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Category: Science

Repeat Posting: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

Repeat Posting: Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

This piece initially appeared a year ago, on June 21, 2017, the Summer Solstice. Today it is once more the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, and the actual solstice officially took place at 6:07 a.m. EDT/10:07 UTC this morning. The time and other references and weather comments in the piece are as they were last year, when the post first appeared. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here.

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

Seeing the Future Through a Hole in the Clouds

When SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, it confirmed the company’s commitment to establishing an ever-larger presence in space. And SpaceX is doing so as a private enterprise, a leader in an industry only vaguely foreseen just a few decades ago, at the time I was a science writer covering the nation’s space program on a daily basis.

As it lifted off, the Falcon Heavy became the world’s currently most powerful launch vehicle, capable of boosting 141,000 pounds (64 metric tons) into low earth orbit (LEO). The imagery of the giant rocket rising into the sky from the same pad where the moon rockets of the Apollo program took a dozen humans to the surface of the moon wasn’t lost on the tens of thousands of onlookers at Cape Canaveral. Nor was it lost on SpaceX founder and chief Elon Musk, who sent his personal red Tesla roadster – a product of another of his companies – with a mannequin at the wheel that Musk named Starman – after the David Bowie song – into deep space orbit around the sun.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy seemed designed to give birth to a renewed vision of space exploration, a vision that had gone off the rails from the fading days of the Space Shuttle program and which reached its nadir in June 2010. That’s when then-NASA Administrator Charles Bolden announced that the space agency’s primary mission was outreach to the Muslim world. Bolden said he had been charged with three missions by President Obama, this being the foremost one, and none of which had anything to do with space exploration. While the White House later insisted Bolden misspoke and that such outreach was not part of NASA’s mission, all indications were that there was little commitment to setting a new course for America’s drifting space program.

It was a different vision on Aug. 30, 1983, nearly 35 years ago, when the Space Shuttle Challenger left that same Pad 39A at 2:32 in the morning. The mission, officially named STS-8, just the eighth Space Shuttle mission, was the first night launch of the Shuttle. It also carried the first American black astronaut to fly in space, Guion “Guy” Bluford. But the element that often is omitted from accounts of that mission was the fact that its launch nearly was scrubbed due to the weather.

The night of Aug. 29-30 at Kennedy Space Center was marked with thunderstorms. Applying normal parameters, the launch almost certainly would have been postponed given the danger posed by a lightning strike on the vehicle or the conductive contrails of its solid rocket boosters. As I sat at my desk in the KSC Press Center that night, I had already completed the draft of my story stating that the launch had been scrubbed due to weather. I was about to file my story when a hole opened in the clouds over Pad 39A, the launch window was extended and the countdown resumed, and Challenger raced into space through that hole, lighting up the Cape like it was day and illuminating the night sky from Havana to Hatteras.

There was talk at that time, in the early years of the Shuttle program, whether the vehicle would ever be run like an airline, keeping to a schedule of frequent launches and dropping costs. I saw the willingness of flight controllers to bend the rules and launch through the hole in the clouds that stormy August night as a major step in that direction, and I said as much in the piece I finally filed. In some ways, my prediction was prescient, and Tuesday’s launch of the Falcon Heavy was the logical extension of what I saw through that hole in the nighttime clouds.

There were other things that I didn’t see that night, though. I failed to make allowance for things like political pressure, human miscalculation, and the arrogance of managers not willing to admit when they are wrong. In some cases – like launching Challenger in sub-freezing temperatures that clearly exceeded launch parameters on Jan. 28. 1986, or failing to heed the warnings of flight engineers regarding penetration of Columbia’s heat-protective tiles prior to the orbiter’s reentry on Feb. 1, 2003 – dead wrong.

The Challenger and Columbia disasters, like the fatal Apollo 1 test module fire of Jan. 27, 1967, remind us that space exploration is not without its risks, nor without its losses, including and especially human losses. At least until this point, space travel is not analogous to contemporary airline flight. I accuse myself of missing that key point in my STS-8 prognostication, but not of missing the point of where things were headed. And now, with private space enterprises, like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, United Launch Alliance, and others developing new vehicles, taking over more of the functions formerly unique to NASA, and putting private capital at risk, a new chapter is being written in America’s venture into space.

