How many photons are released by the sun?

Skills to practice: generating hypotheses, designing labs, making estimates
During the late 19th century, there was a lot of confusion about the nature of (and
interrelationships between) heat, temperature and energy. At that time, most scientists believed in a concept called caloric. Reactions that released heat were supposed
to be the result of a transfer of one substance’s caloric to another. James Joule and
others proposed an alternative explanation that a system’s temperature was due to
the motion of the comprising particles. Joule built a device to measure the temperature rise in a system by converting the gravitational potential energy of a weight at
a given height into thermal energy.

1. Use the table of information below to find a mathematical relationship between
energy added (by dropping a known mass a fixed distance) and the temperature
rise in water (1 liter—1 kg).


Height Gravitational Temperature
Energy (J)
Change (K)

2. Write out the mathematical relationship between the gravitational energy, E,
added to the water system and the temperature change of the water, ∆T , in
. (Once you have a relationship let
the space provided: E =
me know).
3. Design an experiment! Using your work in question 2, how could you calculate
the energy output of the sun? The number of photons released by the sun?
(a) In the video, Brian Cox says that the sun delivers one kilowatt of power
to a square meter of the earth’s surface. How long do you estimate he
waited to complete his experiment?
(b) What additional information do we need to convert Brian Cox’s experiment into an estimate of the number of photons leaving the sun each
second? Get any additional information and estimate this.
(c) Check your answer to (a) and (b), by estimating how long you would have
to wait to ignite a piece of paper with a magnifying glass. What additional
information do you need to make this estimate? Get it.
(d) Do you think this sort of calculation could be useful for measuring the
distances to other stars? Why or why not?

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