Is the Solar Cycle Stoking ISIS?

Geomagnetic storms have lots of effects. Is mass murder one of them?

The rise of the Islamic State has been blamed on a lot of people and things since it began its takeover of the Levant. Whether it's Bush, Obama, and Assad, or globalization, rap music, and amphetamines, at this point pretty much everything under the Sun has been cited for stoking the hate orgy that is ISIS—but what about the Sun itself?

Blaming a giant ball of thermonuclear explosions 93 million miles away for genocide on Earth might sound crazy, and perhaps it is. Joseph Stalin certainly thought so, which is why he sentenced Alexander Tchijevsky, the scientist who hypothesized that armed conflicts tended to ebb and flow in accordance with solar events, to a labor camp in Siberia for eight years for even daring to suggest such an outlandish idea.

According to Tchijevsky, if human psychology can be reduced to physico-chemical processes in the brain, then, like other physico-chemical processes in nature, it can be directly influenced by its surroundings.

In this sense, the Earth and everything on it—from the ionosphere to the biosphere—can be considered one common organism, where all the physico-chemical processes affect one another. Therefore, the vicissitudes of human history do not stand outside of nature, but rather develop in accordance with natural laws. The trajectory of history is not something mystical, but rather is the result of the interplay of human actions and natural events.

If this is the case, Tchijevsky figured, then it was simply a matter of figuring out the natural laws that governed the historical process. For this he turned to the Sun, which exhibits its own natural cycles and exerts a significant influence over terrestrial affairs via electromagnetic energy. This influence becomes particularly acute during geomagnetic storms, which are generally caused by coronal mass ejections—huge bubbles of magnetized plasma—and solar flares, and can lead to everything from auroras to widespread satellite failures.

The way Tchijevsky saw it, if any physical process was capable of affecting the entire planet all at once and on a regular basis (an important criterion, if history repeats itself), the regular electromagnetic disturbances caused by the Sun's solar cycle were likely culprits.

Although Tchijevsky was persecuted by the Russian political community for his ideas throughout his lifetime, what if he was right that the electromagnetic activity of the Sun is capable of influencing the course of terrestrial history? Could Tchijevsky's theories help us understand current conflicts, such as the war against ISIS, and give us insight into when they might develop in the future?

The solar activity did not enslave humans, forcing them to do something in particular. Rather, it merely influenced them to do something.

Tchijevsky completed his PhD at Moscow University in 1918, the year after Lenin had seized power during the Russian revolution. He wrote his thesis on the topic of the "Periodicity of the World Wide Process," which examined the recurrence of certain events throughout history and the possible causes for these recurrences—in other words, why history repeats itself.

A few years later, Tchijevsky had expanded his thesis. He determined that the cause of this historical periodicity to be the result of the Sun's electromagnetic influence over the Earth—in particular, he linked the regular occurrence of historical events to the solar cycle, matching battles, riots and revolutions throughout world history with particularly strong solar flares.

Tracing dozens of historical events around the world from the fifth century BC to 1914, Tchijevsky found that many of the most significant events in history occurred periodically. Moreover, they matched the Sun's roughly 11-year cycle, the periodic change in the Sun's activity as determined by the number of observed sunspots and levels of solar radiation.

The Four Phases

Working backwards from 1914, Tchijevsky divided human history into 11-year cycles, further subdividing each cycle into four periods: the period of minimum excitability, the growth of excitability, maximum excitability, and decreasing excitability.

The first period lasts for three years and is characterized by indifference of the masses to political matters and autocratic rule by a minority. The second period lasts for two years and is marked by the emergence of new ideas and the agitation of the masses.

The third period is three years long and sees widespread insurrection and revolt. It is this third period that corresponds to the peak of the Sun's solar cycle, marked by an increased number of sunspots and corresponding increases in the rates of solar flares and coronal mass ejections.

The final period is three years long as well, and is characterized by an increasing apathy among the masses and a tendency toward peace.

According to Tchijevsky, this schema could account for the bulk of human history, from the riots of ancient Greece to the ascendancy of the Bolsheviks.

Although Tchijevsky tended to link the third period of each cycle with wars, riots and revolutions, he did not say the high degree of solar activity during this time suggested that humans would harm one another.

Image: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

In Tchijevsky's model, the solar activity did not enslave humans, forcing them to do something in particular. Rather, it merely influenced them to do something—as Tchijevsky saw things, it just so happened that bloody solutions often appeared to be the path of least resistance.