Make no mistake. America still has a long way to go before it reestablishes its place in space. It has always struck me as tragically sad that there are people alive on earth today who were born after the time when men walked on the moon. A dream humans held for thousands of years had come and gone, and now we are back looking into the heavens and dreaming of a return to the moon and beyond. And as impressive as Tuesday’s launch was, to put things in perspective, in 2018 the Falcon Heavy generated just half the lift of NASA’s Saturn V lunar rocket, first launched from the same Pad 39A on Nov, 7, 1967, half a century earlier. The Saturn V could lift 120 metric tons to LEO, a launch capability that has yet to be matched. So powerful was the Saturn V that its sound waves broke windows in Titusville, 10 miles away.

But the Falcon Heavy is not the end of SpaceX’s design train, and the company’s Big Falcon Rocket or BFR – the mundane name is actually Musk’s play on words, with the “F” a stand-in for another less polite word – will be a monster affair capable of lifting 136 metric tons to LEO. Musk sees the BFR as the rocket that will take colonists to Mars, or carry up to 100 paying passengers into space. Meanwhile, the company has been flying unmanned missions for years, and it expects to bring astronauts to the International Space Station aboard its smaller Falcon 9 rocket paired with its Dragon space capsule later this year.

The TSA isn’t going to be setting up security checkpoints at KSC any time soon, but an era when space travel becomes accessible to more and more people is increasingly easy to envisage, and in large part it’s due to the vision and perseverance of private space entrepreneurs. It’s an era that, while it will come a bit later than I saw at the time, there was a small glimpse of through a hole in the clouds one stormy night in 1983.

 

Photo of STS-8 launch by NASA

From Water to Water

From Water to Water

. . . for water thou art, and unto water shalt thou return.”

Taking a little poetic license here with the wording of Genesis 3:19 to illustrate the intrinsic nature of hydrogen technology.

We’ll get to how that works, but first a little background, about me, and about hydrogen and its use in electricity-producing devices known as fuel cells.

I covered the space program as a science writer back in the 1980s, including daily interaction with NASA’s Space Shuttle program. That’s when I first started getting really interested in hydrogen as a potential fuel source for the future, including replacing fossil fuels for use in our cars, trucks, buses, and possibly even aircraft. At the time, I considered various possible fuel sources, and the one that made the greatest sense to me was hydrogen, the most abundant element in the Universe. Not to burn hydrogen as we burn gasoline or diesel, or as the Space Shuttle burned it for lift-off, but rather as a source to produce electrical energy through a fuel cell that would then drive electric motors.

NASA has been putting fuel cells aboard spacecraft since the early 1960s, and they are what generate electricity aboard many spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle when it was operational. Fuel cell technology is actually a very old one, the principle first demonstrated in 1801 – yes, 1801, that’s not a typo – by Humphry Davy. Sir William Grove, who came to be known as the “Father of the Fuel Cell,” then invented the first fuel cell, which he called an “electric battery,” in 1839. Two researchers, Charles Langer and Ludwig Mond, were the ones, in 1889, to coin the term “fuel cell,” as they attempted to produce a device that would convert coal or carbon to electricity. What is considered the first successful fuel cell, using hydrogen and oxygen with alkaline electrolytes and nickel electrodes, was developed by Francis Bacon in 1932.

It wasn’t until 1959 that Bacon was able to produce the first practical fuel cell, one that could be put to use driving equipment. Also during the 1950s, General Electric invented the proton-exchange membrane fuel cell, and in the subsequent decade NASA started putting fuel cells aboard spacecraft. The technology since then has continued to develop, evolve, and gain in efficiency, which puts us where we are today.

My conclusion 30 years ago that hydrogen, used to generate electricity through fuel cells, would be the wave of future automotive technology was not the first bit of technical or scientific prognostication I had come up with. Ever since I was a kid I saw concept after concept that I first postulated subsequently adopted by manufacturers and appear on cars as well as on ships. It’s taken nearly three decades, and it probably will take another decade to be fully realized, but I finally am seeing my conclusion about hydrogen and fuel cells coming into reality. I don’t suppose I am the only one who saw this development, but I feel increasingly vindicated that it was an accurate prediction.

Now, getting back to the water-to-water thing. If you remember anything about your early schooling, beyond perhaps your first teacher’s name or the name of your best friend, it is the formula for water: H2O. The “O,” of course, stands for oxygen, the third most abundant element in the Universe. And the “H” stands for hydrogen. Two atoms of hydrogen, combined with one atom of oxygen, give us that liquid, water, essential to life as we know it.

