It has been observed for the last 400 years or more that the Sun goes through cycles of about 11 years of sunspot activity. Less bright spots appear on the face of the Sun in a regular pattern, which have been counted.
Here is a chart from NASA showing the observed sunspot count. You can see the regularity of the cycle. The spots themselves throw out stuff which heads out into the solar system including towards planet Earth. Sunspot maxima are associated with spectacular displays of the Northern and Southern lights as the charged particles from the Sun meet the Earth’s magnetic field, and disruptions to telecommunications systems. In 2003, during the last solar maximum, there were radio blackouts which were linked to solar flares.
However, as you can see from the chart, the sunspots almost stopped in the second half of the seventeenth century, a phenomenon known as the Maunder Minimum.
The Maunder Minimum covers the reign of Louis XIV of France, known as the Sun King. He was a powerful and successful king, who centralized the government of France and increased the influence of his country. In this period France became the leading country of European culture and fashion as well as political influence. Versailles, the palace he inherited, massively enlarged and made the center of his world, is filled with imagery of the Sun. This representation of the Sun King is on one of the gates of the palace.
And here is a mystery. Was this a spectacular coincidence, or were the two phenomena, the unusual behavior of the Sun and the reign of this remarkable man named after the Sun, connected in some way?
The world that he had lived in,Western Europe, was a different place after Louis XIV died. The flowering of French culture continued. And in the whole of Western Europe the revolution of ideas known as the Enlightenment gathered pace and started to affect society as a whole. It could be argued that one of the culminations of Enlightenment thinking was a document entitled the Declaration of the Rights of Man, completed at Versaillesin 1789.
On further investigation, one of the greatest Chinese emperors, Kangxi, ruled during most of the Maunder Minimum. Like Louis XIV, he was a workaholic who consolidated his country, extended its influence and whose reign saw many cultural achievements.
The next solar minimum lasted from about 1790 to 1830 and is known as the Dalton Minimum. It coincides with the height of influence of another remarkable, influential and hardworking Frenchman, Napoleon Bonaparte. Instead of Sun King, he had himself crowned Emperor (another word associated with the Sun), to the disgust of many of his contemporaries who felt he was betraying what had been won during the French Revolution.
The Dalton Minimum was followed by the height of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, leading to the age of machines, faster communications and the world we inhabit today.
To rephrase my earlier question: Is there a connection between the activity of some very influential humans and the behaviour of the Sun? Before moving into speculation, here are some more facts.
Sunspot minima are associated with cold weather. The Maunder Minimum is known as the Little Ice Age. There were frost fairs on the frozen River Thames in London. The Dalton Minimum saw cold winters too. Napoleon’s Russian campaign was defeated by the cold weather as his troops tried to get home from Moscow.
A Danish researcher, Henrik Svensmark, has recently proposed a theory to link sunspot minima and colder temperatures. He and his co-workers found that the increased solar radiation at times of high numbers of sunspots shields the solar system from cosmic rays. During periods of reduced solar activity on the other hand, more cosmic rays reach the Earth’s lower atmosphere, where they interact with the atmosphere, leading to the formation of aerosols which themselves become the nuclei of water droplets leading to the formation of cloud cover, leading to a drop in global temperature.
During the solar maxima, then, the Sun protects us on Earth and the rest of the solar system from the cosmic rays with its wind of charged particles. When it goes quiet the cosmic rays come through and we all feel the radiation from the rest of the galaxy. We and the Sun face the same way: outwards. In a way, we and the Sun are both bathed by the light of the stars during these times.
Could it be that humans have the ability to tune into new sunlike frequencies at such times, to resonate in sympathy with the Sun? I have no idea. However, if it is the case that there is a window of possibility for human perception at such times, can we find any further evidence at other cold periods in the human story?
I still don’t know what Napoleon was responding to when he abandoned the democratic ideals of the French Revolution and crowned himself as emperor. As I said, these are speculations. What makes it more poignant, though, is that the Sun has gone quiet so far this century. Global temperatures have also stopped rising over the last fifteen years (see http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/news/recent-pause-in-warming). Some are even talking of a new Maunder Minimum.
Maybe we are entering a time of new perceptions. Will any of us be able to respond, I wonder?