Syfy Insider Exclusive

Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!

Sign Up For Free to View
SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

A near-decade of fire dancing in the sky

By Phil Plait
The aurora over Minnesota, part of a time-lapse animation. Credit: Mark Ellis

Recent events are weighing heavily on me right now. It is so easy sometimes to despair, and to become overwhelmed by it all. Perhaps you feel the same.

For me — and I can only speak for myself here, given my own background and experience — I have to be able to back out sometimes, if even only for a short time, and find something, somewhere, that has beauty. Awe. Reverence.

Again, for me, the way this frequently occurs is when I gaze skyward. Light is the main way we understand the Universe, and when that light rains down, it can feel as if it is the Universe itself giving us clues to its structure, behavior, and origin. Because it is.

That light comes in many, many forms, but perhaps one of the most beautiful is when it emanates from an aurora.

So if you need a moment, a chance to breathe again, then please take a few minutes and watch this lushly gorgeous time-lapse video of Minnesota skies taken over the years 2010–2018 by photographer Mark Ellis, and featuring music by Dan Schwartz: "Almost Too Late."

I can wax lyrically over the causes and effects of the aurora; how the Sun streams protons, electrons, and other particles at high speed in the solar wind; how solar storms can increase that flow by huge amounts, the particle speeds approaching that of light; how the Earth's magnetic field, generated deep in the core, reaches upward and outward through the Earth's surface to guide the charged particles toward our poles; how those particles pierce our atmosphere, picking off electrons from atoms in the air, which then recombine and glow in characteristic colors, like green from oxygen and deep red and blue and purple from nitrogen, and even pink when some colors combine; and how the magnetic field sculpts them into lines, waves, and sheets that flow and flap across the sky.

I find beauty in all of this, in the understanding of this. A very large number of scientific fields overlap here, even though you might not think at first that they should — and here I include the very human pieces of this: our ability to see, to grasp, to interpret, and to appreciate. But the Universe is a tapestry, and every part affects every other.

I need to know this. The state of the world, of my country, do indeed weigh heavily on me right now. There are times I burn with an incandescent rage, and other times I feel like I've expended every erg of energy I possess, and I cannot possibly find the strength to expend more.

But then I remember all this. If I didn't have astronomy, if I didn't have the science, the wonder, the awe, the joy, the overwhelming wash of emotions I get when I see the stars, the planets, galaxies and nebulae… well. This would all be much harder for me. And even though I have never seen an aurora like those in the video for myself, just knowing they exist makes me feel better.

Beauty exists outside of us, and will continue to do so.

Again, this is what happens with me. Maybe this isn't it for you, maybe these things don't sing to your soul as they do mine. That's fine; as I've noted before, "It's ok to like things. It's even ok to like different things. It's especially ok to let others like different things than you do."

But please, find what does. Take care of yourself, take a moment to recharge, to recenter. Once you're ready, take a deep breath, steel your resolve, and then get back in there.