Magazine article Oceanus

From Ancient Roman Omens, New Data on Solar Activity

Magazine article Oceanus

From Ancient Roman Omens, New Data on Solar Activity

Article excerpt

The ancient Romans looked to the heavens for signs of what might happen on Earth. According to historical documents, an aurora in the shape of horses and soldiers was said to appear in the sky in 44 BC, foretelling the fall of Julius Caesar. Another celestial event 114 years later presaged the sack of Jerusalem by Titus Vespasian.

Because auroras, comets, and meteors were omens, the Romans and other ancient peoples observed the sky fastidiously, recording heavenly observations alongside detailed accounts of earthly events. Twenty centuries later, those historical records have become scientific data for researchers such as WHOI Senior Scientist Andy Solow.

Auroras, or "northern lights," are caused by eruptions and flares from the sun that stir up Earth's magnetic field and atmosphere. These heavenly fireworks coincide with the appearance of sunspots on the face of our star. Three centuries of modern observations have shown that these spots and storms occur in a rhythmic pattern, with the number of sunspots waxing and waning in an 11-year cycle. But with only 300 years of observations, scientists can't say whether this cycle is recent or abiding in the life of our 5-billion-year-old sun.

In the late 1970s, astronomer Richard Stothers of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies analyzed classical writings from 467 BC to 333 AD, particularly Livy's history of Rome. He found dates and descriptions of celestial events that sound much like "great auroras'--northern lights that extend to middle latitudes (including Rome) during intense periods of solar activity. …

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