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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

At 4 AM - On A Clear and Cold Night in Tallahassee - We Saw the Lunar Eclipse on the First Day of Winter

It is 4 AM - Lulu is wide awake already. So we decide to go outside to see the lunar eclipse. Our front door looks west and as soon as we got outside you could see it - like a mouse took a giant bite out of the bottom edge of the moon. Really - it is just the earth casting a shadow on the moon. 33 years of science textbooks have this cast into my memory - "a spherical object casts a conical shadow. That doesn't mean much to 7th graders. But yes - it is a simple proof that the earth is round.

We did not get up early enough - or stay up late enough - to see the shadow cover the entire moon around 2 AM. During that time - the moon turned a bright red from the light that passes through the earth's dusty atmosphere and lights the moon in a Christmasy red glow.

It is the Winter Solstice - a special time to earth scientists - it is the so called shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere. I re-call that back in Pennsylvania we had 15 hours of night and 9 hours of day. On this day people near the north pole have no "daytime." Down under in Australia - it is the first day of summer.

To me - the Solstice has an even happier meaning. Our grandson was born on the Summer Solstice - so the Winter Solstice makes him 2 and 1/2 years old. Also - everyday will now be getting 2 minutes longer from now on until June 21st. It was always hard explaining to the kids why even though the sun was getting higher and higher in the air - February would be the coldest month.

We usually have one lunar eclipse a year - this one was special because it occurred on the solstice. It is really neat that while many things change - some things stay the same. The last time both occurred on the same day was December 21st 1638. Next one comes along on December 21st 2094. They were able to predict this eclipse years before I was born - almost to the second. And to walk out on the front driveway - in the middle of the night - look up - see something this beautiful and this predictable - adds a warm comfortable feeling to the Christmas holidays.