I was reading a very old book (around 1850) on astronomy and the author explains Sun spots as a phenomena where you can see the black planetary like hard core of the Sun through two different atmospheres. It got me interested that somewhere between 1850 and now it became understood that the Sun's core is a gas. How was this determined conclusively and approximately when in history?

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    $\begingroup$ Bear in mind that the solar core density is around 150 g/cm³, which is more than 13 times the density of lead under standard conditions here on Earth. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 13:23

1 Answer 1


Well simply said: All data fits the premise that it should be a gas.

But what data?

  • First of all, in the late 1960's the 5-minute solar oscillations on the surface of the sun have beend discovered. Those have been recognized as surface features of internal pressure waves with penetration depth $d$, wavenumber $k$ and their relation roughly $d \sim \frac{1}{\sqrt{k}}$.
    So from the measurment and simple existence of certain wave-ripples on top of the photospheric plasma-ocean we can learn about the interior of the sun. To relate the strength of certain wavemodes to the interior structure of this plasma-ball we use usually a reverse-engineering approach called modelling. We take what we know about gases, energy transport etc. and calculate from this how a solar-oscillations-spectrum on a modelled sun would look like. Then compare, scratch your head, change the modell and repeat until it fits. More mathematical details, if you are interested can be found in the excellent lecture notes on Helioseismology from Christensen-Daalsgard.
    So all this gave us a pretty good look into the sun's interior and it was quite clear, that the observed solar parameters like, size, energy output, surface temperature must lead to certain Pressure, Temperature and Density values for the core corresponding to a fusing plasma.
  • But those theoretical predictions would imply the core-plasma to create neutrinos from nuclear reactions, which famously (wiki: Solar_neutrino_problem) were off by a factor of about 3. With the discovery of neutrino oscillations (wiki: Neutrino_oscillation) this problem was also solved in that the sun didn't produce too few neutrinos, but the produced neutrinos would simply change their types. After some distance from the sun those changes would redistribute the numbers from 3:0:0 for electron-myon-tau neutrinos to 1:1:1. This problem persisted until approx. the year 2000.
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting +1. Do you know if it true then that astonomy books before 1950 still thought the sun might have a solid core? $\endgroup$
    – esé
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, I don't know. I know for sure that since the works of Bunsen and MKirchhoff in the late 1800s it was certain that the sun's surface is a gas (forgot to add that). And also from Kirchhoffs laws of spectroscopy ppl had a first idea about the thermal structure of this surface gases. But I'm not sure how far down into the star they did extrapolate this. I think more important here are energetic arguments: How should a solid core produce all this energy we see? (assuming this happens in the core) $\endgroup$ Commented May 18, 2014 at 17:12
  • $\begingroup$ Think your answer is pinpointing why and 'around when' but seems close enough, thanks. $\endgroup$
    – esé
    Commented May 18, 2014 at 23:37
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    $\begingroup$ I mean, we could elaborate a bit more on the arguments why ppl excluded that the sun's energy source can't be coal burning. Then, with discovering of the atomic nucleus, and measurments of binding energy per nucleus per element ppl got the idea of a fusioning gas around ~1930's I think, rather fast. Plus the neutrinos were pointing at nuclear reactions. But glad that I could help. $\endgroup$ Commented May 19, 2014 at 0:29
  • $\begingroup$ Erm, guys. Why are we all going along with the proposition that the Sun's core is made of gas? The Sun's core has a dense, treacle-like consistency. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 23:04

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