December 21, 2008
Here it is. Sometime after 7 this morning, while I was still sound asleep, the tilt and whirl of the earth in its long dance around the sun conspired to make this the shortest day and longest night of the year.
Solstice. Now, we’re on a three-month voyage to the equinox, when the day and night stand eye-to-eye, fraternal twins, in a way.
And so it goes. Three months past the equinox will come the summer solstice, when the pendulum has reached the opposite side of its arc, and we will see the longest day of the year, and shortest night.
Tick, Tock. Always and forever, or as much of always and forever as we’re gonna get.
As clockworks go, it’s pretty reliable, but it does need resetting now and again.
That explains Leap Year, the one year out of every four when we add a day just to keep everything adjusted to keep up with our calendars and all these artificial structures we’ve tacked onto the real world as a way of laying claim to it. I liken it to the colonial Spaniards poking flagstaffs into an endless series of beaches and claiming everything in the name of their king, while the natives stared out from the underbrush wondering, WTF?
This year we got a leap-second. My friend Bill Kreiger, the captive mad scientist at York College in York, Pennsylvania, explained that on New Year’s Eve, the year will last a second longer than last year did. That’s the bad news, for those of us who just want to get on with things, and the less said about ’08, the better.
Bill says that we already added a day, the leap day, and 2008 will also have an extra second. The extra day is added to correct for a not-quite exactly 365-day revolution around the sun, and the second is a fudge-figure to make up for the tee-tiny little bit less than 24 hours of the earth’s rotation around its own axis. Bill said that the rotation of the Earth is slowing down, meaning the day is getting longer.
What’s that? Old Mother Earth, playing the part of The Old Gray Mare, ain’t what she used to be?
Yep. And you thought your work days only SEEMED longer. They are, in fact stretching out.
Not to worry, said Bill. The fact that dinner with the in-laws seems to go on into eternity is an illusion. Mostly.
As everybody knows, the day as we know it is 24 hours long. Way, way before the Age of the Dinosaurs, say, 900 million years ago this month, our days were only 18 hours long and the year was 480 days long. Fast forward about 700 million years, to the day when Barney the Dinosaur was boinging around on the Earth singing those stupid songs. Back then, the Earth’s day had slowed to from 22 to 23 hours, depending on where you were in the Age of the Dinosaurs, which went on for a very long time, like one of Barney’s songs.
“200 to 300 million years from now indications are that we are going to have a 26 hour day – more time to do things or our employers will find us more work to do,” Bill said.
Well, I’m not going to worry. I’ll be retired by then.
By the way, late in the 1930′s clocks improved to the point that they could be used to measure tiny changes in the Earth’s rotation. Scientists starting fiddling around with leap-seconds in 1972, the same year that, most experts agree, the very first Disco recording was released. A coincidence? I think not.
Somehow, I knew we could blame it on the Bee Gees.
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