Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Annie Scott Dill Maunder, Solar Physicist

The Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) dedicated a new telescope on June 25, 2018, returning a tradition of observations to London. The telescope is called the Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope (AMAT), in honor of Annie Maunder, a famous solar and stellar astronomer who worked at RGO from 1891 until the 1930’s.

The RGO is best known to solar scientists as the place where sunspot pictures were made from 1874 until 1976. Those photographs have been used by many scientists to understand how sunspots behave. Having photographs allows us to go back and remeasure the sunspot properties to see if something was missed.

Annie Maunder studied the Sun at RGO. She worked with her husband (E. Walter Maunder) for many years. After they were married she was unable to get paid for her work but continued her research into the Sun, sunspots, and whether the Sun affected our climate.

Along the way, she helped develop the Butterfly Diagram (1904 and 1922), wrote a popular book on the Sun (1908), and examined the Maunder Minimum, the period from 1645 to 1715 when few sunspots were seen and the climate in England was colder than average (1894). She traveled to far-flung places and photographed solar eclipses, all at a time when women were not supposed to do such things. Her outstanding research led to her election as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1916, the first female ever to be admitted to the Society.

The original butterfly diagram appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1904 and again in the 1908 book The Heavens and Their Story. Here is the 1904 version, copied from the journal article. It is easy to see that sunspots follow a pattern. They start at higher latitudes at the beginning of the cycle and form at lower and lower latitudes as the sunspot cycle continues. There is nothing special about solar maximum either (the two thick lines mark solar maximum for Solar Cycles 12 and 13.) Sunspots continue to appear closer to the equator until solar minimum. Then the cycle repeats.

I used the RGO sunspot reports collated by David Hathaway to generate a modern butterfly diagram. The thick dashed line shows when RGO stopped taking data in 1976 and the US Air Force tool over. The data set continues until 2016 when Hathaway retired. Each sunspot cycle is a little different, but they all share the high latitude to low latitude progression.

We still use the butterfly diagram to study the Sun. Any paper studying the solar dynamo will probably include one just to show how well their model works. We also can use helioseismology to generate butterfly diagrams inside the Sun. These show that sunspot cycles start much earlier than sunspots can measure.

My thanks and appreciation to Annie Maunder. Please go and use the AMAT at RGO soon!