Now here’s the really neat thing about hydrogen. It can be produced by separating it from oxygen in water, yielding both key elements to produce energy in a fuel cell – hydrogen and oxygen – and then when they are rejoined at the end of the process, voila, you get back water, and only water. It starts as water and ends as water. Water-to-water. Neat, huh?

Compared with a standard internal combustion engine burning gasoline or diesel, which produces poisonous carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and other nasty stuff, it’s kind of a no-brainer. But what about pure electric cars with motors powered by batteries, you ask? Aren’t they even cleaner, producing no pollution? Well, that’s only if you look at the motors themselves. But where does the electricity needed to charge the batteries to drive the motors come from? Right. Power plants which, depending on the plant, might burn fuel oil, coal, nuclear fuel, or natural gas (the latter perhaps being the cleanest source of mass power production, save for hydroelectric plants which have their own issues associated with them).

Former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly once waxed eloquent about how all the nation’s cars should be electric and how much cleaner that would make the environment. I pointed out to him something called the Law of Conservation of Energy, which means it would take the same amount of energy to move all those cars regardless the source of the energy, and if the source of the electricity was central power plants, as it would be, there still would be a significant amount of pollution associated with all those electric cars. Alas, O’Reilly, clearly not a physicist, chose to ignore my message.

There are other problems with electric vehicles, too, including significant environmental issues with both the manufacture of the big batteries used in cars – building an electric car produces more greenhouse gases than does building a conventional car – and their disposal when they’ve reached the end of their useful life. And while the best pure-electric vehicle today might go over 300 miles on a charge, most still are limited to a range of 100 – 200 miles. Not very far, especially when it can then take anywhere from 30 minutes for a quick charge up to around 80 percent of battery capacity to as long as 12 hours to re-charge the batteries. If you’re not in much of a hurry or not going very far, an electric car might meet your need. Otherwise, not so much.

There is another huge problem with electric cars that was highlighted in recent months by the three major hurricanes to hit U.S. shores this year: Harvey, Irma, and Maria. When power is knocked out for large swaths of territory for hours, days, weeks, and, in some cases, months, an electric vehicle becomes a very large paper weight. Lacking a source of power to recharge its batteries, an electric vehicle isn’t going anywhere once its batteries are depleted. While there usually are conventional fuel shortages around big storms, people can fill their tanks ahead of time and often there are limited sources for gasoline and diesel available before, during, and after big storms. A conventionally powered vehicle might keep going while an electric one might not.

Looking now at hydrogen cars, the cars being produced and sold that are called “hydrogen-powered” actually employ fuel cells to drive the electric motors that drive the cars. While lagging far behind electric and hybrid-electric cars in terms of sheer numbers on the roads, the biggest problem retarding their more widespread use is a chicken-and-egg conundrum centered around the availability of hydrogen fuel stations. With low numbers of hydrogen vehicles there is low incentive to provide hydrogen fuel stations, and the low number of hydrogen fuel stations deters more widespread marketing and purchasing of hydrogen vehicles. But there might be changes on the way as, I would argue, there should be.

It’s estimated that by the end of this year there will be just 50 hydrogen filling stations in the U.S., most of them in California. There also are fleet stations and those used for research vehicles, but there is a huge gap in the number of places where one can fill up a hydrogen vehicle. Consider, however, that it only takes 3 – 5 minutes to refuel a hydrogen car, comparable to filling up a gasoline or diesel car, versus the hours needed to charge an electric vehicle, and the fact that hydrogen cars have ranges in excess of 300 miles and acceleration often equivalent to a conventional car.

Besides the paucity of places to fill up, the other problem with hydrogen is how to generate it in clean and economical ways. While it’s the most abundant element, it loves to join with oxygen to make water and other atoms to form other substances, and breaking it free to run it through a fuel cell is both a technical and an economic challenge. While there is enough oxygen in the air to use in a fuel cell, it’s a more difficult proposition with hydrogen.

There are all sorts of ways used to generate hydrogen, ranging from throwing iron filings into vats of sulfuric acid, to cracking hydrocarbon molecules in natural gas to, a more recent proposal, using geothermal heat at great ocean depths to generate large quantities of hydrogen. While the first method produces toxic waste, the second produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and the third is still under development, there is a simple, tried-and-true method, alluded to at the outset of this piece, that starts and ends with water.

That method uses electrolysis to separate water into its constituent atoms, and then after passing them through a fuel cell, reunites them as water at the end of the process. In fact, it’s relatively simple to construct a hydrogen generator of this sort – I’ve done it myself with readily available materials costing somewhere around $100 – and there are commercially available hydrogen generators for prices equivalent, or less, than making one’s own, and there even is a portable hydrogen reactor and fuel cell available for $105.99.

