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.

Lisa del Giocondo

Lisa by Raphael
Raphael’s drawing (c. 1505) “Portrait of  Woman”, after Leonardo; today in the Louvre along with his painting

June 15 is the birthday of Lisa del Giocondo, born Lisa Gherardini in Florence in 1479.

Like many girls, she was married by 15. She was lucky to marry a wealthy silk merchant since she didn’t have a rich dowry. He was nearly twice her age, but the alternative was likely that she would been sent to a convent.

It was her young beauty that attracted Francesco del Giocondo. The marriage arrangement gave him a portion of her father’s farmland. By today’s standards, the marriage seems odd but it appears to have been a happy married life.

Around 1503, Francesco commissioned a local artist named Leonardo da Vinci to paint his wife’s portrait. It may have been to mark their purchase of a home or to commemorate the birth of their second son.

Usually, Leonardo painted aristocrats on commissions but he was between jobs at that time and probably thought Francesco’s political connections might get him bigger commissions.

La Gioconda (La Joconde), as the painting is also known, is painted in oil on a wood (poplar) panel. He chose a closer view of the subject than usual for a portrait of this type. It seems normal to us now but was rather revolutionary. His choice had an immediate influence on other artists of the region.

Leonardo was easily distracted in his many projects and when he received a more lucrative commission to paint The Battle of Anghiari, he set aside Lisa’s portrait. The battle painting was a joint project with Michelangelo to decorate the Palazzo Vecchio.

He took the unfinished Lisa portrait with him when he left Florence. It was never delivered to Francesco and Lisa. We don’t know if he had been paid for it. He eventually finished the portrait and made its way into the court of the French King Francis I.

DaVinci MonaLisa1b.jpg
Comparison to the drawing “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk” which is often identified as Leonardo’s self-portrait.

One of the many theories about the painting is that it is more of a self-portrait or at least he used himself as a model. The theory has been supported by digital analysis of the facial features of the woman in the painting and those of what is thought to be a Leonardo self-portrait. But notes scribbled into the margins of a book by its owner in October 1503 say that Leonardo is working “on the head of Lisa del Giocondo.”

We don’t know very much about Lisa del Giocondo because women’s lives were rarely recorded in the early 16th century except for their births, marriages, and deaths, and the baptisms of their children.

Dianne Hales’ Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered points out that “Lisa’s life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence, decades of war, rebellion, invasion, siege, and conquest — and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen.”

The painting was kept at the Palace of Fontainebleau until Louis XIV moved it to the Palace of Versailles, where it remained until the French Revolution. After the French Revolution, the painting was moved to the Louvre. It did spend a brief period in the bedroom of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace.

The painting was not really well known outside the art world. In the 1860s, French intelligentsia began to speak and write about it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting, but it really didn’t become well known among the general public until 1911. That summer, the painting was stolen from the Louvre.

After some initial confusion about the painting’s whereabouts, it was confirmed that it had been stolen. Oddly, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire came under suspicion. He was arrested and imprisoned and he implicated his friend Pablo Picasso. Picasso was questioned but both men were exonerated when a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught. He rather easily had carried out the theft by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet, and walking out with the painting hidden under his coat after the museum had closed.

Lisa is visited by 6 million people a year who visit it at the Louvre. How would the subject and its painter feel about it being inside a temperature and humidity-controlled box of bulletproof glass? Probably very surprised. Possibly, quite honored that it was still of interest after 500 years and that people were so interested in preserving

MonaLisaShield.jpgMona Lisa behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre Museum CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

We believe that Lisa died in 1532. She is thought to have been buried at the convent of Sant’Orsola in Florence Though she was not a nun, her daughter Marietta was a nun there.

That Dialogue on Opposing World Systems

Galileo, Copernicus
Galileo and Copernicus    (Gilgub/Flickr)

The title “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” certainly sounds like a heavy topic. It was heavy in 1632 when Galileo published it. The two systems were the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of cosmology. It is less controversial and easier to understand today.

Ptolemy, following the tradition of Aristotle, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything — Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — revolved around it.

Copernicus, on the other hand, posited that the Sun is the center of the universe, and though we seem to be standing still, we are in fact hurtling through space as we circle the star.

I used to have a quotation in my middle school classroom for my students that said “You are not the center of the universe” – Copernicus. Nicholas didn’t say exactly that quote, and he wasn’t specifically referencing my young teen students, but it was a good point-of-departure quote for discussion.

