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Published in the September 1999 issue of Universe.
As we approach the end of the Second Millennium, a review of ancient history is not what you would normally expect to read in the pages of Universe. Indeed, except for reflecting on the AD 837 apparition of Halley's Comet (when it should have been as bright as Venus and would have moved through 60 degrees of sky in one day as it passed just 0.03 AU from Earth - three times closer than Hyakutake in 1996), you may well wonder what we could learn from any astronomical events that occurred more than a thousand years ago.
Any history text will say that the Dark Ages refers to the period after the fall of the Roman Empire in the middle of the 1st Millennium (it was not sponsored by the International Dark Sky Association). It was a time when European civilisation stagnated - even that term is a generous description of the living standards and social setting of the next few centuries. In a broader sense, however, "Dark Ages" can be applied to a few eras of social upheaval over the last several thousand years, which fits in nicely with what you're about to read - stay with me, as the possible astronomical implications will soon become apparent.
The Italian historian Flavius Cassiodorus wrote about conditions that he experienced during the year AD 536:
"The Sun...seems to have lost its wonted light, and appears of a bluish colour. We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon, to feel the mighty vigour of the Sun's heat wasted into feebleness, and the phenomena which accompany an eclipse prolonged through almost a whole year. We have had a summer without heat. The crops have been chilled by north winds, [and] the rain is denied."
Other writers of the time described similar conditions:
Procopius : "...during this year a most dread portent took place. For the Sun gave forth its light without brightness...and it seemed exceedingly like the Sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear."
Lydus : "The Sun became dim...for nearly the whole year...so that the fruits were killed at an unseasonable time."
Michael the Syrian : "The Sun became dark and its darkness lasted for eighteen months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow...the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes."
Was this a local phenomenon? According to the book Volcanoes of the World, Dr. Timothy Bratton has noted that there was a small eruption of the volcano Mt. Vesuvius in AD 536. Could this be the cause? It may well have contributed to the scene (although the eruption was much smaller than the big one of AD 79), but it can not really account for the similar conditions that were experienced around the world.
And it came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed.
I call BS, the writers of the time aren't to be taken seriously, the dark ages were full of ignorance and lies
"The ice Greenland SULPHATES were found to have been deposited between A.D. 533 and 536, matching a sulphate maximum level encountered in Antarctic ice. As the volcanic ash reached both poles, this means that the blast is likely to have occurred near the Equator. Other proofs are delivered by tree rings from the Northern Hemisphere, revealing lower growth rates for over a decade around year 536. But the cooling effect was not encountered in the southern hemisphere, too."
Why is copper(II) sulphate solution blue? If white light (ordinary sunlight, for example) passes through copper(II) sulphate solution, some wavelengths in the light are absorbed by the solution. Copper(II) ions in solution absorb light in the red region of the spectrum. The light which passes through the solution and out the other side will have all the colours in it except for the red. We see this mixture of wavelengths as pale blue (cyan).