The basic problem with generating hydrogen through electrolysis is that it uses electricity to produce the hydrogen to be used in a fuel cell to, you guessed it, make electricity. But it’s not hard to envisage using solar or wind energy to provide the electricity used in the electrolysis. In fact, I think it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to picture each household with a hydrogen vehicle generating its own hydrogen. And maybe it’s a bit of a stretch today, but why can’t we see each hydrogen vehicle with its own on-board hydrogen generator, powered with rooftop solar panels, producing its own fuel from water that then returns to water and is recycled back through the hydrogen generator and, employing a little hyperbole, becomes its own perpetual motion machine?

We’ve heard of the supposed possibility of running cars on water, but with hydrogen cars this is a possibility, and it’s all based on science, not science fiction or a scam, if the technical issues can be worked out.

Elon Musk, who has put all his eggs in the electric car basket with Tesla Motors and the Tesla Gigafactory battery-production facilities, calls hydrogen technology “incredibly dumb.” He thinks it’s inefficient. But the major automobile manufacturers against which Musk and Tesla are pitted might disagree, and there are no fewer than eight hydrogen cars either currently available or under development for the marketplace in the next few years. These include the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity, two hydrogen cars already on the market, and hydrogen cars planned for release in the next few years by Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, and Nissan. A small Welsh startup, Riversimple, is making its subcompact hydrogen car available in the UK this year, Ford expects to have its hydrogen car out this year, and startup truck maker Nikola Moto Company unveiled a prototype hydrogen truck late last year that it expects to offer by 2020, with a range of between 800 and 1,200 miles. Nikola also plans to open 364 hydrogen filling stations by 2019.

Meanwhile, the French firm Alstom ran its first hydrogen fuel cell train, the Coradia iLint, in Germany in March, reaching 80 kph, and 140 kph in tests run in the Czech Republic, and orders for the train are already pouring in. Its sole emissions are steam and water.

“It’s so clean you can breathe it in,” says Stefan Schrank, Alstom’s project manager of the train’s emissions. And it is 60 percent less noisy than a diesel-powered train.

Whether the various plans for hydrogen cars and other vehicles reach fruition remains to be seen. It’s still not clear whether hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be – as Charles de Gaulle once said of Brazil, which he called “the country of the future, and always will be” – or if it becomes the primary fuel to replace fossil fuels. The question may be decided in the next 10 – 15 years, or even sooner. It was my pick 30 years ago, and so far I’m still betting on it.

Water-to-water, baby. I think that’s a winning formula.

There Goes, Here Comes, the Sun

There Goes, Here Comes, the Sun

It isn’t news to anyone that a full eclipse of the sun traversed the United States on Monday. You’d have to be ensconced in a lunar base on the dark side of the moon to have missed that. But if you got to experience the eclipse, especially in a place where totality occurred, you probably know how special this event was. And maybe you noticed how it was special in ways beyond the purely celestial.

I traveled from West Central Florida to the coast of South Carolina for the big event. This was the second full eclipse I’ve experienced, the first one being in March of 1970, at Cape Charles, Virginia. After that experience, I wasn’t going to miss a chance to be present for another one, especially one this close.

Without going into all the minute details, I wanted to stay flexible in terms of my precise destination since the weather was looking pretty iffy. As the morning of the eclipse went on, clouds were moving in from off the ocean and conditions were heading south almost by the minute. Viewing conditions along the coast were predicted to be fair to poor and, in the midst of all that, the Charleston weather radar went down, so I was pretty much on my own.The moon eats the sun

Charleston, which was on the southern edge of the zone of totality, was overcast as I passed through it, as was North Charleston, across the harbor. Following my inclination that conditions would be better on the coast north of the city, I continued up US 17, and that’s when I came across some signs pointing to a side road that led to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Making a snap decision, I turned right there and followed that road until it ended at the refuge. Cars were parked up and down both sides of the road, so I found a place, parked, and walked in to the picnic area and boat launch site at the road’s end. Cape Romain was actually the place, virtually on the center line of the zone of totality, I had thought to view the eclipse when I first started planning this expedition.

A long concrete pier stretched out across the marsh and clumps of people were out on the pier, interspersed with some open areas. I found one of those open spots and set myself up. It was about an hour until totality.

