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Understanding Earth's Magnetic Field 58

Posted by michael
from the hot-and-wet dept.
neutron_p writes "Researchers from the University of Maryland's nonlinear dynamics and chaos research group are seeking to solve a major scientific mystery: How is the Earth's magnetic field formed and what causes changes in the field? To find answers, they are recreating on a small scale the forces that produce Earth's own magnetic field. Scientists have constructed a series of "geodynamos" - metal spheres filled with liquid sodium that emulate conditions of the Earth's spinning, churning molten iron core. This project involves more than 14 tons of sodium metal and a 10-foot stainless steel sphere."
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Understanding Earth's Magnetic Field

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  • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Sunday November 07, 2004 @08:57PM (#10750391) Homepage
    That theory is treated with serious skepticism for a reason. (Well, lots of reasons, really.) I can recall having this discussion here before and I forget the details of the theory, but I recall that the author showed an accute lack of understanding of planetary science among other things. (Jupiter is unlikely to have much more of a given metal than the Earth, oddly enough. The core is only at most about 10 Earth masses, and that's mostly ices. Also, the reactor theory doesn't explain field reversals or why the Sun has a field while dynamo theory explains both fairly naturally. Mind you, no one pretends to understand the details of theory since it's wickedly non-linear, but the basics of the theory seem to be fairly solid.)

    Just in your post, I can say that it's unlikely that the field would stop because of build-up of wastes. For one thing, the wastes would either build up or they'd continually be lost. If they *did* build up, they'd slow the reactor down which would cool the system, leading to more sluggish convection and less mobile atoms. That would tend to freeze the wastes in place, not remove them.
  • by stutterbug (715367) on Sunday November 07, 2004 @11:55PM (#10751546)
    As I understand it, the universe has only one megnetic field and the Earth (and other masses) merely distorts that field. Same goes for gravity. Is this not true? I realize this doesn't change the sense of the article at all, but it always bothers me to hear people talk of the "Earth's" magnetic field like it is somehow unconnected to anything else.
  • by Christopher Thomas (11717) on Monday November 08, 2004 @12:28AM (#10751761)
    That theory is treated with serious skepticism for a reason. (Well, lots of reasons, really.) I can recall having this discussion here before and I forget the details of the theory, but I recall that the author showed an accute lack of understanding of planetary science among other things. (Jupiter is unlikely to have much more of a given metal than the Earth, oddly enough. The core is only at most about 10 Earth masses, and that's mostly ices. Also, the reactor theory doesn't explain field reversals or why the Sun has a field while dynamo theory explains both fairly naturally.

    Actually, while the original poster's linked model is indeed bunk, it turns out that many of these objections aren't entirely accurate.

    For one, the model doesn't dispute that the field arises from a dynamo. All it disputes is the nature of the heat source driving it (near-critical ball of uranium vs. a mixture of radioactives in far subcritical spontaneous decay mode). The mechanism for setting up the field is the same.

    For another, if the model's tenets are accepted, field reversals aren't mysterious. The dynamo is shut down and restarted; there's no reason for it to restart with the same field orientation as before. All of the core material is far past the Curie point for holding a residual field, so I'd expect the restarted orientation to be random (constrained only by how the earth's rotation axis affects dynamo flow patterns).

    What I find dubious about the model are the claims that a) lithophyllic elements like uranium would be concentrated in the core material, and b) material would diffuse preferentially towards the core strongly enough to result in fractioning, as opposed to just slightly increased concentrations. kT is big, and gravitational potential energy change with location is small down there, so I'd expect material to diffuse anywhere it pleased.

    As far as Jupiter is concerned, I can't find references that say that the "icy" chemicals are in the core. As jupiter is expected to be molten throughout (as far as I can find), I'd expect them to diffuse out. Most sources say that carbon and nitrogen are mostly bound as methane and ammonia above the layers of liquid hydrogen. Some of the oxygen is bound as water in the atmosphere, and some of it as silicates in the "rocky" part of the core (which is presumably fractioned into silicates on top of a [molten] iron inner core, as in Earth).

    Moot point re. the original article, of course, as you are definitely correct about the rocky core's mass.

    Just in your post, I can say that it's unlikely that the field would stop because of build-up of wastes. For one thing, the wastes would either build up or they'd continually be lost. If they *did* build up, they'd slow the reactor down which would cool the system, leading to more sluggish convection and less mobile atoms. That would tend to freeze the wastes in place, not remove them.