Galileo had spoken with Pope Urban VIII earlier and discussed his tide theory as proof that the Earth moved through space – not that the Sun was the center of the universe. The Pope granted him permission to write “Dialogue on the Tides” but that the Copernican theory should be treated as hypothetical in the book. Wisely, Galileo wrote the book as a series of discussions between two philosophers. One believed in Copernicus, one believed in Ptolemy, and a neutral but well-educated layman served as a moderator. That got it past the Catholic censors.

But Galileo was Copernican all the way and the popular book did not please Pope Urban VIII who had Galileo tried by the Inquisition. They ruled that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and too close to endorsing Copernican theory and the book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo was ordered to recant and recite weekly psalms of penitence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime.

The Dialogue on Opposing World Systems remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. Change is slow in religion – but not in science.

Further Reading

The Essential Galileo

Don’t Acquire a Crab in a Bucket Mentality

If you catch one crab and put it in a bucket, it will keep trying to crawl out of the bucket. If there are several crabs in the bucket, their behavior changes. You can leave a bunch of crabs in a bucket unattended and they won’t escape. Any crab that tries to escape will be dragged back down by the others.

This sounds counterintuitive and certainly self-sabotaging. The behavior is known as crab mentality.

Shore crabs in a bucket

Why does this crabs in a bucket mentality exist? It is thought that since the bucket is not the crabs’ natural environment, they are responding as they would in shallow ocean pools and on slippery rocks where they cling to each other in order to survive waves and tides and not be washed out to sea.

So, while any one of the crabs could escape the bucket, the others will undermine its efforts as a survival response, but thereby ensure the group’s collective demise.

The reason this odd behavior has been studied and written about is often that it is compared to human behavior. It’s not that humans end up in buckets but there are instances when members of a group attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others. In that case, it is not a survival instinct but envy, resentment, spite, conspiracy, or competitive feelings that makes the group keep the one down.

I find the crab behavior interesting. I find the human version annoying.

Who Is Brood X and Why Are They Saying These Terrible Things About Them?

Talk about social distancing. These guys have been doing it for 17 years and literally went underground. Now – not in response to the COVID19 vaccinations or the lifting of some restrictions – they are coming out into the world. Some people seem fearful of their return. After all, there are billions of them. They are primarily in the northeastern United States and they won’t be quiet about returning. They have been around for millions of years. Native Americans knew them.

They are periodical cicadas of the genus Magicicada. They are easy to spot with their bright red eyes and bulky bodies. They emerge every 17 years (some species do it in 13) and for a month they go through fever pitch mating. The males are the noisy ones and will create a shrill, buzzing chorus.

But who is this Brood X that is in the news around here? Brood X (the X is for ten) is one of the largest of the 17-year cicada broods. They are emerging now in parts of 15 Eastern states. Brood X was first reported in 1715 in Philadelphia.

May 2004 Brood X Cicadas
Two Brood X cicadas in 2004 (Photo: Tracy Lee – Flickr)

They look a little creepy and some people freak out about any insects, especially ones that fly near them. But we don’t have much to fear from Brood X. They don’t bite, sting, carry diseases, or eat your plants. They’re not poisonous, so don’t freak out if your dog or cat grabs one. Actually, in other parts of the world people eat them. (I have read that they taste like canned asparagus.)

They are a phenomenon.

The misinformed Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony saw them in 1634 and thought they were the locusts of Biblical plagues. They are considered beneficial. They aerate the ground, provide food for birds and mammals, and after they die they contribute nutrients to the soil.

If you say, “I saw cicadas in my yard last year,” you’re correct, but you didn’t see periodical cicadas. You saw annual cicadas, which appear later in the summer.

13 or 17 years seems like an awfully long time to be in hiding but one theory is that as a natural defense mechanism it’s effective since predators cannot rely on or anticipate them as a food source. Like other species, their enormous numbers ensure that there will be enough survivors from predators to produce the next generation.

After hatching, immature cicadas (nymphs) spend 17 or 13 years underground. They feed on tree roots (probably not causing any serious damage) and will emerge in May and transform into adult cicadas.

The Brood X cicadas that are emerging this month hatched from eggs that were laid in tree branches back in the summer of 2004.

