Dec 21, 2003 - 6:02 pm
There'll be no creaking of Earth's poles to be heard this night as our planet begins its tilt towards another season. Nor will there be weeping and wailing as awestruck primitive man must have done, as he begged the omnipotent gods to be merciful and return the sun to its rightful place in the heavens. Yet even as we claim to understand most of the great mysteries that come with the changing, shifting seasons, a deep sense of wonder remains.
Solstice comes from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to cause to stand), meaning when the sun stands still. This semi-annual event takes place when the Earth's polar angle reaches its maximum and begins to return, marking the beginning of another celestial year.
The sun's vertical rays, instead of continuing to pass directly over the Tropic of Capricorn -- Rio de Janeiro is on the line -- at noon today will begin moving north, by June passing over the Tropic of Cancer -- say, the Florida Straits between Cuba and Key West. In that time they will have moved about a quarter of the Earth's circumference, a distance of roughly 3,300 miles. For tonight the sun will not set over the Antarctic, nor will there be a sunrise north of Fort Yukon.
So winter begins again. Immutable and predictable, a tick in the timepiece of the seasons, another pulse beat of the years. No matter what bribes we offer the gods, no rites or pleadings will change the seasons from following with impeccable reliability their celestial orders. Winter's cold comes, and we move on.
Man won't begin his celebration of the returning sun for another few days, so bundle up, step outside tonight -- it's a great time for stars. With frosting on the grass, just before dawn, the Ursid meteor fireworks peak. Is it nature celebrating the successful completion of another year?