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At home amongst the stars

Greenspring resident observes solar flares from home laboratory

Created date

May 22nd, 2012

I have been interested in the physics of the universe ever since I was a young boy, says Ed Toler, who lives at Greenspring, an Erickson Living community in Springfield, Va., with his wife JoAnn. I try to look at the universe with my mind using physics and mathematics rather than just my physical senses. I believe this is the only way you can see the hidden patterns in nature. Currently, Ed s scientific research includes the study and prediction of the sun s solar flares as observed from his self-created laboratory in their spacious two-bedroom, Harrison-style apartment home. There is so much in the news lately about solar flares and the nonsense about the end of times on December 21 of this year that I thought sharing how to detect solar flares would put whatever fears people have to rest, he says.

Scientific fact

Our sun has dark areas called sunspots that increase in number and then decrease approximately every 11 years, he says. The present cycle is expected to reach its peak early next year. Some sunspots are very active and can erupt a solar flare throwing massive amounts of material toward Earth. A large flare can release energy equivalent to several million volcanic eruptions. According to Ed, these events are preceded by a burst of x-rays, which travel at the speed of light and reach the Earth in approximately eight minutes. The solar material thrown off takes from one to three days to travel to earth. If the amount of charged solar material (called plasma) is high enough, it can disrupt shortwave radio reception, cause electronic problems in Earth-orbiting satellites, threaten astronauts in the space station, and cause failures in the power grid. But not all solar flares are problematic. When the plasma hits the Earth s upper atmosphere, it causes the aurora borealis. Ed contends that, contrary to the doomsday theorists, none of the plasma strikes expected this year will cause the end of the Earth. His beliefs are supported by NASA scientists who believe that we are in the midst of an average solar cycle, no different from those recorded throughout history.

Making predictions

Ed uses a solar flare detection receiver to forecast when a burst of plasma may strike the Earth and how strong it will be. His equipment, based on a design by the Stanford University Solar Center, indirectly detects bursts of x-rays that he picks up by monitoring the effect this energy has on a low-frequency radio signal used by the Navy, in Cutler, Maine. Ed detected one of the largest flares he s seen on March 13, 2012, at 12:40 p.m. The plasma subsequently hit the Earth on March 15, 2012, at 8 a.m. The result was spectacular aurora displays for watchers in the northern latitudes, he says. However, the largest displays are still yet to come. As a result, I continue to make modifications to my solar flare detection receiver to better filter out interference and improve detection in order to be ready for the peak solar activity next year.

Long to-do list

In addition to his work with solar flares, Ed continues work on numerous scientific projects. I have multiple ongoing projects so many, in fact, that I have to keep a list to review periodically in order to decide which project to work on, he says. Ed recently completed a series of photos of the sun spelling peace over Greenspring s Hunter Pond. The project started as a math problem, he says. I was working on it, and it occurred to me that I could use the math equations to predict the exact position of the sun in the image plane of my camera. Thus I could photograph the sun on certain days and at certain times and spell any word I choose in the sky. Over the course of many months, Ed was able to collect all the photos he needed to spell peace.

His other side

Yet, with all his scientific endeavors, Ed is quick to point out that he enjoys many other pursuits. I m not all about science, he says. I do have a whimsical side. Most notably, he enjoys working with graphics, publishing his own magazine covers for fun. A recent cover showcased members of Greenspring s fitness staff receiving medals for their efforts. His foray into fun illustrates, in his own life, the balance he hopes his scientific work will showcase. Knowing about the solar flares helps to understand nature and appreciate how delicate the balance of life is on our Earth, he says. It really puts everything into perspective.