Monday, March 2, 2015

Gold Star Boys

Who remembers the Battle of the Eastern Solomons?

It's not an every day topic of conversation. I rather doubt it ever gets mentioned in history class. I know it never came up in the college history courses I took, not even in the WWII specific ones. Those who paid attention in class learned that WWII went like this: Pearl Harbor-Midway-Okinawa-Hiroshima/Nagasaki. With some stuff in between.

Eastern Solomons was some of the stuff in between.

Task Force 61, including the carriers Enterprise and Saratoga, left Pearl Harbor in the middle of July, 1942, en route to the South Pacific to support America's first effort to take back territory captured by Japan. On August 8 the First Marine Division landed on the Solomon Islands. It was a vicious fight, and for the first two weeks TF-61 supported the landings and secured sea lines of communication southwest of the Solomons.

On August 24 a strong Japanese force approached and was attacked by aircraft from TF-61. In the ensuing fight at sea, which came to be known as the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, the Japanese light carrier Ryūjō was sunk, and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back.
USS Enterprise (CV-6) burns after being struck by Japanese bombs on August 24, 1942, during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Wikimedia Commons.
A near miss sends a column of water high in the air off the starboard quarter of USS Enterprise (CV-6) during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.
What may be the same near miss, taken from the opposite side. Wikimedia Commons.
A Japanese Val dive bomber shot down in flames over USS Enterprise (CV-6) during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.
Enterprise suffered most heavily of the American ships; three direct hits and four near misses killed 77, wounded 91, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier.
One of the most iconic images of the carrier war in the Pacific. A Japanese bomb detonates on the Enterprise flight deck aft of the island structure during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.
The damage caused by the explosion in the image above, taken after the initial air attack during the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, August 24, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.
A bomb exploding in the hangar bay cause the flight deck of Enterprise to bulge. This image taken at Pearl Harbor in September, 1942, weeks after the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Wikimedia Commons.
Quick, hard work by damage control parties patched her up so that she was able to return to Hawaii under her own power.
Damage control teams fight a fire in the main deck 5-inch gallery on USS Enterprise during the the Battle of the Eastern Solomons. Wikimedia Commons.
After the battle. Wikimedia Commons.
The 5-inch gallery after the battle. Wikimedia Commons.
In my Veterans Service Office in the county courthouse we keep a slim, black-bound volume entitled Service Record World War I And II Kimball And Community. Published locally in 1947, it was an effort to honor those local folks who served in those global conflagrations.

It's rather a haunting little book. The first chapter is entitled Gold Star Boys. The list includes Keith L. Childers. He Joined the Navy in May, 1941. He served in USS Enterprise (CV-6) as an Aviation Machinists Mate, and fell at Eastern Solomons on August 24, 1942.
Childers is not a "local" name. It's a name that seems "kinda" familiar to a few folks, but none of the well established keepers of Kimball lore can place him or his family with any certainty. He joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor, which sets him apart from most of the locals who served. With only a couple of exceptions, Kimball's other WWII vets all joined or were drafted later in the war.

At a slight tangent, the war was particularly hard on those Kimball men who joined the Navy before Pearl Harbor. In addition to Childers, Robert Bickel fell in USS Arizona on December 7, 1941. Charles Lanning fell in USS Minneapolis at the Battle of Tassafaronga on November 30, 1942, near Savo Island.

I think most of us realize that the price of our freedom was paid for, in part, with the lives of men and women we've never met, or even heard of. There are other costs of course, and the Americans who served in battle are not solely responsible for our good fortune. But they did sacrifice a lot for us. Some gave all. Keith Childers died in Enterprise sometime during that hellish rain of bombs on August 24, 1942. Few (if any) Kimball residents remember Keith or his family. I certainly don't. But I can mark his existence and the gift he made to all of us. Thank you Keith Childers. May you rest in peace.


