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Astronomy is far older than nuclear physics. So there was a long time in which fire was a reasonable explanation for the sun burning.

Has any scientist figured out the sun cannot possibly be a normal fuel+air fire? I guess such a scientist must be familiar with Newton's orbital mechanics since people prior believe the universe is filled with air.

I got inspired from this Phys.SE question: Why can there be fire in space while there is no oxygen?

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A brief history of what science thought about the sun can be found here .

It is reasonable that once thermodynamics advanced to the point of measuring and calculating energies the discrepancy between heat output of the sun and the age of the earth had to be explained. They tried with gravitation, but until the discovery of nuclear energy and E=m*c^2 it remained a problem to be solved.

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