    My understanding was that the model proposed that they built up, shut down the core, froze in place, kept the core shut down until they decayed enough for the core to be near-critical again, and then dispersed as the hotter core allowed for faster diffusion away from the reactor area. Still pretty dubious, but I'd want to see a fairly detailed model of temperature, reaction rate, and mobility changes before writing that aspect off as outright impossible.
  • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Monday November 08, 2004 @01:14AM (#10752003) Homepage
    Yeah, I considered that the restarted dynamo would be randomly oriented. That was actually the objection, although I didn't want to go on about it in the original post. You'd expect, in reactor case, to see the new field aligned the same way as before the (dipole!) fieldless period as often as anti-aligned. You don't see that, however. It actually reverses. That requires explanation in the model and the reactor doesn't manage that. A simple, continuous dynamo does it well. (You can get a dynamo with feedback to do this, never mind one as complex as Earth's. And besides, the Sun does it. And we know that the Sun's energy source doesn't shut off every 11 years ;-)

    I'd like to see your sources on the core of Jupiter. I can cite a lot of sources to back up my statement, if you like. "The New Solar System" is an easily accessable book that covers the topic adequately. If you want something more detailed, "Protostars and Planets IV" has a nice discussion of this. I'd bet that the new Jupiter book from Cambridge University Press covers it, but my copy hasn't arrived yet.

    If you're not finding references that say that the core is mainly ice, I'm curious where you're looking. (No, really: I'm curious.)

    That said, no, there probably ices there if there is, in fact, a core. (We don't know for certain that there is as the data are sketchy. Oddly, it's easier to tell at the other giant planets.) Under the kinds of pressures at the center of Jupiter, rock and ice would be slushy, we think. We really don't understand the physics all that well for those pressures and temperatures, alas. (Which are, obviously, difficult to reproduce and to model since we have no good equations of state.)

    Even if there aren't any ices, you're right that it's a moot point: there's not that much uranium in the planet unless our cosmochemistry is seriously wacked. (That is to say, unless there's a lot MORE uranium in Jupiter than in the Earth and in the galaxy at large. Which then requires an explanation as to where it all came from and how it got enriched in the giant planets.)

    What's worse is that you need a lot more uranium than Earth has to generate your heat that way. Jupiter puts significantly more heat that it takes in from the Sun. (Earth takes in about 1360 W/m^2 and adds an additional 0.01 W/m^2 to the outgoing flux due to internal heat. Jupiter's internal heat is of order the same as what it takes in from the Sun. The latter being about 1/30 of what the Earth recieves.)

    And you can't restart the reactor by letting the uranium daughter istopes decay. What do you think that they decay into? Lead, mainly. If thorium stops the reactions, I'm pretty sure that lead will, too.

    If you want other objects, I gots 'em. Like the fact that you need a LOT of uranium to make this work. (Again, where is it coming from?) And that the primorial Earth would have been wickedly active. (Take the heat for formation, heat of differentiation, and add in not the radioactive decay buy a nuclear generator with a LOT more fuel and therefore a much more vigorous reactor. Basically, what the reactor model does is speed the burn rate. Which means, since we know the present heating rate of the Earth pretty well, you have to make it a lot hotter in the past with the reactor model than with pure decay. One would need to look at the model to see how hot, but I wouldn't be surprised, say, 3 billion years ago there would be too much heating to leave solid rock lying around.

    You raised another of mine, how the uranium headed downward rather than sticking around with the silicates.
  • by stevelinton (4044) <sal@dcs.st-and.ac.uk> on Monday November 08, 2004 @12:30PM (#10755335) Homepage
    I'm not unshakingly, go to my death protesting it, deep-rootedly certain of these points from my own personal knowledge and experience.

    Indeed, if you get picky there is bound to be some connection between the various things we are talking about, but I do maintain that, from my wide reading over a long period, that the accepted view of the scientific community based on decades of observation and experiment is that any such connections are very tiny, and are swamped, for instance, by random variations due to atmospheric turbulence.

    I would be fascinated to hear of any PEER-REVIEWED research showing, or even suggesting, that such connections explain more than, say, one part in a trillion of the observed ozone depletion and magnetic field variations.

    Ozone is O3, as I think you subsequently realised. O1 is atomic oxygen.

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