The Science

While Tchijevsky meticulously studied historical and solar events, he was never able to scientifically prove a causal link between human activity and the Sun.

However, a number of experiments in recent years have shown that there may be something to his hypotheses.

Neuroscientists at MIT have shown that they can influence people's moral decisions by using magnets to disrupt neural activity in certain parts of the brain, for example, and research into Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation has shown that stimulating the brain with magnetic pulses can ease symptoms for everything from Alzheimer's to depression. These findings suggest the human body and mind are not impervious to the effects of electromagnetism, a basic assumption in Tchijevsky's theory.

There's also those who have bolstered Tchijevsky's ideas in a more direct way. Among them is Abraham Liboff, professor emeritus of physics at Oakland University, who has been studying the effects of electromagnetism on human health since the late 60s.

Although Liboff doesn't consider himself a disciple of Tchijevsky, his work has contributed to the growing body of research that is filling in the causal mechanisms for Tchijevsky's correlations between solar events and human activity.

Liboff studies tiny magnetic fields generated by humans that are capable of being affected by the extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields in their environment or disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field. He has done experiments on how these disturbances might affect social behavior.

To this end, Liboff has theorized an electromagnetic theory of consciousness wherein consciousness is a product of the small magnetic fields generated by neuronal flows in the brain. (There is some science to back up this theory; it has been shown that small magnetic fields can be generated via small amounts of force.) The magnetic field that Liboff postulates is generated by neuronal activity is miniscule—he estimates it to be on the order of about 100 nanoTesla—but given that billions of neuronal interactions could be happening in the brain at any given moment, these could produce a larger electric field generated by the brain.

If this larger field is the sum total of all the magnetic fields generated by all neuronal activity in the brain at a given moment, then Liboff thinks it could be a good model for consciousness.

If Liboff is right, this means that the tiny electromagnetic fields generated by the brain are capable of being influenced by other ELF fields, such as those generated by other people. He suspects that this could still have profound effects on a person's consciousness, especially in situations where two people are really close to one another—like during sex or when a baby is in its mother's womb.

As Liboff writes in an article currently under review at the Journal of Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, "Despite not being consciously recognized by the receiving individual, one can anticipate that magnetic cues [small changes in the local electromagnetic environment] can nevertheless result in physiological responses similar to those effects that can occur, for example, following increased solar storm activity."

So what about when the fields are much larger than those generated by the brain, such as those generated by actual solar storm activity? Liboff has also spent some time thinking about this and has postulated that the interaction of a weak static magnetic field (such as the Earth's geomagnetic field) and a time-varying electromagnetic field (such as that produced by solar activity) can affect the way that ions interact with biological mechanisms and thereby influence the biological organism's behavior.

"Once you start getting into social interactions from magnetic fields, all sorts of things are possible."

Liboff has postulated that the physical process underlying this effect is due to something known as ion cyclotron resonance, whereby energy is transferred from the time-varying electromagnetic field (such as that generated by the Sun) to an ion when the resonance frequencies of the ion and electromagnetic field align.

Ion cyclotron resonance has already been harnessed as a powerful tool for regenerative medicine, promoting stem cell growth for bone and heart repair, but whether or not it is the mechanism responsible for psychological changes in humans is much less certain, and Liboff himself will be the first to admit that his theories and experimental evidence are far from widely accepted.

Liboff's work certainly sounds as if it is starting to pull together something of a scientific explanation for what Tchijevsky was getting at, although Liboff is less certain.

"I'm not a follower of Tchijevsky," Liboff said. "I think of him as sort of an amusing prelude to my present area of work. What I'm saying is for the first time there is a possibility of causation that goes along with this great number of correlative information in terms of the effects the sun has on living things. Maybe there's something there. There's an increase in suicides that is correlatable [with solar activity], so why not social unrest?"

"Certainly the question of ISIS seems like a long way from Tchijevsky, but that being said, once you start getting into social interactions from magnetic fields, all sorts of things are possible."

Is the Sun Stoking ISIS?

If solar storms really can influence human psychology and biological processes, it stands to reason that if Tchijevsky and his followers are right about electromagnetism being capable of motivating masses of people to commit heinous crimes they would need to be able to account for the rise of the Islamic State.

The Sun is on its 24th cycle as per the Wolf index, which labels the solar cycle starting in 1755 as 1. We are over halfway through the current solar cycle, but it seems as though the correlation between Tchijevsky's periods and the actions of ISIS is somewhat close.

The first period, which started in January of 2008, should be characterized by a general political apathy. Indeed, there were no solar flares, and life was also relatively calm in Iraq and Syria.

