Getting the “WHOLE SUN" picture

World leading European solar/stellar physicists granted €10 millions to unveil the mysteries of our life-energy source: the Sun. Mats Carlsson, professor at the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics and Principal Investigator, reveals objectives and strategy of his ambitious project.

Computer simulations of the magnetic field and of the outer solar atmosphere.
Simulation of the solar dynamo that generates the magnetic field (left, simulation by the group in Saclay) and a simulation of the outer solar atmosphere (right, simulation by the group in Oslo) where the emerging field interacts with pre-existing field creating explosions and jets. Illustration: Mats Carlsson

Unveiling the mysteries

We live around an active, magnetic star, our Sun, constantly supporting life on our planet and endangering our technology based society with its variability and eruptive behaviour. Despite decades of intense research, fundamental questions remain mostly unanswered.

- Why do we have an 11-year activity cycle? How are sunspots created? How are the magnetic fields generated and how do they emerge through the surface, creating activity?, asks professor Mats Carlsson, director of the Rosseland Centre for Solar Physics (RoCS), one of the nine Norwegian Centres of Excellence (SFF) established at the University of Oslo. 

The WHOLE SUN project attempts to link the eruptive phenomena observed in the solar atmosphere to the motions of plasma deep in the interior of the Sun, where its magnetic field is generated.

- By the end of these 6 years we hope to have advanced the physics based modelling a lot but I believe that we will still be far from operational forecasting of solar storms from physics based models, states Carlsson.

“One for all, all for one”

”WHOLE SUN” principal investigators. From top left to lower right: Laurent Gizon, Vasilis Archontis, Mats Carlsson, Sacha Brun. Photo: Mats Carlsson.

The 4 PIs of the WHOLE SUN project, are now gathered to build a deeper understanding of fundamental processes of our star. They are Sacha Brun (Commisariat à l’Energie Atomique et et aux Energies Alternatives, Saclay, France), Laurent Gizon (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Göttingen, Germany), Vasilis Archontis (University of St Andrews, UK), and Mats Carlsson, (University of Oslo, Norway). 

- The members of RoCS are experts on the outer solar atmosphere (chromosphere and corona), the team in Saclay are experts on dynamo simulations (how the solar magnetic field is generated), the team in Göttingen are experts on using helioseismology to get information from the interior of the Sun and the team in St Andrews specialise in the study of how magnetic flux emerges through the surface, points out Carlsson.

A coherent whole for the first time 

For too many years, the study of the Sun has been split into internal (i.e., the origin of the solar magnetic field) and external solar physics topics (i.e., the existence of sun spots) with no attention to the complex interplay between them. In the WHOLE SUN project, world leading European solar/stellar physicists join expertise and techniques to create for the first time a global integrated view of our star and extend it to its twins. Innovative and challenging, the Synergy grant, the most prestigious funded by the European Research Council (ERC), brings together 2-4 principal investigators with complementary expertise to work “as one”. 

- We work on different parts of the Sun with different approximations possible and with different methods. The challenge is to combine these various parts into a whole that is bigger than the parts, says Carlsson.

More researchers on board

The project will run for six years with a total budget from the ERC of 11 million Euros with 2.2 million Euros being the Oslo share. This will fund three postdoctoral positions, two PhD positions and one Research Software Engineer, with opportunities for new close collaborations, e.g. common PhD students and postdocs.

- The ERC Synergy grant is very well aligned with the research plan of RoCS and will significantly strengthen the centre through the increased collaboration with other excellent researchers, says Carlsson with pride.

This is an exciting time for solar physics research by the University of Oslo!

Key to success

Veteran in awarded grants, Mats Carlsson shares his pearls of wisdom with young researchers:

  1. The most important factor is to have a very good project and a good track record.
  2. For any grant it is important to read very carefully the evaluation criteria and to make it easy for an evaluator to very quickly see that the project is aligned with what is looked for. Try to imagine yourself in the role of the evaluator. If possible, volunteer to do evaluation work to see the projects “from the other side.
  3. Seek collaboration with colleagues also internationally and from outside the group. For a young scientist it is important to start working with other people than the supervisor.

Factors such as networking, ambition, perseverance, “thinking outside the box”, are additional, individual skills recommended to develop during the academic career. 

- With all this in place, there is still an element of luck. Remember that even the most successful researchers have had papers rejected and funding applications turned down, confesses Carlsson.


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Published Dec. 19, 2018 1:55 PM - Last modified Jan. 4, 2019 10:58 AM