The next morning, August 24, a Monday, twenty three Enterprise SBDs fanned out on 200 mile search legs, across a wide arc of ocean north of the Big E's Task Force 16. Hours of tedious searching uncovered no enemy force. Other reconnaissance flights, however, had more success. Around 1000, PBYs reported a carrier, a cruiser and destroyer escort some 200 miles northwest of the American force. The carrier was the light carrier Ryujo, escorted by the cruiser Tone, sent in advance of the main Japanese strike force to cover the transports approaching from Rabaul. Then, fighters from Saratogaintercepted and downed another enemy flying boat, this one only twenty miles from the task force. Early in the afternoon, another Saratoga airman brought down still another enemy scout, this one within visible range of the American ships.
There was no question now that the Japanese knew the location of the American carriers, but with the exception of Ryujo, the Americans could only guess the position of the Japanese. Shortly after 1300, twenty three fighters and dive bombers rumbled down Enterprise's flight deck, launched on 250 mile search legs north and west of the task force.
Another half hour passed with no contacts, other than the PBYs still shadowing Ryujo. Fletcher, after struggling to close the distance between Ryujo and his task forces, grudgingly ordered Saratoga to launch her strike. Just minutes after Saratoga's thirty dive bombers and seven torpedo planes had formed up and struck out towards Ryujo, Navy PBYs and Enterprise scouts unmasked the real threat. Some 200 miles north of Enterprise and SaratogaShokaku and Zuikaku were surging southward at 30 knots, preparing to strike a blow against the American carriers. With heavy static disrupting communications on both sides, and inexperienced American pilots cluttering the airwaves with chatter, the reports didn't immediately reach Fletcher.
When they did, he immediately attempted to redirect Saratoga's strike, even as they were lining up the attack which would put Ryujo under the waves by that evening. Every available fighter on both Saratogaand the Big E was gassed, armed and spotted, ready to take off at the first sign of an attack.
The sign came at 1632: on radar, many bogies, range 88 miles, bearing 320 degrees. Saratoga andEnterprise, sailing ten miles apart, turned southeast into the wind and launched their remaining fighters. Aft of Enterprise, matching her 27 knots, steamed the new 35,000 ton battleship North Carolina BB-55; at their flanks the cruisers Portland and Atlanta, with six destroyers in the screen. On all ships, guns were trained skyward, and eyes strained towards the northwest, where - still over the horizon - the enemy was approaching. Overhead circled four-plane fighter sections, fifty-four planes in all.
The first contact with the incoming enemy strike was made at 1655. At 18,000 feet, two miles above the Wildcats scrambling to intercept, were two formations of Japanese Val dive bombers. For almost twenty minutes, Wildcats, Zeros and Vals tangled high over the sea. Afterwards, Enterprise pilots could claim having downed 29 planes: a figure more remarkable because of the inexperience and lack of discipline of the American pilots at that time.
As the aerial battle raged, drifting steadily closer to Enterprise's task force, Enterprise launched her remaining eleven Dauntlesses and six TBFs, on an ultimately fruitless raid against the main Japanese force. The decision to launch the strike, however, suggested by air officer John Crommelin, probably saved Enterprise from a fate like that suffered by the Japanese carriers at Midway. The planes, fully fueled and armed, had been spotted in the same area where, in minutes, three bombs would tear through the Douglas fir planking of Enterprise's flight deck. Had the planes been parked there when the bombs hit, Enterprise likely would not have survived the day.
The last plane lifted off Enterprise's deck at 1708. Her gunners now stood ready to defend the ship. Yet even as Radar Plot reported "The enemy planes are now directly overhead!", task force lookouts could not spot the enemy planes. Worse, the ship's fire control directors failed to pick up the target, depriving the 5" guns the opportunity to fire on the enemy strike group before it could begin its attack. At 1712, as the first of the surviving 30 Val dive bombers nosed over at 20,000 feet, a puff of smoke attracted the attention of 1st Sergeant Joseph R. Schinka (USMC). Commanding the Big E's #4 20mm anti-aircraft battery, Schinka opened fire. Though the enemy planes were still beyond the reach of the 20mm batteries, the gun's tracers guided the fire of other guns. In moments, a thundering barrage of 20mm, 1.1" and 5" fire filled the sky over Enterprise's flight deck, as North CarolinaPortlandAtlanta and the destroyers all came to her defense.
In the clear blue, late afternoon sky, the bombers pitched into their dives, one every seven seconds: five, maybe six planes pressing their attack simultaneously, while others formed up behind them, or sped away low over the waves after releasing their bombs. For nearly two minutes, as Enterprise weaved and bobbed with surprising agility, the heavy anti-aircraft fire took its toll on the attacking planes, Enterprise's guns alone knocking down 15. High overhead, fighters from Saratoga and the Big E made passes at the planes as they prepared for their dives, sometimes even following the Vals during their descent. It wasn't enough. The first bomb to strike Enterprise pierced her flight deck just forward of the aft elevator, plunged through five decks and detonated.
