This Wednesday, June 20, is the Solstice. It happens at 7:09 p.m. What’s so special about it? It’s the earliest summer since 1896: the earliest start of summer that you have ever experienced. Let’s see if the media pick up on this, or even realize it. So far as I know, it has not been published anywhere.
Anyway, summer: great. Bring it on.
Even in normal times, the Solstice is one of the few links between sky and Earth that’s popularly celebrated. Ask friends what happens and they’re likely to get it right, mostly. Longest day: check. Sun highest up: check. Sun moves through the sky along its most curving path: hmm, what? That one’s not widely known.
Still, people do pretty well with the Solstice. Yet most folks fail miserably when it comes to everything else about the sky. Even those with PhDs bomb when asked the stone-simple sky-stuff that every village idiot would have known 200 years ago. Go ahead: Test your friends. As the Sun is setting, does it move straight down, down and to the left, or down to the right? Most get this wrong. A century ago, everyone would have picked the latter choice without a moment’s hesitation.
Perhaps modern people are less observant. More finish college than ever before, but you don’t need a classroom to learn the basics of nature. It stares you in the face. But if you’re not looking, you won’t see it.
We could offer a hundred pages about the Solstice and its fascinating history, mythology and science, but let’s settle on ten goodies:
The word solstice comes from the two Latin words for “Sun” and “stoppage.” Makes sense: The Sun stops moving north that day.
The Solstice Sun hovers straight over the Tropic of Cancer, just south of Key West.
It’s when the Sun reaches its highest of the year, but it’s getting less high over time. That’s because Earth’s tilt is decreasing.
The Solstice is when the Sun is lowest in the sky for those at the Equator.
It arrives earlier as each century wears on. It’ll occur on June 19 in many places by century’s end. It was exclusively June 21 for all of our lives, until now.
In India, the Summer Solstice ends the six-month period when spiritual growth is supposedly easiest. Better hurry up and meditate (yes, that’s a joke): You’ve got less than a week left.
That day, the Sun rises farthest left on the horizon, and sets at its rightmost possible spot.
Sunlight strikes places in rooms that get illuminated at no other time.
In ancient Greece, the solstitial Sun happened in Cancer. But it has been in Gemini since around the time of Christ. In 1989 it shifted into Taurus, where it will remain until the fifth millennium.
But with all these goodies, the nicest fact may simply be that the Sun is now so wonderfully high. It’s 72 degrees up at 1 p.m., and won’t change much the next few weeks. It misses the zenith by a paltry 18 degrees. Look how short your shadow is.
With all that, given the world’s short attention span nowadays, TV announcers merely grant it two seconds: “It’s the start of summer!”