Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today’s Sciency Word is:
THE NOMINAL SOLAR RADIUS
Last week, I told you about the classification system in use for main sequence stars. Today we’re going to talk specifically about G-type stars. Or rather, we’re going to talk about one G-type star in particular: the Sun.
I was recently clued in on a controversy about the Sun. After reading up on the issue, though, I don’t think this is a real controversy. It’s more like an Internet controversy.
If you’ve ever wondered how big the Sun is, a quick Google search will get you an answer. But it won’t get you the correct answer. That’s because we apparently do not know precisely how big the Sun is. As this paper from 2018 states: “[…] measuring with high accuracy the diameter of the Sun is a challenge at the cutting edge of modern techniques.”
Part of the problem is that we’ve tried using multiple methods for either measuring the Sun’s radius by direct observation or by calculating the radius based on other kinds of measurements. And we keep getting different answers. I take it we’re not getting wildly different answers, but there’s enough variation there to create a problem for scientists who study the Sun.
So here’s where the alleged controversy comes in. Our friends at the I.A.U.—the International Astronomy Union, the same organization that decided Pluto is not a planet—decided a few years ago what the Sun’s radius should be. They said it equals 695,700 km. No more, no less. I mean, who are these people to decide what is or is not a planet? Who are these people to decide now how big the Sun is?
Except that’s not actually what the I.A.U. did. Regardless of how I may feel about the whole Pluto thing, I do agree with the I.A.U. about their definition of the solar radius. Or to speak more precisely, I agree with their definition of the nominal solar radius. As explained in the I.A.U. resolution on this matter:
These nominal values should be understood as conversion factors only—chosen to be close to the current commonly accepted estimate […] not as the true solar properties. Their consistent use in all relevant formulas and/or model calculations will guarantee a uniform conversion to SI units.
So I don’t think the controversy, such as it is, really exists. If we’re going to use the nominal solar radius as a unit of measure, we all have to agree about what that unit of measure is equal to—especially because we still don’t know what the actual solar radius is.
Feel free to bash the I.A.U. about Pluto, if you want, but when it comes to their nominal solar radius definition, I think the way they handled it makes a lot of sense.