When I arrived there were big blue breaks in the clouds, allowing the sun to shine through, but as time went on more and more clouds moved in from off the ocean. At times the clouds obscured the sun, but when they did, one could see the disk of the moon encroaching on the face of the sun. With one layer of clouds, it was too bright to see the image. With three layers, the sun was too obscured. But with two layers, it was perfect, and the moon could be seen eating the sun – as primitive peoples believed – without benefit of eclipse glasses.

Birds overheadWith about a half-hour to go, a family of four set up next to where I was. It turned out they had come from Denmark, just to see the eclipse. As more and more people arrived, and looking up and down the pier, I was thinking how many people, not just on that pier but from coast-to-coast, had come to share in this event. I was hoping we’d get a clear view, not just for myself but for others, like that family, who had never experienced a total solar eclipse before.

Minutes before the moment of totality, more clouds passed in front of the sun. Inland and to the south things were totally socked in, with lightning strikes to the west. A bank of clouds was moving in off the ocean, but a big band of blue stood between where we were and it. The wind was blowing the lower clouds quickly, and then the wind blew them past, and there was the sun, framed by two high, thin, motionless clouds, and that was when the eclipse entered totality. And our view was unobstructed for the entire duration of the eclipse, as short as it was at about two minutes and 40 seconds. Speak about making the right decision and lucking out.

If you haven’t experienced a total eclipse, you don’t know what that moment of totality Totalityis like. Even 99.99% totality is not the same as 100%. It is when the sun is completely obscured by the moon, when the sun’s corona can be seen flaring out from behind the moon, when day turns almost to night, and when earthbound creatures express their confusion by going wild, that makes a total eclipse the awesome event that it is. Even knowing that an eclipse is happening and that it’s a natural phenomenon that has a beginning and an end, it can be a disconcerting experience. It is no wonder that people over the ages spun such myths and felt such fear around eclipses.

I have to say that the first eclipse I experienced seemed more awesome, and I think it had mostly to do with the environment. At Cape Charles, I was right on tidewater, and there were flocks of birds, and it seemed the tides reversed and the birds went crazy at the moment of the eclipse. At Cape Romain, it was marshes, and the few birds that there were had passed overhead minutes before the eclipse and flew on. But as a sheer celestial event, this eclipse was as awe-inspiring as any. This eclipse, any eclipse, reminds that we’re on an object somewhere out in space, spinning around a star, out in the vastness of the universe.

Plane flying close to the sunAt that moment of totality, I think most people experiencing it for those couple of minutes might have forgotten the differences, the views, the beliefs, the expectations that separate Major cloudsus. For those couple of minutes we weren’t liberals or conservatives, Americans or Danes, dog lovers or cat lovers or none of the above. We were just humans, curious, eager, awe-inspired humans, beneath the shadow of the moon as it crossed the face of the sun. It’s too much to expect that the feeling would last much beyond the eclipse and the return of the sun from behind the moon, but it was nice while it lasted.

After the eclipse was over, it took more than four hours to get to the Interstate, with the flood of people returning to wherever they came from – the plurality of cars on my route had Florida license tags – and from there things got easier. By the next morning the eclipse seemed already to have receded into the past, a curiosity for strangers to ask about in passing.

The marsh near totalityBoth on the way to South Carolina and on the way back, things seemed to be more homogenized than they had been in years past. Chain restaurants and fast-food joints, more than ever, supplanted a lot of the local down-home places that formerly one could find with ease across the South. I finally found the kind of down-home place I had been searching for, Grannie’s Country Cookin’, on US 301 in Starke, Florida, and it was worth the wait. The Jurassic-sized slab of meatloaf and the giant flaky biscuit and the grits and mashed potatoes and gravy were what I’d expect at a place called Grannie’s, and not some pseudo chain Grannie’s. But the average age of the patrons was somewhere north of 60, so I had to wonder how long it will be until the entire country is homogenized, fast-foodified, Amazoned, Uberized, Facebookifed, plasticized, devicified, electronicuted. What will the roads, and the country, look like for the next solar eclipse to come here in seven years, in 2024?

It’s a disconcerting thought, and the roadsides, and our world, will be darker for it. And not because the sun is in eclipse.

All photos by the author.

This piece also appears on Medium. Follow me there, and here, and if you like the post please comment and share it.

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

Thoughts on “the Longest Day in the World”

It’s June 21, the day of the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s a day that holds various meanings for different peoples, and its significance goes back millennia. The solstice, whether summer or winter, officially took place at 12:24 a.m. U.S. Eastern Daylight Time this morning, or 04:24 UTC.

