An American Couple in Delft
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The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars

Since I can remember, I’ve liked to observe the sky, the stars, and the movement of the sun and the moon. There is no claim here that I’m an ace astronomer; I am merely the casual observer to whom some things are intuitively obvious. Here in the Netherlands we are at 52 degrees north latitude, and the sky and behavior of the sun is clearly different to the casual observer than what it is in Philadelphia. When we moved here in November it rained frequently and the sky was almost always filled with thick dark clouds. As spring becomes more evident, the clouds are less prevalent and the casual observer gets to see what’s happening. The first thing that was apparent was that the north star is much higher in the sky which makes sense because, being the north star, if one were at the North Pole, it would be directly overhead.

You may know that the difference in the length of day and night from summer to winter is more drastic the closer to the pole one gets. At the equator there are 12 hour days and nights all year. In Philadelphia, at 40 degrees north, it’s about 16 hour days and nine hour nights in summer with the reverse in winter. Here it’s about 18 hour days and six hour nights in summer with the reverse in winter. At this early date in mid-April, the sky is still light at 9 p.m. In Philadelphia, that won’t happen until June and for those of you farther south, it may not happen at all that it’s still light at that time.

There’s another oddity of the sun as one goes closer to the pole; the sun never gets as high in the sky. Assuming noon, at the equator the sun is always at least 66 and a half degrees above the horizon. That’s pretty high in the sky. At the vernal and autumnal equinoxes it’s directly overhead at 90 degrees. It rises almost vertically, goes across almost the center of the sky and sets almost vertically causing it to get "dark fast" after sunset as the sun moves straight down below the horizon. In Philadelphia, in summer the sun rises to a maximum of 73 and a half degrees and in winter to a maximum of 28 and half. In the Netherlands, 12 degrees closer to the pole, those numbers are 61 and a half, and 16 and a half. Think about that. In winter, the sun gets to only 16 and a half degrees above the horizon, barely high enough to clear treetops, and certainly not enough to clear tall buildings in a single bound. The shadows, assuming winter sun in the Netherlands which is a bad assumption, are always long. But here it gets "dark slow." That’s because the sun neither rises nor sets vertically but rather on an angle. The closer to the pole one goes, the more horizontal the angle until, within the Arctic (or Antarctic) Circle, the angle is fully horizontal and the sun neither rises nor sets for months at a time, hence, the land of the midnight sun. Here in the Netherlands, the sun will set but it will be twilight for what seems sometimes like forever because the sun is traveling a path close to the horizon but just below it. When we were here visiting last summer, it was still twilight approaching 11 p.m.

Those are the astronomical facts. But what does it mean to the average person on the street? It means that when taking pictures in winter, it can be difficult to get good lighting because of the long shadows, even at noon. But that’s not a reason to stay away because where else can you get photos of octogenarians on bicycles in the rain with their groceries or small rivers running down the middle of almost every street?

 

2008 Rick Wexler   last updated February 21, 2008