The turning point

The obligatory Winter Solstice at Stonehenge image

In 1965 the LA folk rock band, The Byrds, had a major international hit with a song written by folk singer Pete Seeger. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season):

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time to build up
A time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time of love, a time of hate
A time of war, a time of peace
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing

To everything turn, turn, turn
There is a season turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose
Under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rain, a time of sow
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace
I swear it′s not too late

Text by Pete Seeger

It is based on the Bible text Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, as rendered in the King James Bible:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain that which is to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

Seasons define our year and are the result of the fact that the ecliptic, the Sun’s apparent path around the Earth, is not parallel to the celestial equator but tilted by 23.4°. Viewed from the Earth in the northern hemisphere, during the year the Sun appears to travel from a point in the north in the middle of summer southwards to turn in the middle of winter, and travel back to the north. Those two turning points are the Tropic of Cancer in the north and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south. Tropic comes to us from the Latin tropicus, which comes from the Greek tropicos both words meaning pertaining to a turn. Those points where the Sun turns on its annual journey are known as the summer and winter solstices. Solstice is a combination of sol(the sun) and the past participle stem of sistere meaning stand still. So, solstice means the sun stands still. The Sun never stands still but if you track the annual path of the Sun along a ridge, then when it reaches the turning point, it appears to stay in the same place on the horizon for a couple of days. 

A Renaissance armillary sphere, an instrument for teaching the parts of the celestial sphere. The celestial equator is the band with the Roman numbers. At an angle to it running between e and f is the ecliptic. At e it meets the Tropic of Cancer, the point of the northern hemisphere summer solstice. At f it meets the Tropic of Capricorn, the point of the northern hemisphere winter solstice.

The winter solstice 2022, the turning point, will take place at 21:48 UT (that’s GMT in astronomical talk) today. As I have said in the past I regard the winter solstice, where the old year comes to die, and the new year is born as a much better day to celebrate than the totally arbitrary 31 December-1 January. This being so, I wish all my readers a happy solstice and hope the ending solar cycle was a good one for them and the one now beginning will prove to be a good one. I thank you all for taking the time to read my scribblings and for all the comments and criticism over the last 365 days. 

This year I would particularly like to say thank you for all of the kind and encouraging words both here on the blog and out on social media during my very recent and far too long bout of illness. As I was highly contagious, I was isolated in the real world and my Internet family came up trumps. Thank you!


Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of science

11 responses to “The turning point

  1. Thank-you and glad to see you back. The days will get longer. Always happens this time of year.

  2. Thank you very much and great solstice season! We always talk about the sun that is moving, but it’s actually the earth that moves around the sun in a different angle. The sun is the resting force in our solar system and earth orbits it. However, the old concept of the earth at the middle of the universe is still very vivid in our thinking and our languages.

  3. I actually remember the song from back then. Sheesh. And you talk about time – where are the snows of yesteryear?

  4. Michael Traynor

    Nice that the day length turning point is coinciding with your recovery, Thony. I love the winter solstice. Just knowing the days are getting longer is a lift. Though that fades during the blahs of February.

  5. Although the winter solstice is the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere, it has neither the earliest sunset nor the latest sunrise (except at the latitude of the Arctic Circle where both occur simultaneously). At more typical mid-latitudes (45N), the earliest sunset comes 24 days before the latest sunrise:

    My own preference for a date to begin the year on is January 4th when the Earth is nearest to the Sun (perihelion) at 16h UT. This works for everywhere on Earth, regardless of latitude.

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