The time was 1714. An elevator pump room team, ammunition handlers, and a damage control team stationed in the chief petty officers' quarters were wiped out by the blast. Thirty five men died instantly. As the explosion spread, it ripped six foot holes in the hull at the waterline: the ship quickly acquired a list to starboard as seawater poured in. The blast tore sixteen foot holes through the steel decks overhead, bulging the hangar deck upwards a full two feet, and rendering the aft elevator useless. The concussion whipped the warship - 800 feet and millions of pounds of wood and steel - stem to stern, first upwards, then side-to-side, hurling men off their feet, out of their chairs, across the gun tubs.
Ship and crew had just thirty seconds to recover before the second bomb struck. Detonating on impact, just fifteen feet from where the first bomb had punched through the deck, it obliterated the aft starboard 5" gun gallery and its crew, the violence of the explosion amplified by the ignition of powder bags in the gun tub. Thirty eight men, ten of whom were never positively identified, died that moment. The guns of the aft starboard quarter fell silent, their crews dead or wounded; heavy black smoke poured from newly ignited fires.
Trailing smoke, taking on water, Enterprise drove forward at 27 knots. Below decks and across the flight deck, damage control teams scrambled to bring the fires and flooding under control, to pull survivors from the slippery and torn decks and compartments, to restore power and flush holds of explosive vapors. As the ship twisted away from under the continuing assault, her remaining guns resumed fire, rejoining the barrage thrown up by North Carolina and the other ships in the task force. For almost ninety long seconds the task force fought back against the aerial assault, protecting the precious flat deck at its center.
Just two minutes after the first hit, a third bomb slammed into Enterprise's flight deck, just forward of the number 2 elevator. A smaller, 500 lb., bomb, this one was defective: still, it punched a ten foot hole through the flight deck, disabling the No. 2 elevator, killing and wounding more men.
As the assault tailed off, Enterprise - on fire, listing, spilling black smoke over the water - kept her place in the task force. Within an hour, the damage control parties had brought the fires under control, patched over the hole blown in the flight deck by the third bomb, counterflooded to correct the ship's starboard list, and improvised plugs for the waterline holes with lumber and mattresses. While the Wildcats overhead harassed the departing Japanese bombers, Enterprise's returning scouts circled, waiting anxiously for an opportunity to land, some breaking off to lend the CAP a hand. Enterprise signaled the task force that she could continue unassisted, and as evening came on began recovering her planes, still making 24 knots despite her extensive injuries.
An hour before the Vals had begun their attack, the Japanese commander Chuichi Nagumo, assuming the sacrifice of Ryujo had drawn off the American planes, had launched a second strike. These planes now probed the Pacific, seeking the American ships. They were just appearing on task force radar when Enterprise lost steering control.
Below decks, the steering room had been effectively sealed off immediately after the first bomb hit, to prevent the small compartment and its crew of seven from being overwhelmed by thick smoke. Between the fires encircling the compartment, and the heat generated by the powerful electric steering motors inside, the temperature inside the compartment rose steadily, from 120 degrees to 150, and then to 170. Both men and machinery failed. Enterprise's rudder swung right, swung left, swung right again and 1850, jammed hard over.
While radar now showed the incoming strike at fifty miles, Enterprise narrowly missed slicing the destroyer Balch in two. Her four great bronze screws were thrown in reverse, pulling her speed down to ten knots, as a breakdown flag was run up her truck. The rudder was jammed so far over that not even going forward on the starboard screws and reversing the port could straighten her course. She circled helplessly, an easy target for bombers and submarines alike.
An anxious thirty-eight minutes passed while damage control teams and engineers fought their way into the steering compartment, first pulling to safety the men collapsed inside, and then starting the second of the two steering motors. On radar, the Japanese squadrons passed fifty miles south of the task force, reversed course to the northwest, and missed the ships entirely. With night coming on, Enterprise had survived to fight another day.
Despite the severe damage Enterprise received, the Eastern Solomons were an American victory, tactically and strategically. Yamamoto's Operation KA had cost the Japanese the light carrier Ryujo. Worse, 71 planes and their aircrews from Shokaku and Zuikaku had been lost - over a hundred experienced airmen that the Japanese would never be able to replace. In comparison, fewer than 20 planes were lost between Enterprise and Saratoga. The human cost on Enterprise, however, was grim. For 74 men the attack of the 24th marked the last 45 minutes of their lives, and 91 others were wounded.
On the 25th, Yamamoto cancelled Operation KA: the first major Japanese attempt to recapture Guadalcanal had failed. That same same day, Enterprise departed for Pearl Harbor, where repair crews worked on her 24 hours a day, from September 10 until October 16. When she reappeared off New Caledonia on October 23, the situation on Guadalcanal, and in the South Pacific, had reached the point of crisis.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Lights! Camera! Phenomena!

