Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A solstice time out

The days are shorter around these parts this time of year. The ground is covered with snow. It's winter.

Grasping winter is not easy, but with a globe and a flashlight, most of my lambs "get it," at least for a few minutes, and if nothing else, they know we are not colder because our planet drifted too far from the sun.

If I ask the usual questions, I get the usual answers, and everyone's happy. The kids are happy because good things happen when they say the right things, I'm happy because I get to use a kinesthetic exercise (looks good on the lesson plans and gets the kids out of their seats), and administration is happy because my kids are more likely to pass the HSPA.

Still, I have a bad habit of peeking under the hood even when the car's running just fine.

So I peeked....

I love the Naval Oceanography Portal--it's like my beloved Old Farmer's Almanac on testosterone.

The shortest day of the year (here, anyway) was yesterday.
The latest sunrise won't happen until early January.
The earliest sunset occurred weeks ago.

In the olden days, long before I was born, noon meant the time of day when the sun was highest in your town. That it no longer means that surprises people.

A day used to mean what a solar day still does--the time it takes the Earth to spin so that the sun appears to return back to a particular position.* A day now means 24 hours. Not the same thing.

No big deal if it's the 16th century, the daylight hours are brief, and you want to meet on the Town Green at noon. Clocks killed our connection to the sun.

If you do not grasp this, you do not "get" time--and most folks don't.

The sunsets have been later and later for two weeks now, and the dawn continues come later, as it will for another week. The state won't test that, though. Sad thing is, few folks notice. We are teaching young adults concepts before we teach them how to see.

*Since the Earth has the habit of orbiting the sun in an elliptical orbit, and moves faster through its orbit when closest to the sun (and right now we're almost as close as we're going to get for the year), winter solar days are longer than summer days.


John Spencer said...

The theories on why it gets colder can get worse than "far away from the sun."

Joel saw the moon outside at three in the afternoon and said, "It's his fault. He just wants to make it cold and the sun is giving up, so she's leaving early each day."

All Joel knows is seasons (not even differences in days). He knows it's colder now and the days start and end earlier than summer. We don't have much of an autumn in Phoenix.

So, not a horrible allegory, but pretty lousy science.

doyle said...

Dear John,

Joel is actually practicing good science. He's made a couple of observations, and has posed a hypothesis. When he sees the moon out in the daylight of July, he'll need to revise his hypothesis.

We need our children to be observant before we can hope for them to grasp science. Science is ultimately about what we can observe.

(BTW, I have yet to answer your previous comment because it is entertaining and complex, but it reminded me why I need to keep reminding others to read your book.)

Kate said...


I grew up on the great high plains of South Dakota, and when I was in school, science was the most excruciatingly boring class of the day, beginning in about 6th grade, and completely absent from the curriculum in grades 1-5.

Until I met Dr. Peterson. He taught physics, and suddenly science was all about what we see and the world around us. No textbook could contain him. We argued about how things would behave in a world without gravity; we tested theories about motion and acceleration. He made me think I wanted science in my life.

Off to college and inorganic chemistry - and the most abusive TAs and the most ass-numbingly dull lectures. Humanities-R-Me.

Why couldn't I have had YOU as my chemistry and biology teacher?

Science for me now is biology and botany (my girls and my garden) with some chemistry (baking and compost) along for the ride. I understand earth and solar science by freeze and thaw, light and heat, with the occasional New Madrid fault earth shake and birthdays.

Wu-Men the great 12th century Buddhist monk wrote:
Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter.
If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

Happy Christmas. Happy Solstice.

doyle said...

Dear Kate,

Wonderfully warming words on a cold wintry evening.

Your girls are getting a real education in science now. Much of what passes for science education is really no different that learning a foreign language--you're exposed to strange-sounding words, trying to tie concepts to language, without really getting anything (though preparing for wonderful journeys to come).

The secret is this--science is not complicated nor is it dry.

But you know this already--even if a few knuckleheads tried to knock it out of you along the way.