The Washington Post

Winter solstice: You had to be there

Check out this gorgeous photo gallery of the winter solstice that my colleagues have put together. There are 77 images, most produced by the Post staff, including some from photographers far afield. They’ve done something very difficult in any single image but effective in composite: Captured the light, the way the world really looks, at the darkest corner of the Northern Hemisphere’s calendar. (Whenever I look at what the professionals can do, I’m reminded that with a camera I merely take snapshots.)

I wrote the story to accompany the pictures, and now I wish I had stepped up the lyricism a notch to keep pace with the visual side of the package. Here’s some of my piece:

At the winter solstice the sun is a layabout, so late to get rolling that it misses most of the rush hour. It hangs low in the sky, lurking behind bare trees. Only for a few hours at midday is the sun high enough to survey the world it supposedly warms. Then it retreats below the treetops, declares that it’s beer-thirty and calls it a day.

This winter solstice is a single moment in time, marking the moment when it is officially safe to utter the phrase “obliquity of the ecliptic.” It occurred at 12:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday.

The weather changed right on schedule. Wednesday’s ocean of gloom had drained away by Thursday. The first day of astronomical winter was unreasonably warm, dawning with a clear sky etched horizon to horizon in vapor trails. It looked like an air-route map in the back of an inflight magazine.

We will emerge from the solar recession rather slowly — not until Jan. 25 will we have a full 10 hours of sunlight in Washington. Winter is not our best season. This part of the world has too much sleet, freezing rain, “wintry mix.” But there will be fine days, too, when frozen ground greets legitimate snow. It is a striking season visually, with the landscape starker, the architecture more vivid. The vegetation vanishes and the surface reveals its secrets, the old chimneys and foundations. The clear night sky explodes in big, young, blue stars.

The Earth is a giant clock moving through space. The spring inside was wound up billions of years ago. The planet spins, and simultaneously falls around a star. It is an old star, stuck in its ways, fortuitously dull, and residing in a galactic cul-de-sac where not much happens. That’s a desirable location in a universe where things explode, collide, collapse into black holes, etc.

The galaxy itself moves, as does the whole galactic neighborhood – everything going somewhere. The entire universe is expanding. Change is a cosmic imperative. The clock can’t stop.

The problem with the Earth-clock is that it’s analog, not digital. This is a conundrum for an increasingly technological, wired civilization. Time can be measured very precisely with atomic clocks. A second is defined internationally as 9,192,631,770 oscillations of a cesium atom. Whereas the Earth, spinning its way through space, seems kind of old-fashioned and Pontiac-like by comparison.

And it is wobblier than you think. Listen to Brian Luzum, astronomer at the U.S. Naval Observatory and head of the Earth Orientation Department.

“There are five components that we measure,” he says. “There are two polar-motion components, there is one earth-rotation component, and then there are two precession-nutation components.”

Precession mutation?

“Nutation. ‘N.’ Nancy.”... [etc.]

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."


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