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The Tiny Physics Behind Immense Cosmic Eruptions

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During fleeting fits, the sun occasionally hurls a colossal amount of energy into space. Called solar flares, these eruptions last for mere minutes, and they can trigger catastrophic blackouts and dazzling auroras on Earth. But our leading mathematical theories of how these flares work fail to predict the strength and speed of what we observe.

At the heart of these outbursts is a mechanism that converts magnetic energy into powerful blasts of light and particles. This transformation is catalyzed by a process called magnetic reconnection, in which colliding magnetic fields break and instantly realign, slingshotting material into the cosmos. In addition to powering solar flares, reconnection may power the speedy, high-energy particles ejected by exploding stars, the glow of jets from feasting black holes, and the constant wind blown by the sun.

Despite the phenomenon’s ubiquity, scientists have struggled to understand how it works so efficiently. A recent theory proposes that when it comes to solving the mysteries of magnetic reconnection, tiny physics plays a big role. In…

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