Snow Dogs! Boy! I'm using a lot of exclamation points!

Okay, okay. Snowdogs. Around these parts that's the generic term for atmospheric reflective/refractive phenomena associated with snow.

The local term isn't that far off, really, a riff on the more commonly known/seen sun dog phenomena.

For those keeping score at home, this, from wikipedia:
Sun dogs (or sundogs), mock suns or phantom suns, scientific name parhelia (singular parhelion), are an atmospheric phenomenon that consists of a pair of bright spots on either side on the Sun, often co-occurring with a luminous ring known as a 22° halo. Sun dogs are a member of a large family of halos, created by light interacting with ice crystals in the atmosphere. Sun dogs typically appear as two subtly colored patches of light to the left and right of the Sun, approximately 22° distant and at the same elevation above the horizon as the Sun. They can be seen anywhere in the world during any season, but they are not always obvious or bright. Sun dogs are best seen and are most conspicuous when the Sun is close to the horizon.
Sundogs at Fargo North, Decoder. S

At any rate, sundogs are far from uncommon around here during the winter. Moondogs are something less than rare as well. Both called snowdogs by the good people of Kimball County, including myself. And they're very cool and all, but my favorite are light pillars. We call them snowdogs, too. Many of us are just too cheap to keep extra words laying around, being underemployed.

Light pillars, according to wikipedia:
Light pillars are a kind of optical phenomenon which is formed by the reflection of sunlight or moonlight by ice crystals that are present in the Earth's atmosphere. They are also called the crystal beam phenomenon. The light pillar looks like a thin column that extends vertically above and/or below the source of light. The light pillar is prominently visible when the Sun is low or lies below the horizon. It normally forms an arc that extends from five to ten degrees beyond the solar disc. Light pillars can sometimes also be seen arising from the Moon. Light pillars [can] also be formed by man-made light sources, such as streetlights.
A light pillar cast by the moon over Antarctica. S
I think light pillars, which I call snowdogs, are the bomb. The ones cast by the sun are great, but the really cool ones are cast by the moon. And the all time coolest of all time without a single doubt are those cast by the rotating beacon at Kimball's Municipal Airport, KIBM. At least in my opinion.

