Advice From a Sundial

The sundial, is the earliest type of timekeeping device, which indicates the time of day by the position of the shadow of some object exposed to the sun’s rays. As the day progresses, the sun moves across the sky, causing the shadow of the object to move and indicating the passage of time. The earliest sundials were inscribed with inscriptions and aphorisms. Some were practical, some philosophical and a few are just strange.

In 1737, a book about how to build a sundial included a selection of three hundred mottos that might be used on sundials. Several books were ultimately published, among them Alfred H. Hyatt’s 1903 A Book of Sundial Mottoes. It’s a small gift-type book, geared toward gardeners as sundials had by then become part of English country garden design. Since a sundial is about Time many of the mottoes were about our use of time.

“This Dial Says Die”
“Either Learn or Go”
“Do Today’s Work Today”
“Learn to Value Your Time”
“The Time Thou Killest Will in Time Kill Thee”
“Opportunity has Locks in Front and is Bald Behind” (This odd one has been explained as alluding to a longer proverb – “Opportunity has hair in front, behind she is bald; if you seize her by the forelock, you may hold her, but, if suffered to escape, not Jupiter himself can catch her again.”) “Remove Not the Ancient Landmark which Thy Father Hath Set Up.”
“Look Upon Me. Though Silent, I Speak. For the Happy and the Sad, I Mark the House Alike. I Warn as I Move. I Steal Upon You. I Wait for None.”
“Begone About Your Business.”
“I mark time from morning ’til moonlight””


Not Quite Equal Night

The March equinox marks the sun’s crossing above the Earth’s equator, moving from south to north. It is also called the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere as it marks the beginning of spring and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. The March 20, 2023 equinox officially arrives tomorrow at 21:24 UTC. That’s 5:24 p.m. in Paradelle.

Equi + nox in Latin means equal + night and you may have been taught that night and day on the equinox are exactly 12 hours long. That is not entirely accurate. The day is just a bit longer than the night on an equinox.

If we defined sunrise and sunset as the moment when the geometric center of the Sun passes the horizon, then the day and night would be exactly 12 hours long. But we don’t. Sunrise and Sunset are defined as the exact moment the upper edge of the Sun’s disk touches the eastern and the western horizon, respectively. It takes perhaps a few minutes for the Sun to fully set and that makes the day just a bit longer than the night on the equinoxes. Plus, I don’t live near the Atlantic Ocean or have a clear view of the eastern horizon so the Sun “rises” for me later by the time it goes above the First Watchung Mountain.

Do you ever take note of how the arc of the Sun moves in the sky?

I have noticed it since I was a boy based on which windows in the house it appeared in the morning or at sunset. Birds and butterflies notice the change in daylight. Like the Sun, they are moving northward along the Sun’s path. There are earlier sunrises, later sunsets, sprouting plants, and more bird and animal activity this month. The chipmunks have not started scurrying around my backyard yet, but they will soon.

Of course, the Sun isn’t moving at all. This illusion is caused by Earth’s tilt on its axis and constant motion in orbit. 

Even if day and night aren’t exactly equal tomorrow, there is a day when they will be. That day is called equilux (equal+light). The date depends on your latitude and can occur several days to weeks before or after an equinox. For me, it was on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.

Here in Paradelle, Daylight Saving Time started on March 12 and that pushed the times for sunrise and sunset ahead an hour. Silly humans.

Not Measuring the Days, Weeks, Months and Years

This year I got one of those birthday cards that has a little almanac of things that happened the year you were born. It’s a silly thing to read since I don’t recall any of those things. R.E.M. (not the band) was discovered. That totally went past me in my crib. The U.S. and North Korea signed an armistice ending the Korean War. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain was crowned. I was much more interested in eating, sleeping, and pooping.

This card also told me that on that day “You have been on the planet for 25,185 days.” That is a bit overwhelming. That’s a lot of wake-ups and I don’t feel like I have accomplished enough.

I converted that to 3,588 weeks but it still sounds like I must have wasted a lot of weeks doing nothing much. For example, I basically did no writing at all during the first 260 weeks. That’s enough time to write a novel.

But I like that it was 828 months. That seems a more reasonable number. Of course, in years it is an even smaller number, but I have never been very concerned with the years. At times, I have even told someone my age in the wrong number of years (though it’s an error factor of + or – one).

Even better is thinking that I have made it through 276 seasons. Like the planet, I have tilted a bit every year. The Sun keeps seeming to move even though I know it is not really moving at all. As I started writing this, it was shining through the patio doors right on my lap. The Sun will be setting when this post is sent out into the universe. I’ll be outside cleaning up the last of the garden and turning the soil with some compost and leaves and thinking about next spring. That is 108 days away or only 15 more weeks – and just one season away.

