robinson noted that 75 percent of museum patrons turned first to displays on the right, even though curators generally placed exhibits intended to be viewed starting on the left, says Arizona State University psychologist Michael K. McBeath.

Interestingly, McBeath and a colleague documented that this bias to turn right holds only in countries where people drive on the right side of the road.

"In Great Britain, pedestrians greatly favor turning to the left," he said.

So nurture is a factor here, but so is nature in that righties have a tendency to turn right and vice versa, regardless of the culture.

In the store situation then, you’d be well advised to check out the lanes to the left first, unless of course you’re in Great Britain.

Q: The iconic image of Popeye the Sailor is his gulping down an entire can of spinach to beef up those improbable forearms of his.

But why spinach? Why not broccoli or carrots or kale or turnip greens?

A: "When Popeye was created, studio executives recommended he eat spinach for his strength, due to its vaunted health properties," says Samuel Arbesman in "The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date."

Thus was born a generational wave of ads showing Popeye popping open cans of the vegetable, ads that apparently helped increase American consumption by a third.

The half-truth of the matter went back more than 50 years earlier, to 1870, when German chemist Erich von Wolf examined the amount of iron in spinach and other green vegetables. Alas, in recording his findings, he accidentally misplaced a decimal point, inflating the iron content of spinach from 3.5 milligrams in a 100-gram serving to 35 milligrams.

"To put this in perspective, if the calculation were correct each 100-gram serving would be like eating a small piece of a paper clip."

The mistake became the new reality and spinach’s nutritional value became legendary. Though the error was corrected in 1937, not until 1981 did the "British Medical Journal" reveal the full truth of the spinach incident.

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