Skip to main content
K12 LibreTexts

1.1: Watchers of the Heavens

  • Page ID
    4428
  • Early stargazers --- especially the priests of Egypt and Babylon, semi-desert countries where skies are rarely clouded --- were fascinated by the star-studded canopy which seemed to arch overhead, and by the daily cycle of the Sun, which seemed supernatural, beyond understanding. The ancient author of Psalm 19 wrote:

    The heavens declare the glory of God,

    And the firmament showeth His handiwork;

    Day unto day uttereth speech,

    And night unto night revealeth knowledge;

    There is no speech, there are no words,

    Neither is their voice heard.

    Their line is gone out through all the earth,

    And their words to the end of the world.

    In them He has set a tent for the Sun,

    Which is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber;

    And rejoiceth as a strong man to run his course.

    His going forth is from the end of the heaven,

    And his circuit unto the ends of it;

    And there is nothing hid from the heat thereof.

    East, West, South, and North

    Imagine you were one of the early Babylonian skywatchers! You live on a plain, and as far as you can see, the world around you is absolutely flat (only careful observations of the surface of the ocean suggest anything different --- See the chapter “The Round Earth and Columbus". Your view is limited by the horizon, an imaginary line all around you at a distance of a few miles, or whatever units Babylonians used.

    Observing day after day, you note that the Sun always rises from roughly the same direction, which you name east. It sets in the opposite direction, and that will be west. In between the Sun rises in a long arc, and is furthest from the horizon halfway between its rising and setting, in a direction you call south. Finally, the direction opposite south will be north.

    When the Sun is near the horizon, shortly after sunrise or before sunset, a vertical pole or post casts a long shadow. At the highest point in the Sun's motion, when it is in the south, the shadow is at its shortest. The time when this happens is halfway between sunrise and sunset, and we call it noon or maybe “noon by the Sun," because “noon by the clock" may differ. After noon shadows again grow longer, as the Sun descends towards the horizon.

    Because the shadow always points away from the Sun:

    • At sunrise, with the Sun in the east, it points to the west.
    • At noon, with the Sun in the south, it points north.
    • At sunset, with the Sun in the west, it points to the east.

    That is the principle of the sundial, discussed in the chapter “Making a Sundial".

    Shadow Diagram
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Sun shortest shadow is due north at noon, while the evening sun creates a longer shadow due east.

    Suppose you watch the Sun rise and set day after day. Using as markers features on the horizon --- trees, houses, etc. --- you soon realize that the points where Sun rises and sets are not always the same, but shift week after week. On the other hand, the direction of south, where the Sun is highest above the horizon does not change, and neither does that of north, of the shortest shadow of the day. Because those directions are fixed, it is best to choose as the ‘true' east and west those directions which are perpendicular to north-south. Only twice each year are sunrise and sunset exactly in those directions, but they help measure and understand what happens in the rest of the year.

    Seasons of the Year

    Even in Babylon the year has seasons--winters are cool, summers dry and very hot. As already noted, twice a year, halfway between summer and winter, the Sun rises exactly in the east (as defined above), and sets exactly in the west (well, nearly exactly, in both cases). We now know that on the days when this happen, day and night are very nearly equal in length, and that time of year is therefore called equinox. One equinox happens in the fall (“autumnal equinox") and one in the spring (“vernal equinox," “ver" is Latin for spring).

    Path of the Sun
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): In summer, the Sun's path is longest, and so are the days. In winter, the Sun's path is shortest, and so are the days.

    As fall advances towards winter, the location of sunrise moves south, as does the location of sunset. The steepness of the curve traced by the Sun does not change, nor does the rate (“speed") with which the Sun appears to move along it, but the length of the curve changes, it becomes shorter. Around December 21 --the “winter solstice" halfway between the equinox dates (typically, September 23 and March 21) sunrise and sunset are as far south as they can go (at any one location). As a result, the Sun has its shortest path for the year, the day is at its shortest and night is at its longest. Other days of that season are short, too, which is one reason for the colder weather in winter.

    After that the points of sunrise and sunset migrate northward again, and days get longer. This migration continues past equinox (when it is at its fastest), and the Sun crosses the horizon furthest northwards around June 21, the “summer solstice" (celebrated in some cultures as “midsummer day"), longest day of the year with the shortest night. After, that days get shorter again as sunset and sunrise migrate south again. The long days of summer, of course, match the warmer summer weather. The reason for this behavior will be described in the chapters “The Ecliptic" and “Seasons of the Year".

    • Was this article helpful?