There's just something amazing about being outside on a still winter's evening and seeing that shaft of light shoot heavenward every few seconds. I can, and often do (when conditions are right) watch it for hours.

Now that you've seen some good snowdog images taken by competent photographers, I'll share what I captured via my S4 the other evening. Unfortunately, these images don't do the experience justice. If I was a good blogger I would purchase an expensive camera, learn how to use it, and post up some breathtaking pics. Maybe someday. But for now I am a cheap and lazy blogger.

You can click to enlarge. They look kinda cool on a big screen in a dark room. But so does my boot camp graduation picture. If you squint. And have been drinking.

Friday, February 27, 2015


Flightdeck Friday over at SJS. Read it.

Great video score, btw.

And a bonus track...

Morning tour

Bits of my daily morning round of cattle checking on the ranch. This was yesterday, February 26.

I'm not sure Nona approves of this whole "video" thing.

Mineral supplement with bovatek improves feed conversion. 

"A lever." I keel myself. 

Tasty winter grass, and to wash it down..."where the hell is the rancher?" 

"That's better." 

Boring lecture.


It got cold and windy this morning.

Windy. And cold.

Flushed an owl driving along the trail road. He was hunkered down, enduring.

Not sure what flavor of owl. Sent the vids and stills to a bird guy. See what he says.

And then I went home and worked on paperwork. Hope you're warm and dry.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What's in a name?

The other day Juvat had a post about inertia over at Sarge's Place. It's a great post. If you have not yet done so, you should immediately hie yourself over there and enjoy it. Don't worry, I'll be here when you get back. If the aliens don't get me.
A scene from Mars Attacks, a very fine documentary film.
In the comments Juvat noted that one of his favorite aeroplanes is the North American F-86 Sabre, America's first real jet-powered dogfighter, scourge of the Korean skies and undisputed master of the MiG-15.
An F-86 Sabre at Oshkosh, depicting the jet Major John Glenn flew in combat.
He also noted that he'd previously been unaware that the Sabre started out as a navy jet, the straight-winged FJ-1 Fury.
An FJ-1 Fury, USS Boxer, 1948. Source. You can really see the Mustang in this jet. Do visit the link. I think you'll like it!
I could spend hours, days, weeks, months and more writing about the Mustang/Fury/Sabre. But I won't put you kind readers through that hellish experience. Instead, I'll share a few images from the 1957 USS Forrestal (CVA-59) cruisebook. FID's very first deployment, and one that featured my future squadron, VF-84, in their one and only deployment in the FJ-3M Fury.
Look at the maw on that beast! The J-65 had a lot more mass flow than the J-47.
On the cat.
Send it! Flight deck refueling before Grapes were Grapes.
The "M" in FJ-3M stood for "missile." In this case the then fairly new AIM-9 Sidewinder. Another Navy invention. Unlike the Air Force's AIM-4 Falcon, the Sidewinder actually worked. Ahem!
Briefing in Ready Five. Can you identify the swept wing Roosky jet picture pinned to the cork board?
Form for the photog.
Low power turn in the aft hangar bay.
Dry suit.
Start 'em up!
VF-84 Vagabonds, USS Forrestal, 1957.
"I can't get the radar to work." {for Sarge... ;)}
The squadron lineage is rather confusing. In 1957 VF-84 was the "Vagabonds," and the "Jolly Rogers" were still VF-61. They'd previously been VF-5B, and before that, VF-17, but always the Jolly Rogers. But VF-61 was disestablished in 1959, and VF-84 lobbied CNO to take on the Jolly Roger name and traditions. In 1960 the approval came through, and the Vagabonds became the Jolly Rogers, complete with the skull and "Bones." The new VF-84 kept the yellow stripe with black chevrons From the Vagabonds, so the Jolly Rogers went forward with both. The colors on the stripe were later inverted.

