In addition to introducing the relative sunspot number, Wolf (1861) also used earlier observational records available to him to reconstruct its monthly mean values since 1749. In this way, he reconstructed 11-year sunspot cycles back to that date, introducing their still universally used numbering. (In a later work he also determined annual mean values for each calendar year going back to 1700.)

In 1981, the observatory responsible for the official determination of the sunspot number changed from Zürich to the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels. The website of the SIDC (originally Sunspot Index Data Center, recently renamed Solar Influences Data Analysis Center), http://sidc.oma.be, is now the most authoritative source of archive sunspot number data. But it has to be kept in mind that the sunspot number is also regularly determined by other institutions: these variants are informally known as the American sunspot number (collected by AAVSO and available from the National Geophysical Data Center, http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/ngdc.html) and the Kislovodsk Sunspot Number (available from the web page of the Pulkovo Observatory, http://www.gao.spb.ru). Cycle amplitudes determined by these other centers may differ by up to 6 – 7% from the SIDC values, NOAA numbers being consistently lower, while Kislovodsk numbers show no such systematic trend.

These significant disagreements between determinations of R_{W} by various observatories and observers
are even more pronounced in the case of historical data, especially prior to the mid-19th century. In
particular, the controversial suggestion that a whole solar cycle may have been missed in the official sunspot
number series at the end of the 18th century is taken by some as glaring evidence for the unreliability
of early observations. Note, however, that independently of whether the claim for a missing
cycle is well founded or not, there is clear evidence that this controversy is mostly due to the
very atypical behaviour of the Sun itself in the given period of time, rather than to the low
quality and coverage of contemporary observations. These issues will be discussed further in
Section 3.2.2.

Given that R_{W} is subject to large fluctuations on a time scale of days to months, it has become
customary to use annual mean values for the study of longer term activity changes. To get rid of the
arbitrariness of calendar years, the standard practice is to use 13-month boxcar averages of the monthly
averaged sunspot numbers, wherein the first and last months are given half the weight of other months:

In what follows, and will refer to the maximum and minimum value of R in cycle n (the minimum being the one that starts the cycle). Similarly, and will denote the epochs when R takes these extrema.

Instead of the “raw” sunspot number series many researchers prefer to base their studies on some transformed index . The motivation behind this is twofold.

(a) The strongly peaked and asymmetrical sunspot cycle profiles strongly deviate from a sinusoidal profile; also the statistical distribution of sunspot numbers is strongly at odds with a Gaussian distribution. This can constitute a problem as many common methods of data analysis rely on the assumption of an approximately normal distribution of errors or nearly sinusoidal profiles of spectral components. So transformations of R (and, optionally, t) that reduce these deviations can obviously be helpful during the analysis. In this vein, e.g., Max Waldmeier often based his studies of the solar cycle on the use of logarithmic sunspot numbers ; many other researchers use with , the most common value being .

(b) As the sunspot number is a rather arbitrary construct, there may be an underlying more physical parameter related to it in some nonlinear fashion, such as the toroidal magnetic field strength , or the magnetic energy, proportional to . It should be emphasized that, contrary to some claims, our current understanding of the solar dynamo does not make it possible to guess what the underlying parameter is, with any reasonable degree of certainty. In particular, the often used assumption that it is the magnetic energy, lacks any sound foundation. If anything, on the basis of our current best understanding of flux emergence we might expect that the amount of toroidal flux emerging from the tachocline should be where is some minimal threshold field strength for Parker instability and the surface integral goes across a latitudinal cross section of the tachocline (cf. Ruzmaikin, 1997). As, however, the lifetime of any given sunspot group is finite and proportional to its size (Petrovay and van Driel-Gesztelyi, 1997; Henwood et al., 2010), instantaneous values of R or the total sunspot area should also depend on details of the probability distribution function of in the tachocline. This just serves to illustrate the difficulty of identifying a single physical governing parameter behind R.

One transformation that may still be well motivated from the physical point of view is to attribute an alternating sign to even and odd Schwabe cycles: this results in the the alternating sunspot number series . The idea is based on Hale’s well known polarity rules, implying that the period of the solar cycle is actually 22 years rather than 11 years, the polarity of magnetic fields changing sign from one 11-year Schwabe cycle to the next. In this representation, first suggested by Bracewell (1953), usually odd cycles are attributed a negative sign. This leads to slight jumps at the minima of the Schwabe cycle, as a consequence of the fact that for a 1 – 2 year period around the minimum, spots belonging to both cycles are present, so the value of R never reaches zero; in certain applications, further twists are introduced into the transformation to avoid this phenomenon.

After first introducing the alternating series, in a later work Bracewell (1988) demonstrated that
introducing an underlying “physical” variable R_{B} such that

Living Rev. Solar Phys. 7, (2010), 6
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