Happy Vernal Equinox

I'm going to get to the old domes at PSU, but I have to cover this topic today -- two very different articles having to do with the Sun appeared in PA newspapers this week, and I thought it would be fun to mention them here.

First off, today was the vernal equinox. Most people associate this with the best day to balance eggs on end, but I'll leave fellow UVa astronomy alum Phil Plait to debunk this at Bad Astronomy. I have been given the unofficial duty of responding to most astronomical inquiries at Penn State, and recently, reporter Tom Avril from the Philadelphia Inquirer called me to talk about the equinox. We talked for about an hour, and we discussed another misconception about the equinox. The popular lore is that on the two equinoxes the length of daylight and nighttime are exactly equal, at 12 hours each. It turns out this isn't true; today in State College, we had about 12 hours 8.5 minutes of daylight. Read Tom's article in the Inquirer to find out why daylight was longer than nighttime, even though it is the equinox. It's funny to see about an hour worth of discussion condensed into what, 50 words(?), but still, as Ronak points out, at least for one day there was more of a balance between astronomy & astrology in one of the biggest PA newspapers.

Anyway, more fun comes from this letter to the editor in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette. This was clipped and sent to me by an older gentleman who lives in that area, and he asked me to comment. I had fun with this. I have no idea how long the link at the Sun-Gazette will stay alive, so let me give a brief quote of the good bit:

Using extremely complicated mathematical formulas, which are too complicated to explain, I have determined that the earth is now tipped 35 degrees toward the sun, instead of 23.5 degrees, which it was tipped.

The rest of his letter details how to build a duplicate of his measuring device that he used to make this startling discovery. I have no idea the intent of the letter writer, but I really wonder if it is a mischievous science teacher trying to get everyone to go outside and observe the Sun and try to prove him wrong. I don't know why I find this so funny, but I really hope it is obvious to more than me that this letter should have been laughed at by the editors. Because of the Earth's tilt of 23.5 degrees, during the recently ended Northern hemisphere winter, anyone above 66.5 degrees north latitude experienced six months of night and didn't see the Sun until today. If the Earth had really slipped by 11.5 more degrees, suddenly, everyone living north of 55 degrees latitude would have been plunged into days of all darkness with no daylight. This includes just about everyone in Alaska, Sweden, Finland, and Greenland. Just curious -- think they might have noticed?


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