Oh, and the VF-84 Vagabonds were VA-86 to start with, and switched to VF-84 when the "Sidewinders" stood up. But the Sidewinders couldn't shoot sidewinders, because they flew the A4D. The Vagabonds, who had been VA-86, shot sidewinders, because they were fighters. Later, however, VA-86 got sidewinders when they went to the A-7. They were still light attack, though, and VF-84, who had almost been Sidewinders at one time, were still fighters...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Sun Worship

A lot of years ago, way back in 1968, I was a big Star Trek fan. You know, Star Trek, the original series (known as TOS these days). Spock, with the pointed ears. James T. Kirk. Dr. McCoy. The Starship Enterprise and a five-year mission to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before…
Spock, Kirk, McCoy s
I have some vivid memories of those television shows. One in particular, “Bread and Circuses,” dealt with a civilization similar to that of Imperial Rome, including the bloody gladiatorial contests.

In that particular episode, the Enterprise landing team of Kirk, Spock, and Dr. McCoy are captured by the government and forced into the arena to kill or be killed. They survive and ultimately escape due to the help of a peaceful rebel group characterized as sun worshipers.
Escape! S
At the end of the episode, when everyone is back on Enterprise, safe and sound, Spock wonders about the sun worshipers, who called themselves “Children of the Sun.”

“How could sun-worshiping Romans adhere to a philosophy of peace?” he asks. “Sun worship is a primitive and superstitious religion, anything but peaceful.”

Enterprise’s Communications Officer, Lieutenant Uhura, sets him straight.
“It’s not the sun up in the sky,” she says, “it’s the Son of God.” S
An interesting and thought provoking denouement, don’t you think? Who knew the 1960’s had such depth? Maybe it wasn’t all about drugs and Vietnam.
Worship is an interesting word in this context. it’s used here as a verb, “showing reverence and adoration for a deity; honoring with religious rites.”

In the Star Trek episode the concept of religion is a foil used to juxtapose the notion of civilized religion with savagery of paganism. “Bread and Circuses” is a neat little vehicle for the task.

But as we all know well enough these days, civilized religions aren’t always peaceful. The “new” religions of social justice and environmentalism are incredibly vicious.
Social Justice worship service S
Could it be that paganism isn't always savage?

Religion vs Nature
Now that I’ve set the stage to discuss religion, peace, and savagery, I’m going to completely abandon the theme. I introduced it only because my mind went to that particular Star Trek episode the other morning when I paused for a moment to enjoy the warmth of the late-February sun.

Overnight the mercury had tumbled all the way down to minus 4 or so, and after a month of warmish weather the cold was a bit of a shock. But the sun was shining higher in the sky than it had been since late October. It was shining more directly down, its warming rays (or warming photons)  not having to travel through as much atmosphere to reach the surface. The sunlight was therefore more concentrated, or at least less diluted (or diffuse), and therefore, more warming.

Which was really nice, and felt really, really good.
Standing out on the chill winter prairie, where nature is so clearly in charge and mankind’s imagined powers so clearly an illusion, the warm kiss of sunlight is more than enough to illustrate why various people, down through the ages, came to worship the sun.

Thank the sun
Worship is the wrong word. Appreciate is probably a better word. Leave religion aside for now, and think about our very existence. It all starts with the sun.
Sol. S
In order to exist, at least in terms of our natural, corporeal existence, we need a place to exist, a place to be, a place to live our lives. Our place is on the planet Earth, which orbits the sun at a distance of 93 million miles. That distance turns out to be in the “Goldilocks Zone,” at least in this solar system, a location which is “just right” for liquid water and life as we know it to exist. But before we get ahead of ourselves, our planet would never have formed or had anything to orbit were it not for the sun.

