In his Air Force career Deon developed a reputation for being the “image whisperer;” someone who could detect patterns and lines in what everyone else thought was a random scattering of pixels. He had even been tested, to try to discover why he was so much better at interpreting images than anybody else. The testing showed his talent wasn’t simple above-normal color vision, and it wasn’t exceptional visual acuity. Deon’s gift lay somewhere in his very special brain.
Even as a child, Deon could “see” patterns in music, in nature, and practically everything around him. He was drawn to ripples in the sand at a water’s edge, and sometimes very regular and repetitive patterns made by cirrus clouds high in the summer sky. Stripes on insects and the spots on birds’ eggs all made sense to Deon; even if he could not articulate exactly why.
And so it was with the Sun. Deon knew that—like the Earth’s surface weather—a day-to-day forecast was often a tough call. But, as was already widely known, the Sun had a roughly 11-year cycle of activity. On a broad scale, it was a safe bet to predict that the Sun would be mostly free of sunspots for an extended period of time, followed by several years of higher activity—taking roughly 11 years to complete and restart. But, even in those alternating quiet and active periods, the damned thing could surprise.
In the fall of 2018 the end of Cycle 24 was drawing near. Since 11-year cycles were first identified and counted, it would soon be time to declare the start of Cycle 25. But even that declaration would be done retroactively—as months of historical “smoothed” data would be needed to verify the switchover between old and new.
Solar Cycle 1 began in 1755, but nobody alive at that time had any idea. In fact, Cycle 1 was not formally identified until almost 100 years later by scientist Johann Wolf, who used reliable sunspot counts as far back as was available at that time. He determined that the oldest data pointed to a new cycle beginning in 1755, so that retroactively became Cycle 1.
Not all cycles last precisely 11 years, and not all of them have as well defined peaks and valleys from one to the next. Several cycles from about 1790 to 1830 could barely be called “peaks” at all. This was later called the “Dalton Minimum” after the meteorologist who noticed it at the time. There have been other minima, and maxima throughout human history, where the Sun would be quiet for decades, and then come back to life. The present era is largely more active than has been recorded in history.
These additional variations didn’t make Deon’s job any easier. Still, he saw a harmony and a synchronization in the Sun’s behavior over the centuries. He also saw, within especially recent and well-visualized cycles, patterns that were fitting well into some predictive modeling he was working on.
Although he was still not very close to the “why” question, he was getting more comfortable with the “what.” Let the eggheads worry about why it was happening, he figured. All he needed to wrestle with in the short term was whether his models could accurately forecast the next “big one.”
The bare bones of his theory posited some internal feature lying deep within the Sun’s composition. This feature, which he decided to call “the donut,” was a rotating, circling, wobbling presence of magnetic energy. The rotations, wobbles, and circles made the thing hard to explain to others—but Deon could see it in his mind.
When this donut wobbled close to the Sun’s surface, perturbations would appear and magnetic loops and whirls would spring from the surface, separate, and then reconnect. These loops and whirls would, usually, dive back below the surface as quickly as they appeared, and were recorded by astronomers as ordinary, random, sunspots. Correlating the donut’s motions with the Sun’s own rotation—as well as the effect that the planets were having on the Sun itself as they orbited the star—had been preoccupying Deon for some time.
He was getting ever closer to a model he could rely on. Using his latest “donut run,” Deon was able to work backward in time to see the past 8 cycles—all the way to Cycle 17 in the 1930s. His predicted sunspot values, looking back and compared against real observations, were verifying nicely—with only a few exceptions.
Better still, Deon’s short-term models for the last two cycles were validating very well. And with the last four rotations of active region 3200 he believed he now had a close grasp of all three planes of motion of his solar donut. His prediction for the edge of the donut to pass right out through the sun’s surface, the photosphere, and for region 3200 to expand markedly in size. When the active region was scheduled to reappear on the 4th or 5th of November. If his model was right, that region—even with a new number—would have persisted for five rotations and would emerge next time as a very large sunspot.
It was time to share his theory; at least a small piece of it.
Deon drafted a one paragraph message, which read as follows:
This prediction is made on 22 October 2018. Active region 3200 will persist while on the back side of the Sun and rotate back into Earth view late in the evening (UTC) of 4 November 2018. The region will be associated with a very large and well-developed sunspot, with an associated increase in solar flux to at least 125.
Deon printed and signed the draft, and sealed it in an envelope. When Priya returned from the lunch room with her coffee, Deon held up the envelope and passed it to her.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“It’s a prediction for active region 3200. I want you to keep custody of my theory for the next two weeks. Can you do that?”
“Sure,” Priya replied, “but if you’re quite sure something is going to happen shouldn’t you be telling someone as soon as possible?”
“I thought of that,” Deon said, “but even if my prediction holds it will not be a massive event. I don’t think anyone will be in danger, and I doubt anybody would take action on it anyway at this stage, because my theory is unverified. Plus, this next rotation will either make or break my theory altogether, so I’m willing to wait one more time to see if I should put it out there.”
“Okay. Is this the donut thing you mentioned to me a while back?”
“Yes, my latest donut run has predicted a big upswing in this region, and if this one pans out I think I’ll have the donut nailed.”
“So what will I do with the envelope on the 5th of November?”
“Actually, you can open it whenever you like. I just want you to be a witness that I gave it to you today, two weeks in advance of the date that I describe inside.”
“Wow, that’s interesting. You must be pretty pumped.”
“It’s been a long time with lots of number crunching. If this model verifies I’m going to need more computer and processing time to run some predictions. I hope the director will authorize it. Then, I’ll need time to publish.”
“This could be a very big thing for you, Deon.”
“Maybe, but I hope I never see the next big one coming. If we get knocked back into the Stone Age I’d rather not have it named after me.”