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Astronomers Link Sunspots in Medieval Britain with Aurora in Medieval Korea

Originally Published 16 July 2001

Scientists at the University of Warwick and the University of Durham have linked the very first historical illustration of sunspots, recorded in Medieval England in 1182, with the appearance of the aurora borealis 5 days later in Korea.

Professor F. Richard Stephenson, Department of Physics, University of Durham, was the first astronomer to discuss the earliest known drawing of sunspots, which appears in The Chronicle of John of Worcester and predates the invention of the telescope by almost 500 years. This medieval chronicle, which covers the historical period from earliest times to AD 1140, contains a number of records of celestial phenomena. These include aurorae, comets and meteor showers, as well as eclipses of the Sun and Moon. One of the most interesting of these reports is a description of two sunspots that were seen on 8 December in AD 1128 from Worcester in England. In the manuscript that contains this account, the Latin text is accompanied by a colourful drawing that shows two large sunspots on the face of the Sun. This drawing appears to be the earliest known illustration of sunspots. Sunspots were recorded in China more than 1000 years beforehand but no Chinese drawing depicting discrete solar spots exists until about AD 1400, and no subsequent illustration of sunspots survives until after the invention of the telescope, almost 200 years later.

Dr David M. Willis, Space and Astrophysics Group, Department of Physics, University of Warwick, noted that the scientific importance of this observation of two sunspots on 8 December in AD 1128 is increased by an observation of the aurora borealis (northern lights) recorded in Korea only five days after the sunspots, on 13 December. This observation of a red light in the night-time sky from Songdo (the modern city of Kaesong) was recorded in the Koryo-sa, the official Korean chronicle of the time. A delay of five days is typical of the average time delay between the occurrence of a large sunspot group near the centre of the Sun's face and the subsequent appearance of the aurora borealis in the night sky at relatively low latitudes. Observations of this type help scientists to understand how solar activity has changed during historical time.

For further Information contact:

Dr David M. Willis, Space and Astrophysics Group
University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL
Tel: 02476524917 or 01235446498

Professor F Richard Stephenson, Dept of Physics,
University of Durham, Durham DH1 3LE
Tel: 01913742153

Further information about the above press release and all other media services at the University of Warwick can be obtained from:

Peter Dunn, Press Officer
University of Warwick
Coventry, CV4 7AL
West Midlands
Tel: 024 76 523708