Something amazing happened in the first few days of September, 1859. Telegraph long-lines in Europe and the United States crashed frequently and some telegraph operators were electrically zapped, knocked into unconsciousness. Motors and other electrical devices burst into flame. There were unusually bright and wild auroral light shows in the night skies. Anything that could measure a magnetic field, or be affected by magnetic disturbances, ranging from sailor's compasses to sensitive magnetometers, behaved erratically.
What caused this trauma? The answer came from an amateur astronomer who had been observing the Sun from his private observatory. Richard Carrington, son of a wealthy brewer, had been following the development of a huge sunspot group many times the size of the Earth, and speculated that somehow this powerful storm blasted Earth with invisible energies then unknown to science.
Since Carrington's observation, links between storms and flares on the Sun have become indelibly linked to magnetic disturbances on Earth and in the Earth's upper atmosphere. As our civilization adopted forms of electricity to create the modern world of commerce, transportation and communication, monitoring these solar disturbances that could disrupt human activities became more and more critical. Today it is essential that we have as complete a knowledge of solar activity as possible. Our global positioning systems, for instance, have not yet experienced a full solar cycle of sunspot activity. And so we do not yet know what to expect, especially if storms of the scale found by Carrington take place.
This year we have asked four scientists who explore space weather and solar activity to help us better appreciate why it is so important to understand space weather, and how enlarged and accelerated efforts around the world and in space have combined through the International Heliophysical year to know the Sun, and its influence on the Earth, as intimately as possible. All of the lectures will employ dramatic new solar imagery gathered from a wide array of instruments, including ground-based radio and optical systems, and satellite missions such as GOES, TRACE, SOHO and, most recently, STEREO.