Just to set the record straight and dispel any questions about my scientific knowledge, I know it’s not the longest day in the world. It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere. But we’ll get to this a bit later.

It’s been a mixed bag today here on the West Coast of Florida. We’ve been having a lot of rain, something we didn’t have much of over the winter, and the rainy times are interspersed with sunny breaks. Right now, as I look out the window of my boat, the sun is mostly out but I’m looking at the light through rain-drop spattered glass. At least we’re not getting the effects of Tropical Storm Cindy, which is much further west and at this moment dumping lots of water on the upper Gulf Coast.

In this country, the summer solstice marks the official beginning of summer, though in other places and other cultures it marks the middle of summer, as indicated by the name Midsummer Night, which can occur anywhere from the 20th to the 24th of June. And really it is midsummer, since the days, which have been lengthening since the equinox three months ago, now will start to grow shorter, the nights longer.

The sun has reached its apogee in this hemisphere, as it stands today directly over the Tropic of Cancer. I feel summer ending, we already are on the downhill side, the side that will take us through the hot coming months but already on the slide back into winter, the cold time of year. Just as in the Southern Hemisphere the days will begin to grow longer as the seasons move back to summer.

A year ago on this day I was in Alaska, where there never really was a night. Where I was, well below the Arctic Circle, the sun went down sometime around midnight, but there was a kind of twilight that lasted until the sun rose again a few hours later. Above the Arctic Circle on this day, the sun never sets, and it truly is the Land of the Midnight Sun.

My thoughts turn to other things on this day. Someone asked me the other day, which was Father’s Day in the U.S., what thoughts I had of my father on that Sunday. But really, I think of Father’s Day as a commercial holiday. I also remember the last Father’s Day I had with my father, and how my mother did her unwitting best to create conflict between me and my father. While I may wish a happy day to the fathers I know on Father’s Day, it is today, the day of the solstice, that I think of my father. June 21 was his birthday, which in most years coincides with the solstice. I was told as a child that it was the longest day of the year, which I translated in my own way into it being the longest day in the world, and I would go around telling everyone who would listen that it was.

“It’s the longest day in the world!” I’d exclaim each year on his birthday, from morning until night.

I think today of my father on this day, the 21st of June. Gone now, for nearly 48 years. And I think back to the day of his birth, June 21, 1913. One hundred and four years ago. Even had he not died young as he did, just 56 years old, it is hard to imagine that he would still be alive today had he not died when he did. A prolongation of the inevitable.

A factoid I learned earlier is that today is not the longest day in the history of the world, as one might imagine it to be given that the earth’s rotation on its axis generally was slowing. Rather, the longest day in the history of the world is believed to be June 21, 1912, and things like the earth’s tides and recession of the glaciers have caused a slight increase in the rate of the planet’s rotation since then. My father was born a year later, which arguably could have been the second or third longest day in the history of the world, if not the actual longest day in the world.

I wonder what it was like on that June day, the day of the solstice, the longest day of the year, the day my father was born, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Did his father and mother, his Italian parents, my grandparents that I never knew, know it was the solstice? Did they even know of the solstice? Regardless, I’m inclined to think they did not think of it, if for no other reason than that they had something else on their mind that day. And then I think of the things people from then knew and were taught and how many of those things have been lost today, in these encroaching new Dark Ages in which we find ourselves, and I have to wonder. Perhaps they knew, better than most people today know. Or care to know. And they did note the auspicious day on which their son was born.

I’ll think of my father again on July 27, the anniversary of his death, and by then even our summer, the summer as we define it, will be half over.

The solstices, like the equinoxes, serve as a kind of punctuation for me. I watch the ebb and the flow of the days, the seasons, the years, and they mark the passage of time, time that increasingly slips by way too quickly. All of life is punctuation, I think. Slowing. Stopping. Breaking things, even waves on the water, into different parts, different pieces, different rhythms and fugues and movements and phrases and sentences. It is through such punctuation that we mark our lives, mark our transit through summer and back into winter, from day into night, from life into death. Watching, as a reader of a story does, while the time of our lives flows past. When we lose that punctuation, everything blends into one big mass, and we feel lost in the current, flailing and drowning as we’re pulled inexorably along. At least I do.

Enjoy this song, which I found today amid my files, and with which I end this post, and enjoy the time that nature and life give us.

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