The nymphs crawl down the trees and burrow deep into the ground. and have been there ever since, sucking fluid from tree roots and growing steadily.

When they emerge is based on soil temperature. A few hot days aren’t their signal to emerge. It takes a week or more of warm weather to warm the soil deep down. These cicadas are not fooled, like humans, by a few warm days that get them setting out plants in late April or early May that get zapped by a late frost or even snow.

adult emerges
adult emerges from exoskeleton

The nymphs emerge from the ground and usually head for the nearest tree. That is where they will shed their exoskeletons which you have probably found. I have also found them on fence posts and even on the outside walls of my house.

All that noise is males singing by flexing their drum-like organs on either side of the abdomen (tymbals).  After mating, the females slit tender tree branches and deposit their eggs. If you have young trees you want to protect, don’t use pesticides which will be ineffective. You can loosely wrap the branches with cheesecloth to keep the female from laying her eggs.

The adults die soon after mating. In a few weeks, the new brood will head down the tree and burrow into the soil. We won’t see them until 2038.

cicadasafari.org – has an app to see where cicadas have been spotted near you and you can report ones you see. Be a citizen scientist! Go on safari with kids.
Periodical Cicadas: The Brood X Edition (book)
Cecily Cicada – a book for kids, especially good if they are bug fearful.

My post’s title is an allusion to an obscure 1971 film, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? which was directed by Ulu Grosbard and stars Dustin Hoffman.

The Case of the Tomato

This past week I got all my tomato plants into the ground along with other warm-weather vegetables. Notice that I said vegetables. Not to court controversy, but it wasn’t until May 1893 that the Supreme Court ruled that the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit. The Supreme Court? Really? That seems so innocent compared to today’s Supreme Court controversies and decisions.

Botanically, a tomato is a fruit but I never considered it anything but a vegetable. Wikipedia calls it the “edible berry” of the tomato plant!

I don’t know that I have ever argued the point with someone. I have argued that tomato sauce is not gravy even if it contains the juice of meats, but that would be another case for the court or dining room table.

The case – Nix v. Hedden- was filed by John Nix and several other tomato importers against Edward Hedden, the Collector of Customs at the Port of New York. A 10-year-old piece of legislation called the Tariff Act of 1883 ruled that a 10 percent tax had to be paid on all imported vegetables and the case worked its way up to the Supreme Court.

They seem to have relied quite a bit on Webster’s Dictionary definitions on both sides. The dictionary definition of “fruit” – the structure that grows from the flower of the plant and holds the seeds –  seems to favor a tomato as a fruit.

Dictionary definitions for “eggplant,” “squash,” “pepper,” and “cucumber” all are fruits in the botanical sense but are widely considered vegetables.

On the other side of the garden, the counsel for the plaintiff read the definitions of “potato,” “turnip,” “parsnip,” “cauliflower,” “cabbage,” and “carrot.” None of them are botanical fruits but they are considered vegetables.

Justice Gray gave the final opinion of the court “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert.”

The controversy – at least legally – still gets some action. Nix v. Hedden was cited in a 1990 Second Circuit Court of Appeals case about a delay in a tomato shipment. The judge wrote that “In common parlance tomatoes are vegetables, as the Supreme Court observed long ago, see Nix v. Hedden, although botanically speaking they are actually a fruit. Regardless of classification, people have been enjoying tomatoes for centuries, even Mr. Pickwick, as Dickens relates, ate his chops in ‘tomata’ sauce.”

Ask a botanist about  “vegetables” and they will say that the word has no actual scientific or botanical definition. It is a culinary term.

Still, Arkansas, avoiding controversy, designated the Vine Ripe Pink Tomato as their official state fruit and vegetable in 1987.

tomato In my New Jersey, the state fruit is the Northern highbush blueberry, but the state vegetable is our beloved Jersey tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum). There hasn’t been a summer of my life that I didn’t have fresh tomatoes from my backyard in this Garden State. There is nothing quite like picking a tomato and bringing it inside to slice and eat immediately. Cherry tomatoes are often picked and eaten right in the garden.

Tomatoes were not always popular in the United States.

“Tomatoes are the mere fungus of an offensive plant, which one cannot touch without an immediate application of soap and water with an infusion of eau de cologne … deliver us, O ye caterers of luxuries, ye gods and goddesses of the science of cookery! deliver us from tomatoes!”  – Boston Courier, 1845