U of S astrophysicist Ethan Vishniac, one of the authors on the paper, explains the team took aim at the idea of "flux freezing," a standard idea that the magnetic field lines that pass through a blob of gas are pinned to it and cannot move. They found this model didn't hold up when you add turbulence to the equation.
"We were able to show that in the presence of turbulence this result is not even approximately correct," Vishniac said. "The magnetic field can move through a turbulent fluid very efficiently. It's analogous to the way turbulence helps you mix cream in your coffee or the way the smell of perfume permeates a room."
Vishniac collaborated with lead author Gregory Eyink from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland as well as colleagues at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Technische Universität München in Munich, Germany.
"It was widely believed that magnetic field lines wouldn't spread in this way," Vishniac said. "Our calculation shows that they do. This is important for understanding the evolution of magnetic fields in stars - like the sun's famous 11 year cycle - as well star formation, solar flares and related phenomena."
Vishniac explains that the model doesn't apply on Earth, where both water and air are poor conductors. However, almost anywhere else in the universe, most matter, including the plasma that makes up our own sun, is an excellent conductor and magnetic fields abound.
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