On Tuesday, a tweet from a writer named Jacqui Deevoy, a woman bravely making an observation, went viral: To her, the sun has lost some of its shine, is less yellow and more white, less round and more ovular, than when she was a child.
“I’m just telling a person in their 20s that the sun used to be yellow when I was a child and he’s laughing. The last time he saw a yellow sun was on Teletubbies. Here’s the sun right now. White and a weird shape. How’s it looking where you are?” She attached a photo of a glaring midday sun, white and misshapen as a huge gnocchi.
That statement alone is enough to make you stop scrolling and consider going outside to look directly at the sun, which seems to be what she’d recommend. Down the thread, she reveals that she’s into “sun-gazing,” a practice that is exactly how it sounds and that she’s been practicing for at least two years, and might be a contributing factor to why one might see things a little differently as an adult as compared to when they were young and spent less time frying their corneas.
The question of whether the sun’s changed is a conspiracy theory that’s been bandied about for years—as Rolling Stone notes, even before social media as we know it today—with people declaring “not my sun” and claiming to witness weird phenomena “ever since 9/11.” Sun truthers have spent years uploading videos and photos of the sun online with a fervor usually reserved for UFO hunters.
A quick search of r/retconned, a subreddit for theories related to the Mandela Effect, shows the yellow sun has been a topic of interest for years. “I miss it so much!” a Redditor replied to someone asking what the “yellow sun” was like. “The Sun was friendly. It warmed you up in a nice way. We used to use a metallic tray under our chins to tan our necks and faces and you could do that without being blinded.” (There’s also been an almost 53 percent increase in skin cancer diagnoses in the US since 1999, as people who once sunbathed with cooking oil and reflective trays under the friendly sun age.)
“They can be dangerous, because other people latch on to these ideas and are like ‘Oh yeah…I noticed that too’, without consulting the science.”
Solar scientists are typically busy doing science and don’t have time to ponder the habits of people staring at the sun, but they did have some thoughts on the yellow sun theory that’s gained new attention this week.
“Bottom line up front: One should *never* look directly at the sun without adequate eye protection,” Joseph Lazio, Interplanetary Network Directorate Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, said in an email.
Maria Weber, Assistant Professor of Physics and Planetarium Director at Delta State University, told me that she sees claims like this circulating around the internet all the time.
“They can be dangerous, because other people latch on to these ideas and are like ‘Oh yeah…I noticed that too’, without consulting the science. Then we get the trend of people thinking something must be true because the internet said so,” she said. “In this situation, I think it is just people misremembering events or what they observed, especially when in comparison to our younger selves. The idea of the ‘yellow sun’ is, in part, definitely an effect of nostalgia and media. When I was a kid, all manners of TV shows or toys or school activities depicted the sun as yellow.” (I’m no child development expert but I assume we also give children yellow crayons to draw the sun because a white crayon on white paper won’t do anything.)
In her introductory astronomy class, Weber said, she refers to the sun as a “yellow dwarf,” because it’s a G-type spectral class star, which is often referred to as such. The sun emits many different wavelengths, or colors, across the entire spectrum in colors we can see and more that the naked eye can’t—in fact, it most strongly emits a greenish color—but when these colors come together, what we see is white, she said.
“Moreover, the human eye, or maybe more properly the optic nerves, detects light in a way that ‘smooths’ out changes in brightness,” Lazio said. “That means that humans can find it difficult to detect small changes in brightness, but we also can see even when the brightness changes dramatically, e.g., in broad daylight and at night (after our eyes adjust).” The human eye can’t detect the relatively small differences in brightness emitted by the sun.
Lazio reiterated that looking directly at the sun to test this for yourself is a terrible idea. “One *never* should look directly at the sun, but, if one looks at its reflected light, say from a mirror directing the sunlight to a white wall, the reflected light will appear white.”
As anyone who’s been outside at different times of day could tell you, the sun does change color from sunrise to sunset. “The view of the sun at its rising/setting is probably what a lot of people remember and have imprinted in their mind as the ‘yellow sun,’” Weber said. When it’s low in the sky, its light travels through more atmosphere, making it appear yellow, orange, or even red. At noon, however, it’s traveling through a thinner atmosphere, so the many wavelengths are less scattered and appear together as white light. Levels of smog or dust in the air can change the sun’s perceived color, too.
But what about that pasta shape? “Phone cameras can especially do weird things when taking pictures of bright objects like the sun,” said Weber. And again, it depends on the time of day. “The sun can appear to be more oval-like at sunrise/sunset because of refraction in our Earth’s atmosphere. Refraction is the bending of light when it enters different materials. When the sun is low on the horizon, again the light travels through a greater extent of our atmosphere, allowing for a greater effect from refraction.”
A lot of people have an odd relationship with the sun, a tradition that dates back to ancient times, before we understood things like physics and atmosphere. It’s an obsession that one might argue humans still carry, as many people still spread ‘em and point their buttholes in its direction for unproven health benefits. Thanks to modern astronomy, we know that weird things do happen on the sun from time to time, including unexplained waves and a “coronal hole” that could affect life here on earth. A healthy suspicion of the hostile-seeming star might be good, and definitely warrants more sunscreen. But taking the firm stance that your flawed child-mind memory of something almost everyone on the planet experiences every day is the correct one is almost admirably stubborn. If you were the 20-something that Deevoy questioned about the yellow sun, please get in touch.