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Startling Oregon Coast Astronomy: Sunset an Illusion, Says Cosmos' Tyson

Published 03/31/2014

(Oregon Coast) – The next time you're hitting a beach and watching the sun come up (for the east coast) or go down (for the Oregon coast), you may want to stop to think about the fact you're not seeing quite what you think you're seeing.

Sunday night's episode of “Cosmos: A TimeSpace Odyssey” (Fox network, 9 p.m. on Sundays) revealed something a bit mind-shattering, which has its implications for those glorious sunsets on the Oregon coast. Host Neil deGrasse Tyson‎ said we're not really seeing the sun in the place we think we're seeing it because of the speed of light and another really surprising bit of strange science.

While Tyson was actually talking about sunrise on an ocean horizon in the episode, he said because light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach us, we're really seeing the sun as it was eight minutes ago.

Even more startling, however, is that when it comes to sunrise on an ocean or flat landscape (and conversely sunset as well) we're only seeing a projection of the sun. It's not technically in that spot – not yet.

Tyson's script in Cosmos said it best:

“That sun – it's not really there,” Tyson said. “It won't actually be above the horizon for another two minutes. Sunrise is an illusion. Earth's atmosphere bends the incoming rays, like a lens or a glass of water. So we see the image of the sun projected above the horizon before the physical sun is actually there.”

He likened the sunrise to a mirage, “a shimmering image” in the distance, in a desert.

Now, you can look at those wild, glorious colors of an Oregon coast sunset and realize you're seeing into the past – sort of. You're seeing the sun go out of sight some two minutes later because of that atmospheric projection process. Sunset is delayed - while sunrise is seen sooner than it actually happens.

This kind of bending and refracting of light also has something to do with the famed but rare Green Flash at Sunset, so seldom seen on the Oregon coast.

There is always a bit of time travel involved while looking at the moon and sun. That light of the moon reflecting off the nighttime waves at say, Cannon Beach (as above) or Depoe Bay, takes about one second to get here.

"From Earth, we can only ever see the sun as it was eight minutes ago," Tyson said.

Tyson noted the sun doesn't really rise or descend – it's simply that the Earth is turning.

“While I'm at it, that horizon is not really there at all. There is no edge. The horizon is just another illusion.”

Tyson also talked about the fact the Earth is hurtling through space “faster than a jet,” as he strolled calmly on this beach. Think about that the next time you're talking a quiet walk along the Oregon coast.

More of the region below; more Oregon coast science here.

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