The sun is the gravitational center of our solar system. But those 10 words don’t really do justice to the magnitude of the sun’s mass.
The sun and planets. Scale is correct for size but not for distance. S
Think of it this way. The Earth is huge. Just look outside. It’s everywhere. Mountains and oceans and everything. It’s so huge that you can barely see mankind’s biggest structures from low earth orbit, a paltry 99 miles above the surface, about the distance of a single round trip between the EJE Ranch and the Panhandle Research and Extension Center at Scottsbluff.

Earth is so huge that it’s more than 7,300 miles in diameter and weighs (masses is actually the correct term) 5.97219 times ten-to-the-twenty-fourth kilograms, or 13.2 septillion pounds. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 13,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds.

Now that’s huge, but Earth is is only the fifth largest planet in our solar system. Jupiter, the largest planet, masses nearly 320 times as much as Earth. But guess what? Jupiter is a pipsqueak compared to the sun. The sun is well over 1,000 times more massive than Jupiter. In fact, the sun makes up 99.86 percent of the total mass of the solar system. In many ways it’s fair to say the sun is the solar system. All the planets, comets, asteroids, dust and gasses, people, skyscrapers, aircraft carriers and deflated footballs -- these are no more than a bit of fluff floating about the sun.

The mass of the sun exerts gravity, as described by Newton, and it’s that gravity which holds the solar system together and allows the planets, including our own Earth, to whirl endlessly in orbit.

So it’s the gravity of the sun, then, that gives us a place to be. Think of how powerful that force must be! Not only does it keep the planets in place (in the case of Pluto, the farthest, a distance of 3.6 trillion miles), the sun’s gravity controls everything in the solar system, out to the incomprehensible distance of 3,627,000,000,000 miles, more than 40 times the distance between Earth and the sun, and it continues to exert a powerful gravitational influence hundreds -- perhaps as much as a thousand -- times farther than that.

Gravity is certainly a powerful force, strong enough to hold the solar system together over vast distances. But gravity is actually the weakest of the four elemental forces of nature, far weaker than the strong and weak nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force.

Gravity is so weak, in fact, that by muscle power alone you and I overcome the Earth’s gravity all the time. When you reach up to scratch your nose, you are overpowering the Earth!

But even though gravity is the weakest of the elemental forces, it’s still very powerful.

According to Newton’s law of universal gravitation, which is plenty good enough for a discussion at this level, gravity is a force exerted by matter.
Sir Isaac Newton, 1642-1727. S
Matter, for this purpose, is every bit of physical stuff which has mass. Every discrete piece of matter exerts a gravitational force on every other bit of matter. The gravitational force between bits of matter is directly proportional to the sum of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance separating them. In other words, the larger the mass, the more gravity, and the closer the proximity of the masses, the stronger the force. Whew!

The sun’s gravity doesn’t just hold the solar system together, it holds the sun together. In doing so, the sun’s gravity makes life as we know it possible.

Remember that the sun is 1,050 times more massive than Jupiter, which is 320 times more massive than Earth. For the scorekeepers at home, that makes the sun 336,000 times more massive than Earth.

Now Earth is a terrestrial or rocky planet with an iron core. Rocks and iron are heavy! In Earth’s case, as we noted before, 13.2 septillion pounds of heavy. That’s a 132 followed by 23 zeroes.

The sun, however, is made up of the lightest elements in the universe, hydrogen and helium. It’s about 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium, with a light dusting of heavier elements. Let’s ignore the helium for the moment, because it’s actually a byproduct. When the solar system first formed, about 4.6 billion years ago, the sun was almost entirely made up of hydrogen. Then, as now, there was such a large mass of hydrogen in the sun that its gravity became an unimaginably huge force -- proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance of separation.

