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Schematic diagram of Earth's magnetosphere. Image credit: NASA


Celestial Bodies On Their Guard
Jan 19, 2010

Long before western scientists formulated the laws of gravity and electromagnetism, skywatchers grappled with the question how the planets were able to move independently from the fixed stars.

In ancient Greek cosmology, the definition of these ‘wandering’ planets usually included the sun and the moon. Interestingly, some of the speculative answers provided by early thinkers ring curiously true from the perspective of current scientific knowledge.

As the planets seemed to have a will of their own, it was easy to assume that they possessed a divine ‘soul’ which guided them on their course. This was the opinion expressed by the anonymous ‘Athenian Stranger’ in Plato’s dialogue The Laws: “The sun’s body is seen by everyone, its soul by no one. And the same is true of the soul of any other body … This soul … every man is bound to regard as a god.” But where was the invisible ‘soul’, which apparently “drives round the sun”, located with respect to the visible body? The Stranger could think of only three possibilities:

"That either it exists everywhere inside of this apparent globular body and directs it, such as it is, just as the soul in us moves us about in all ways; or, having procured itself a body of fire or air (as some argue), it in the form of body pushes forcibly on the body from outside; or, thirdly, being itself void of body, but endowed with other surpassingly marvellous potencies, it conducts the body."

In other words: the ‘soul’ pervades the entire body, steers it externally by means of a physical force such as “fire or air”, or controls it by some other, immaterial means.

More than two thousand years anon, the search for the driving force of planets as well as the sun is still on and the fundamental questions remain the same as the ones posed by Plato’s mouthpiece. As far as the sun is concerned, its apparent motion is no longer a problem on the heliocentric model, but the source of the power that sustains its brilliance remains to be established.

The prevailing paradigm holds that the sun is powered through nuclear fusion reactions taking place in its interior. In postulating a self-sustaining mechanism that “exists everywhere inside of this apparent globular body”, this approach conforms to the first of the solutions offered by the Stranger. Theorists familiar with the role of plasma and electromagnetism in space point at the many weaknesses of this model and propose that the sun may be externally powered through current-conducting cables known as ‘Birkeland currents’. This type of model rather fits the Stranger’s third option – that of an extraneous force, “itself void of body”, that nonetheless exercises control.

No ‘soul’ is required to account for the orbiting movement of the planets either. Nevertheless, planetary scientists have discovered that almost every planet in the solar system does have an invisible ‘companion’ – a protective surrounding ‘bubble’ that shields the body from external electric fields. This ‘bubble’ is known as a plasmasheath or a magnetosphere. A magnetosphere deflects the onslaught of the ‘solar wind’, which is a stream of plasma radiating out from the sun.

The understanding that a violent solar wind causes temporary distortions in the shape of the magnetosphere, leading to aurorae and other effects in the ionosphere, reminds of the Stranger’s notion of the ‘soul’ as “a body of fire or air” that “pushes forcibly on the body from outside”. While the impinging force of the solar wind is not responsible for the motion of planets across the ecliptic, one might say that the fate of a planet, including the earth, is controlled to a large extent by the external action of the “body of fire or air” that is the solar wind.

In hypothesising that each planet has an invisible ‘guardian spirit’, the Athenian Stranger anticipated – perhaps by chance – the modern discovery of protective, invisible magnetospheres surrounding planets. Indeed, the solar wind produces its own bubble around the sun, the heliosphere, which encapsulates all of the planets and protects the entire solar system from damaging influences from the ‘winds’ of interstellar space.

Contributed by Rens Van der Sluijs

Books by Rens Van der Sluijs:

The Mythology of the World Axis

The World Axis as an Atmospheric Phenomenon



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EXECUTIVE EDITORS: David Talbott, Wallace Thornhill
CONTRIBUTING EDITORS: Michael Armstrong, Dwardu Cardona,
Ev Cochrane, C.J. Ransom, Don Scott,
Rens van der Sluijs, Ian Tresman,
Tom Wilson
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