The second period, from 2011 to 2013, should be characterized by the spread of new ideas and the increasing agitation of the masses. It certainly saw the spread of new ideas, between the Arab Spring, the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and the renewed insurgency led by what would eventually become ISIS.

The third period, which began in January 2013 and ended in January of 2016, theoretically sees the height of conflict and bloodshed. Indeed, this period did see the largest advances by ISIS—which captured Fallujah and Mosul during this period—as well as a heightened US-led bombing campaign against the terror group.

We are now at the start of the fourth period, which should see a return to calm. It's far too early to say whether this will be the case, but the Iraqi army says it has recaptured Ramadi from ISIS, forcing fighters to flee.

A member of Iraqi security forces sits on an armoured vehicle mounted with a national flag on February 12, 2016, after security forces retook the eastern outskirts of Ramadi city from Islamic State (IS) group jihadists. Government forces recaptured areas on the eastern outskirts of the Anbar provincial capital from IS after weeks of fighting, and authorities say that all areas immediately surrounding the city have been retaken. Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

There is also some definite overlap between solar events and some of the major milestones that have shaped ISIS into the organization it is today.

Of particular note are the two flares that occur in the weeks directly following the establishment of al-Nusra, which would merge with ISIS the following year, as well as the string of X-class flares that follow on the heels of the ISIS prison raids in July of 2012.

That being said, over the course of the last two solar cycles there have been 97 solar events classed in the two highest tiers (M and X), so it's highly probable that at least a few solar flares would match up with some formative events in ISIS's history.

Siberia swallows Tchijevsky

Despite the approximate correlation between the development of ISIS and solar events, to blame ISIS on the Sun would undoubtedly raise a few eyebrows in scientific and political circles. This was certainly the case for Tchijevsky, who was continually harassed for his ideas beginning in 1924 with the publication of his theory in a limited run 72-page booklet titled Physical Factors of the Historical Process.

At the height of Soviet paranoia near the end of the 1920s, a time when suggesting that history was anything other than a long road to proletarian consciousness was enough to have you disappeared, the Kremlin demanded that Tchijevsky publicly renounce his theory of heliobiology.

Tchijevsky refused, but he had been made aware of his increasingly precarious position within Russian scientific and political circles, so he largely abandoned his historical research to focus on how air ionization influenced living organisms.

Although Tchijevsky was receiving international recognition for his pioneering work in the field of astrobiology (he was invited to lecture on biophysics at Columbia University and in 1939 he presided as president over the First International Congress on Biophysics and Space Biology in New York), the Soviet authorities continued to denounce his activities as counterrevolutionary.

In 1942 things came to a head for Tchijevsky and he was sentenced to a labor camp in Siberia, where he would remain for eight years before being released for rehabilitation into the Ural Mountains. While Tchijevsky would continue working on his experiments until his death in 1964, the Soviet smear campaign took its toll on his hypotheses: in the last 50 years, his ideas have fallen into total obscurity.

Graph from Tchijevsky's Physical Factors of the Historical Process.

Despite Tchijevsky's persecution, the ongoing research into the effects of electromagnetism on the brain suggests that some aspects of his ideas are not as crazy as they first appear. If human psychology can really be reduced to physical processes in the brain, then it seems that these physical processes could be externally influenced—like by a geomagnetic storm, for instance. It is well known that times of peak solar activity can be disruptive occurrences for Earth, resulting in communication, navigation and electricity grid disturbances, so perhaps it could have consequences for that other great electric machine, the human brain.

Neuroscientists at MIT have shown that they can influence people's moral decisions with magnets

While the ability to disrupt mental processes with electromagnetic energy is well documented and the events giving rise to ISIS roughly correspond to Tchijevsky's four periods of excitability, this may very well be little more than a rough correlation without any causal implications. When looking at human history over the course of thousands of years, it wouldn't be difficult to cherry-pick events which support such a theory at the expense of all the other major events which might disprove it, just as the linkage of solar events with the history of ISIS was only a close approximation, ignoring several large solar flares and battles.

In any case, we'll need a lot more scientific data before we're able to prove that solar energy is altering the course of human history. Luckily, folks like Liboff are producing data that appears to bolster Tchijevsky's initial experiments with the hard data needed to bring them from the realm of speculation to science.

That said, if World War III starts during the next solar cycle peak in 2024 and science has provided us with a definite link between human psychology and solar activity, we still might want to admit that Tchijevsky was probably on to something after all.