Lets think about hydrogen for a moment. It’s the lightest element, and as most of us recall from fourth grade science, it’s made up of a single, positively charged proton and a single, negatively charged electron.

Like all atoms, hydrogen atoms are tiny. They’re even tinier than tiny.  If you think of a hydrogen atom as a mini solar system, with the proton in the center playing the sun and the electron taking the part of an orbiting planet, and if the proton were expanded 25 trillion (25,000,000,000,000) times to one inch in diameter, the electron’s orbit would be clear out at 1,400 feet from the proton! If you expanded the proton to the size of the sun, the electron would orbit four times farther out than Pluto.

So it’s pretty clear that atoms are mostly empty space, but that emptiness is charged with powerful nuclear and electromagnetic forces that hold the atom together and at the same time keep the electrons orbiting at such great distances. Those forces also give matter its solidity. Matter is made up of atoms, and atoms are mostly empty space. When we feel the structure of a rock or a steel beam or a sheet of paper, we’re actually feeling the interaction of the electromagnetic forces of the atoms in our finger with the atoms in the object we touch.

So. Back to the sun, hydrogen, and gravity. Gravity pulls (and continues to pull) all of those hydrogen atoms tighter and tighter and tighter until something wonderful happens. At the core of the sun, where gravity has driven temperatures and pressures to astronomical heights, the hydrogen atoms are bashed together with such force that they fuse -- and become something different.
Lets backtrack a bit and remember that part of what prompted this essay was the feel of the sun’s warmth on my face on a frigid February morning, and that the warmth I felt was transmitted across 93 million miles of empty space.

As hydrogen atoms smash together in the core of the sun they fuse into helium atoms. The mass of a helium atom is just slightly less than the mass of the two fusing hydrogen atoms. The missing mass doesn’t just disappear, it becomes energy as described by Einstein in his famous equation E=mc2. The energy released by that tiny bit of leftover matter is enormous.
Isotopes of hydrogen fusing into helium and releasing energy. S
To put it in perspective, the fusion of one gram (0.035 ounces) of hydrogen yields 85 billion British Thermal Units (BTU’s) of energy. That’s 33 million horsepower-hours or 25 million kilowatt-hours. But those are just numbers. Twenty-four grams of fusing hydrogen -- less than an ounce -- could power the entire U.S. electrical grid for a full year.

As hydrogen atoms fuse into helium in the core of the sun, the energy is released as photons, discrete packets of electromagnetic energy. We can think of them as light particles (we can also think of them as light waves, but wave-particle duality is an essay for another day), and as light particles they travel at the speed of light, 300,000 kilometers (186,000 miles) per second.

Remember, though, that this fusion occurs in the core of the sun, which is packed full of compressed hydrogen at extremely high densities. The energetic photons have to fight their way out of the core in order to leave the sun as a ray of light. That journey, from the core to the surface of the sun, made at the speed of light, takes a full century to complete as the photons bounce nearly endlessly off of the densely packed hydrogen and helium atoms.

Once free of the core the photons speed out into space in all directions. They’ve lost none of their energy in 100 years of ricocheting about in the core. As they fly out from the sun, a small percentage are aimed directly at the Earth, where they land after about nine minutes of travel.

The solar flux (quantity of solar energy) striking the earth is a constant 175 petawats, about 10-to-the-15th watts. About thirty percent of that is reflected by the atmosphere, but the rest of it reaches the surface.

And once it reaches the surface, it provides every bit of energy required for life. It energizes the photosynthetic process in plants, which take carbon dioxide and hydrogen and solar energy and make starch and cellulose and oxygen. Animals eat the starch and cellulose and breathe the oxygen. Other animals eat the plant eating animals. The important point is that every scrap of energy it takes to make a plant or to make an animal comes from the sun.

And that’s probably enough for today. Whether we think about it or not, whether we appreciate it or not, the sun is the bringer of life as we know it.

And the bonus is the feel of warm sunshine on a frosty February morn.