GRE Reading Comprehension
It has been known for many decades that the appearance of sunspots is roughly periodic, with an average cycle of eleven years. Moreover, the incidence of solar flares and the flux of solar cosmic rays, ultraviolet radiation, and x-radiation all vary directly with the sunspot cycle. But after more than a century of investigation, the relation of these and other phenomena, known collectively as the solar-activity cycle, to terrestrial weather and climate remains unclear. For example, the sunspot cycle and the allied magnetic-polarity cycle have been linked to periodicities discerned in records of such variables as rainfall, temperature, and winds. Invariably, however, the relation is weak, and commonly of dubious statistical significance.
Effects of solar variability over longer terms have also been sought. The absence of recorded sunspot activity in the notes kept by European observers in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries has led some scholars to postulate a brief cessation of sunspot activity at that time (a period called the Maunder minimum). The Maunder minimum has been linked to a span of unusual cold in Europe extending from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries. The reality of the Maunder minimum has yet to be established, however, especially since the records that Chinese naked-eye observers of solar activity made at that time appear to contradict it. Scientists have also sought evidence of long-term solar periodicities by examining indirect climatological data, such as fossil records of the thickness of ancient tree rings. These studies, however, failed to link unequivocally terrestrial climate and the solar-activity cycle, or even to confirm the cycle's past existence.
If consistent and reliable geological or archaeological evidence tracing the solar-activity cycle in the distant past could be found, it might also resolve an important issue in solar physics: how to model solar activity. Currently, there are two models of solar activity. The first supposes that the Sun's internal motions (caused by rotation and convection) interact with its large-scale magnetic field to produce a dynamo, a device in which mechanical energy is converted into the energy of a magnetic field. In short, the Sun's large-scale magnetic field is taken to be self-sustaining, so that the solar-activity cycle it drives would be maintained with little overall change for perhaps billions of years. The alternative explanation supposes that the Sun's large-scale magnetic field is a remnant of the field the Sun acquired when it formed, and is not sustained against decay. In this model, the solar mechanism dependent on the Sun's magnetic field runs down more quickly. Thus, the characteristics of the solar-activity cycle could be expected to change over a long period of time. Modern solar observations span too short a time to reveal whether present cyclical solar activity is a long-lived feature of the Sun, or merely a transient phenomenon.
The author focuses primarily on
- A presenting two competing scientific theories concerning solar activity and evaluating geological evidence often cited to support them
- B giving a brief overview of some recent scientific developments in solar physics and assessing their impact on future climatological research
- C discussing the difficulties involved in linking terrestrial phenomena with solar activity and indicating how resolving that issue could have an impact on our understanding of solar physics (solar physics: 太阳物理)
- D pointing out the futility of a certain line of scientific inquiry into the terrestrial effects of solar activity and recommending its abandonment in favor of purely physics-oriented research
- E outlining the specific reasons why a problem in solar physics has not yet been solved and faulting the overly theoretical approach of modern physicists
Correct Answer: C