Take the 2-minute tour ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free, no registration required.

How much of the Earth would a spoonful of the Sun scorch if held at ground level?

I basically would like to conceptualize the heat of the Sun on a smaller scale, please.

share|improve this question
Can I suggest starting with an understanding of the difference between heat and temperature! –  Nic Sep 12 '11 at 9:41

2 Answers 2

What part of the sun? That would make a huge difference in your question. Overall, these types of hypothetical questions are rather non-nonsensical without really defining the parameters very clearly.

That said, keep in mind, we have "released the power of the sun on the surface of the earth" a few times already. Not only that, we have even contained it! Granted, we are still in our infancy of this technology, so we are still figuring out a lot of the parameters and limitations we will face.

share|improve this answer
Exactly. The core is a lot more compressed and hot than the skin. Even so, it's just a spoonful. My gut feeling - it will make a big boom, possibly like a large bomb, but I doubt it could destroy more than a few buildings. This should be easy to confirm/reject with a quick back of the napkin calculation. –  Florin Andrei Sep 12 '11 at 18:20
the "What part of the sun?" what my first reaction, too ... I mean, sure the transition region could be a million degrees Kelvin ... but it's nearly a vaccum, so the thermal mass cancels it out when you're taking about a spoonful. –  Joe Sep 12 '11 at 18:21
@Florin ""with a quick back of the napkin calculation."" Hmmmm, why backside of the napkin? I wonder since long about all those "back of the envelope" calculations, You got to napkins, but stay on backside. Strange :=) –  Georg Sep 14 '11 at 19:30
@Georg - I know, I'm not the sharpest lightbulb in the toolshed. :) –  Florin Andrei Sep 14 '11 at 20:31
@Georg The restaurant's logo is on the front. :) –  LDC3 Apr 30 at 1:15

Consider the core of the sun, which is stated on Wikipedia to have temperature around 15.7 million K, density 150 g/cm3. A teaspoon is 5cm3, so 750g.

How much power is this generating? Well, the sun generates 4 x 1026 W and the core of the sun (out to 25% of its radius of 7 x 108m) consists of about 2.2 x 1025m3 and does almost all the fusion. So perhaps surprisingly, the ongoing power output of a teaspoonful of the sun's core (sampled as a representation across the whole core) is very underwhelming, a tiny fraction of 1W. Wikipedia provides another estimate for the very centre of 276.5 watts/m3, which is still approximately nothing for a teaspoonful.

We can neglect the effect of fusion when transported to the surface of the earth -- quite aside from anything else it will stop once the pressure is removed, which will happen pretty quickly once released. This may also give a feel for why generating usable power by nuclear fusion is difficult.

What about the stored heat? I know approximately nothing about plasma physics, but it feels like 750g of stuff at 15.7 million K is going to scorch you at least as badly as 750kg of stuff at 15700K. A small, white-hot car isn't all that scary, but you wouldn't want one in your face. Neither is raising the temperature of a 750 tonne building by 15.7K going to trouble the planet as a whole, although you probably don't want to be in the building when it happens since the heating will be distinctly uneven. Maybe this dense plasma has thermal capacity orders of magnitude higher than a car or a building, I don't know.

But where's the kaboom? What happens when you take 750g of stuff at 265 billion bar and release it to atmospheric pressure (1 bar)? Again, this is plasma physics, gas laws may not apply, but as a first guess it would get 265 billion times bigger except that in the process it will presumably cool by a factor of (at least) 1000. It wants to occupy 1.3 million m3, divided by 1000, that is to say a cube 10m to a side full of gas that's still (by the standards of gases on the surface of the earth) very hot. Don't stand near it. Note that I'm in part double-counting the heat that I already talked about above.

Oh yes, and there's at least some chance that the hydrogen will combust in the presence of terrestrial oxygen. A tank of compressed hydrogen going off can't be all that much fun, but I've no idea how well our spoonful would mix with air compared to its rate of cooling.

I'm afraid that's as far as I can get, but I think it gives some idea that there will be a considerable explosion but no earth-shattering kaboom.

The surface of the sun is even less exciting in small volumes -- it's not very dense and its temperature is only about the same as that of a light bulb filament (because blackbody radiation of a given temperature has the same colour, geddit?). Any part of the sun is at least partially-ionized though, so I suppose at the very least it might fritz your phone.

Numbers cribbed from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_core

share|improve this answer
Very sensible thoughts here. Heat capacity, rapid expansion and likely combustion (conflagration?) will be significant; fusion activity in this sample does not contribute to the scorching. Very insightful. –  Floris Jul 8 at 19:48

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.