22
Jun
07

Solstice

Today is the first day of summer, the longest day of the year, but you’d hardly know it. It doesn’t feel much like summer. New York has been blessed with a mild spring this year. I desperately hope the lower temperatures continue.

It is the summer solstice. Basically, it all has to do with the position of the sun — which is way over my head. And everyone else’s too. (Heh heh… get it?) Twice a year, the sun’s path around the earth is the farthest north or south it can get from the Equator. On June 21, the North Pole is tilted toward the sun. Six months hence, on the winter solstice (to us Northern Hemisphere folk), the South Pole will be tilted toward the Sun. On the first day of summer, everywhere north of the Arctic Circle has 24 hours of sunlight, and the length of day at all places north of the Equator is more than 12 hours.

It amazes me to think how much of human belief has been shaped by the length of a day. It’s all down to the accidental 23.45° tilt of Earth’s axis, and its distance from the sun. One or two degrees in either direction, and the whole of human existence could have developed completely differently.

Who knows: If we were tilted a bit further, the polar ice caps would be bigger, we’d all be a little cooler year-round, sleep patterns would be different, biological rhythms would all be different.

We seem to make a bigger fuss over marking the winter solstice. Winter celebrations predate agriculture. As winter approached and the days grew shorter and the temperature dropped, and plants, animals and people began to die all around, I can see how ancient people might have been afraid that the sun was disappearing and not coming back. I’d do whatever I could do to get it to come back. Apparently, they lit bonfires and had big parties and built religions. (Today, rather than lighting bonfires, we risk housefires and death by electrifying evergreen shrubbery.) This in turn led to the founding of civilizations and nations and economic systems and flying to the moon and realizing that the whole thing is actually not managed by a guy in a glowing horse-drawn carriage.

My hat’s off to those weirdos who counted the as-yet-undefined units of time between sunrise and sunset, and to all those who broke their backs hauling enormous stones and such just to tell time and mark dates. It’s so easy for us now that they’ve done all the work.

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