The Sun Used to Be Yellow, According to This Cosmic Conspiracy Theory
The sun ain’t what it used to be.
That’s what a weird contingent of amateur astronomers believes, anyway. The idea has swirled around the internet for years, and this week got another endorsement from U.K. columnist Jacqui Deevoy, who shared a picture of the star at the center of our solar system, noting that it “used to be yellow when I was a child.” At some point, however, it turned pure white — and, perhaps more distressingly, Deevoy observed, it is no longer a sphere but a “weird shape.”
Twitter users added community notes to debunk Deevoy’s ridiculous astronomical claim. But given that she also believes staring at the sun can “cure or relieve certain eye issues,” that humans may control the weather, and that Covid-19 vaccines have killed millions of people, this concern over the sun’s hue feels relatively harmless.
What’s truly strange is just how many people share the feeling that the sun has whitened over the years. Over on Reddit‘s r/astronomy, for example, a user who later deleted their account — perhaps in embarrassment — asked if the celestial body was once yellow. As potential evidence, they cited a cousin (okay, Nicki Minaj) who remembered using orange crayons to draw the sun in school. Approximately zero thought was afforded to the simple fact that no child wants to draw on white paper with a white crayon.
Here’s a TikTok version of the same nonsense: “Why is the sun white? It should be yellow or orange!” reads the text-to-speech narration. In the comments, one user has written, “I just asked my mom she is 74… what color is the sun? she said yellow,” adding a yellow heart emoji. Another threw out a potential explanation for the discrepancy: “Loosing [sic] atmosphere?”
But this bogus theory far predates today’s cutting-edge social media. Way back in 2012, a YouTuber uploaded a series of videos purporting to explain that something was off about our sun — and affecting its color as we receive it on Earth. In one clip, he documented a “humungous white sun,” said that he’d been observing unusual phenomena “ever since 9/11,” and railed against anyone who would attempt to debunk his findings. “Now I don’t care about you astronomy people, or you college-educated scientists that are funded by NASA,” he said. “I know that I captured something.”
Commenters were fully on board with him. “As a kid, I went to the Southern California beaches every weekend, the Sun was ALWAYS YELLOW,” wrote one. “The Sun we see today is nothing like it was 20, 30 or even 50 years ago. It’s much whiter,” a second viewer confirmed. “People are just now starting to see the huge, white, glaring, hot sun,” another remarked. “Wake up people.”
Around the time this video appeared online, an unrelated concept was gaining traction — one that would eventually be used to explain the sun’s alleged vibe shift.
“The Mandela Effect” is the term now commonly given to a false collective memory, named for the mistaken recollection, shared by some who lived through the period, that South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela died in prison in the 1980s. (He was, in fact, released in 1990 and became president of the country. He died in 2013.) In practical terms, instances of the Mandela Effect usually involve people “forgetting” or “being wrong,” but some of its chief proponents think we are literally slipping between alternate universes where basic facts of nature and history are different.
Hence a slew of content proposing that our assumption of a yellow sun is down to some inter-dimensional switcheroo. The sun really was yellow — in our previous reality. YouTuber Jessii Vee shared that narrative with her 3.4 million subscribers in 2019, and it continues to circulate on conspiracist channels that explore supposedly paranormal oddities. Of course, a rival camp continues to imply that humans are themselves responsible for the de-yellowing of the sun, as in a 4Chan post from a user who wrote that it now emits a “white, scorching light that feels artificial.”
Convinced yet? You shouldn’t be. Jeff Rich, an astronomer and outreach coordinator at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena, tells Rolling Stone that he often encounters misconceptions about the color of the sun in his work with the public.
“The sun is white, but it definitely ‘appears’ yellow to the eye (don’t look directly at the sun please) due to a combination of the atmosphere scattering blue light more efficiently than red light,” he says. “The sun is portrayed as yellow in art, media, stories, etc. because that’s how it looks to us. If you could get rid of the atmosphere or go into space and safely view the sun, it would look more white to your eye.”
The impression that the sun is starkly white when it used to be more yellow has a number of likely contributing factors: the exposure or color balance imposed by digital camera images, for example. People also notice the sun appearing “orange or red as it sets,” Rich says, which is “due to the fact that we’re looking through more atmosphere the lower an object gets in the sky, and if we’ve got smog or smoke that’s going to add to the effect. More and more blue light and even green light gets scattered so you’re left with mostly red light causing that change. This means technically the sun will look closer to white the higher/closer to the zenith it is.” That accounts for the supposed “evidence” that the sun is now whiter than it once was — Deevoy’s picture shows the sun at midday rather than dusk or dawn.
Also, Rich notes, perception and color themselves are tricky, “which is why we try to make precise measurements of color by using wavelengths of light.” Shown the visible spectrum in a rainbow, you might disagree with the next person as to whether a section is blue vs. purple, or orange vs. yellow.
Here’s the unexpected part: Rich says “the sun does change color and brightness over time,” though not in a way that would be evident to the casual observer. Currently, it’s “in the ‘main sequence’ for several billion years, where it’s very slowly getting hotter and ‘bluer,’ but only marginally and not in a way that we could perceive.” So now if someone tries to tell you the sun has gone from yellow to white, you can reply, “It’s actually more blue than it used to be, idiot.”
But that’s only if you want to be technically correct. You’re also perfectly welcome to insist on a yellow-to-white transformation, which will at the very least garner you some attention on the internet. Just try to keep in mind that most things aren’t quite how you drew them in kindergarten.
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