All Men Appreciate a Big Pair of …. Suns?

You might need SPF 300 tomorrow.
You might need SPF 300 tomorrow.
Ever since man first noticed that a steaming pile of entrails resembled a mastodon he’s looked for signs and portents in some very unlikely places. From Elvis appearing on toast (yeah, like that sucker wasn’t faked) to the holy stain in Bucktown (because, you know, there’s never been a leaky pipe in the history of humanity), man continues to ascribe meaning where meaning is void. That can, believe it or not, sometimes be a helpful thing. Early civilizations randomly grouped together stars to form constellations so they could navigate the night time oceans. That fact was mildly skewered and revered at the same time in the cinematic remake of Lost in Space. Others would ascribe great import to things like seasons and, if for all the wrong reasons, help their tribes correctly plant crops and plan for when winter or other tough times would arrive.

But there are others who barely hide their own pathetic agendas while they try vainly to attach meaning to stuff they can barely comprehend.

For example, when a very suspicious source claimed that Earth’s sky would soon have two suns, we were all treated to this mess.

We have just learned that there could be two suns in our sky next year. Could this possibly be the two suns that are spoken of in Malachi? “The Sun of righteousness will arise and bring healing in His wings.” Granted, we all know that when Jesus returns we will not know the time, but when your unsaved loved ones begin to talk about this possibility to come, we as Christians can use it as an opportunity to discuss His true coming. I am sure that the idea of two suns in the sky will be scaring many individuals. Why not use this time to discuss Jesus and his triumphant return?

Well, I can think of several reasons. First, Jesus was a disciple of Moses. The tightly structured visions of Leviticus and Malachi were anathema to His teachings. Second, the source for the “two suns” press release was an idiot.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

However, oddly enough, a section of the planet was treated to the wonderful anomoly of seeing two suns in the daytime sky. As Natalie Wolchover from MSNBC reports, a lot of people in China were freaked right out of their Rik-Shaws.

Is that politically incorrect? Oh well.

Weeks after a story shot across the Web claiming that the imminent explosion of a nearby star would result in the appearance of a second sun in the sky — a story that was later debunked — two suns were caught on camera yesterday in China. The suns — one fuzzy and orange, the other a crisp yellow orb — appeared side-by-side, one slightly higher than the other.

What’s going on? Life’s Little Mysteries, a sister site to Space.com, asked Jim Kaler, the University of Illinois astronomer who squelched the excitement over the aforementioned exploding Betelgeuse and who has written books on the day and night sky. The double sun image is an effect of optical refraction, Kaler said, but it’s a “pretty darn rare” one, and one not fully explained by science.

“I doubt it’s been computer modeled,” he said. “There must have been some blob of atmosphere somewhere that caused this truly spectacular phenomenon, which in a sense is a mirage.”

Mirages appear when particles in the atmosphere refract, or bend, light. This typically happens near the horizon, where air is thicker, though, and mirages are usually aligned vertically above or below the original source of the light — not beside it, like in the video. It’s possible, Kaler said, that an unusually thick patch of atmosphere wandered in front of the sun to create the unusual effect.

Previous sightings of horizontally-aligned double images of the sun and moon are recorded in a book called “Light and Color in the Outdoors” (English edition: Springer 1993) by the famous Flemish astronomer Marcel Minnaert, which remains the most complete reference on double suns. “So many other instances have been reported that there is no longer any doubt about … observations of sun and mock sun(s) being at exactly the same altitude,” Minnaert wrote.

“The case of a mock sun 3 degrees and 25 arc-seconds to the left of the nearly set sun sounds incredible but has been recorded photographically.” Indeed, Minnaert’s description sounds nearly identical to the scene in question.

He goes on to state that the double or multiple image phenomena are produced by abnormal refraction, but that “it remains extraordinary that the images of the sun and moon were sharp and of the same size as the real sun and moon.”

“This is not a common optical phenomenon that we’re seeing here,” said Grant Perry, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Institute for Satellite and Meteorological Studies. “I’m asking myself if this is an artifact of the lens, but if that were the case — if it’s reflections of the lens elements — then the images would move in relation to each other as the camera moves,” Perry said. “But that doesn’t happen.”

In terms of an optical explanation, he said, “You would have to assume it is particles of ice or something in the atmosphere aligned in such a way that they would refract the sunlight at that very small angle, but only in one direction. It would require some fairly peculiar characteristics.”

Several related atmospheric optical effects are fully explained by science. Sun dogs, sunset mirages, sun pillars and sun halos are all relatively common and well understood. But not this effect.

“It’s very intriguing,” said Kaler.

Intriguing? Yes. Sign of the Second Coming? Sorry.

Only a few years back Chicagoans were treated to a giant moon hovering over the lake. While most people realized this was an optical illusion, there were those who went straight to their personal War of the Worlds fantasies.

Personally I don’t get the whole need to add meaning where none exists. There are so many true mysteries that need to be explored that this stuff seems silly. Of course, I could be completely wrong and that guy who drew to two inside straights last week is really a harbinger of doom.

Or not.

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