A very nice engraving showing the Earth’s progression round the sun source

A New Season Falls into Place

September is the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar, but the month’s name is derived from septem, Latin for “seven,” which was its position in the early Roman calendar.

September is the month of the Autumnal Equinox which occurs on the 22nd at 9:03 PM. Is it always on September 22nd? In the Northern Hemisphere, the autumnal equinox falls on September 22 or 23. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinox occurs on March 20 or 21.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the equinox is when the Sun crosses the celestial equator going south. In the Southern Hemisphere, the equinox is when the Sun moves north across the celestial equator.

Today we move into autumn, also known as fall in North American English. Which word do you tend to use? The origin of “autumn” and “fall” for the season is interesting. Did you know that at one time (and still in some places) the season is called “Harvest?”

This transitional period from summer to winter is when (unless you’re in the tropics) daylight becomes noticeably shorter and the temperature cools considerably. This is best known as the time when the leaves of deciduous trees change colors as they prepare to shed. Early predictions for Paradelle here in the northeast is that a lack of rain this summer will mean a less-than-spectacular color foliage show.

Temperatures now seem to switch between summer heat and winter chills, but that is true only in middle and high latitudes. In equatorial regions, temperatures generally vary little during the year, and in polar regions, autumn is very short.

Looking at the Sun


It has been a very hot week across the U.S.  To launch summer, the U.S. Postal Service issued a set of stamps with NASA views of the Sun from their Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) which was a spacecraft launched in 2010. It has been collecting science data and its two imaging instruments provide complementary views of the Sun. (If you’re wondering about the colors shown here,  see the video at the bottom.)

More than a decade of SDO observations has provided hundreds of millions of images of our neighboring star as it orbits Earth.

The stamps feature 10 images from SDO and most of these images are in extreme ultraviolet light, which is invisible to human eyes.

Here are a few images in motion that are used on the stamps.

The bright flash on the Sun’s upper right is a powerful solar flare. Solar flares are bursts of light and energy that can disturb the part of Earth’s atmosphere where GPS and radio signals travel.

This golden view of the “active Sun” highlights the many active regions that are areas of intense and complex magnetic fields on the Sun – linked to sunspots – that are prone to erupting with solar flares or explosions of material called coronal mass ejections.

This cool-toned image shows a dark area capping the northern polar region of the Sun. This is a coronal hole, a magnetically open area on the Sun from which high-speed solar wind escapes into space. Such high-speed solar wind streams can spark magnificent auroral displays on Earth when they collide with our planet’s magnetic field.

Stick some Sun on your mail this summer.

We Are Tilted at 23.5 Degrees

solstice Stonehenge
A solstice at Stonehenge

Summer solstice 2021 in Northern Hemisphere arrives today. In the Eastern time zone, it arrives precisely at 11:31 PM. That seems odd to me. It thought it usually seems to occur early morning or during the day, so summer coming in darkness feels odd. But it still arrives.

Though the solstice is the first official day of summer, many of us in this hemisphere have been feeling like it has been summer for a few weeks. Flowers are blooming. I have been to the Atlantic Ocean and sat on a beach along the Jersey shore, as I have every summer of my life.

In the northern part of the world going back to much older times, the solstice was celebrated as midsummer. Some people believed that some plants had magical properties today. Fairies, ghosts, and spirits were thought to be especially active today. Mr. Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays off many of those beliefs which were not considered true in his time. But those things were certainly known to his audience and there were certainly people then (and now) that weren’t so sure it was all just a “fairy tale.”

In ancient China, the summer solstice was observed by a ceremony to celebrate the Earth, femininity, and the “yin” forces.

The Druidic name for the Summer Solstice is Alban Hefin, which means ‘The Light of the Shore” or ‘Light of Summer.” In pre-Christian Ireland and England, the movements of the sun formed the calendar and were based around the high-, mid- and low- points of the sun. Equinoxes and solstices were measured and celebrated at monuments around the island. Stonehenge is the most famous place but there were others throughout the land.

Of course, this is the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere and that idea never ceases to amaze me even though I know it is all about the Earth being tilted on its axis. It is not a huge tilt – 23.5 degrees – but that is what makes the difference between winter and summer.

Now, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day. For me in Paradelle and others in the north, this will be the longest day(light) of the year and tonight will be the shortest night.

Celestial things don’t always seem logical. As a child, I would have said that summer meant we were closer to the Sun. Wrong. We are about 3 million miles farther away than we are in winter.

These days Midsummer’s Eve is still celebrated sometime between June 21 and June 24, especially in Scandinavia, Latvia, and other locations in Northern Europe. I am told it is right behind Christmas on the holiday list.

If I was feeling my ancestors from Northern Europe more strongly today I might have made this weekend more of a holiday and danced around maypoles and burned straw witches in a bonfire. I did bring some fresh flowers into the house and I could light up the fire pit. It’s no Stonehenge but then again it is 2021.