Saturday Reads: Winter Solstice Edition

Beaghmore Stone Circles, Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone, North Ireland

Beaghmore Stone Circles, Sperrin Mountains, County Tyrone, North Ireland

Good Morning!!

Today is the Winter Soltice, the shortest day of the year. In the eastern U.S. the solstice will take place around noon, according to blogger Scott Dance at the Baltimore Sun.

The Earth’s axis tilts at a 23.5-degree angle, which is what brings the seasons, and at the point of the winter solstice, the North Pole is tilted furthest from the sun. Starting Saturday afternoon, the tilt will begin shifting upright until the Vernal Equinox.

The solstice marks the start of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, of course. Although the hemisphere reaches its furthest from the sun Saturday, the coldest weather lags a month or two, with January and February, on average, colder than December here.

At the solstice, the Arctic circle is in 24-hour darkness, while it Antarctica is in full sunlight.

The moment of transition to winter has already been welcomed with a traditional ceremony at Stonehenge. BBC News:

Kate Davies, who manages Stonehenge for English Heritage, said: “We were delighted to welcome over 3,500 people to Stonehenge to celebrate winter solstice.

“The wind and the rain did not dampen the celebration. And the ancient stone circle was filled with the sound of song, drumming and chanting….

Claire, a pagan from Bristol, attended the event with her seven-year-old daughter. She said: “We arrived at 5.30am – it’s a wonderful place. You don’t have to be pagan to enjoy it – even the weather won’t put you off.”

Newgrange is a neolithic burial mound, older than the pyramids, located in Ireland. Photograph: Alamy

Newgrange is a neolithic burial mound, older than the pyramids, located in Ireland. Photograph: Alamy

From the Irish Independent: Hundreds gather at Newgrange for winter solstice celebration.

John Cantwell, (49), a healer and member of Sli an Chri or “Pathway of the Heart”, from Dublin, heralded the first ray of sun by blowing on handmade horn fashioned from a bull and ram’s horn as part of a large group of New Age and pagan celebrants who formed human circles linking hands at the base of the monument.

“Our ancestors who built this temple thousands of years ago were great astronomers and they knew something about the sun. I’ve been coming here for years and the majority of times, irrespective of the weather in Dublin or Belfast, the horizon is clear and we get an extraordinary experience of the sun like we do right now,” he said.

“It’s difficult to feel in any way negative about anything right now,” he told the Sunday Independent.

Sun coming up the passage during the winter solstice at Newgrange Tomb. Photograph: National Monuments Service

Sun coming up the passage during the winter solstice at Newgrange Tomb. Photograph: National Monuments Service

Here’s some background on Newgrange from the Guardian:

Compared to the vast crowds of druids and pagans expected to gather at Stonehenge on Saturday 21 December to celebrate the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice event at Newgrange tomb in County Meath, Ireland is a rather exclusive affair. Just 120 people get the privilege of standing inside the monument to witness the remarkable illumination that occurs when a beam of sunlight shoots down into the narrow corridor that leads into the chamber, flooding the entire 19-metre stone passage in a warm orange light.

The people who built this neolithic structure over 5,000 years ago were evidently keen timekeepers. Above the entrance to the Newgrange tomb, which takes the form of a large grass-covered mound, is a small “roof box” that is aligned to the rising sun, a piece of design believed to have functioned in the past as an indicator of the new year. And for six days each year, around the winter solstice, the effect is at its peak.

The article lists some other sites where the Solstice is celebrated, including the Great Serpent Mound in Southern Ohio.

Finally, in Iran the winter solstice is marked by an “ancient tradition” linked to Mithra, the sun god. LA Times:

The winter solstice may mark the longest night of the year, but for Iranians, it’s also known as Shab-e Yalda, a celebration with ancient ties that commemorates the triumph of Mithra, the Sun God, over darkness.

Feasting on fresh fruits from the summer season and reciting works by 14th century Persian poet Hafez, Iranians all around the world stay up to mark the start of winter.

“It’s not an official holiday in Iran, but similar to many other ancient traditions, it has become a significant cultural celebration observed by all Iranians,” said Bita Milanian, executive director of Farhang Foundation, a nonprofit that celebrates Iranian art and culture in Southern California.

The celebration, which translates to “Night of Birth,” has come to symbolize many things for Iranians, said Touraj Daryaee, a UC Irvine professor of Iranian studies.

“This is part of Iranian tradition where evil will run havoc on the longest night of the year,” he said. “So people gather to be together until evil is gone… it’s an old idea where you need protection from evil.”

When the sun rises, light shines and goodness prevails, he said.

In other news,

President Obama said yesterday that the revelations about NSA surveillance programs have “damaged America’s security and intelligence gathering capabilities.”

The president’s year-end press conference was sprinkled with laughter and seasonal well-wishing and covered Obamacare’s poor rollout, the health-care program overall, reasons for his planned absence from the Olympic Games in Sochi – and whether his sagging poll numbers reflected his “worst year” as president. But questions about surveillance and privacy resurfaced throughout.

Obama was asked how he viewed the NSA’s mass surveillance programs after a momentous week in which a presidential panel recommended scores of major changes, CEOs of Internet companies implored him to rein in the NSA, and a federal judge ruled that an NSA program that collects “metadata” on every American phone call likely is unconstitutional.

Referring specifically to the NSA’s metadata program, which stores data on every phone call made in America for five years, Obama defended the program while also promising to change it….

“It’s important to note that in all the reviews of this program that have been done, in fact, there have not been actual instances where it’s been alleged that the NSA in some ways acted inappropriately in the use of this data,” he continued. “But what is also clear is from the public debate, people are concerned about the prospect, the possibility of abuse. And I think that’s what the judge and the district court suggested. And although his opinion obviously differs from rulings on the FISA Court, we’re taking those into account.”

Obama is now on vacation in Hawaii.

J.J. sent me some weather news this morning: Big storm hitting U.S. this weekend. Once again, the bad weather is mostly in the South and Midwest. From EarthSky:

A monster storm system will affect millions of people in the United States during the weekend of December 21-22, 2013. It’s expected to produce a wide range of nasty weather – including severe thunderstorms, flooding, snow, and ice. If you’re in the eastern half of the United States, you will feel the full force of this storm either at home or if you plan on traveling this weekend. A potential severe weather outbreak is also possible across the U.S. Southeast from Louisiana into Mississippi and Arkansas. Meanwhile, Oklahoma has already been hit hard with significant icing across Oklahoma City and into Tulsa.

The local National Weather Service offices have been busy issuing plenty of watches and warnings all across the United States. Flood watches extend from the U.S. mid-South all the way into the Ohio River Valley.

There are four threats with this storm system. One of those threats has already occurred overnight across parts of Oklahoma as freezing rain fell (and as of Saturday morning, continues to fall) across a large part of Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Read more at the link.

The amborella flower hides a family history of sex and gluttony, according to an analysis of its mitochondrial DNA. (Sangtae Kim / Sungshin Women's University )

The amborella flower hides a family history of sex and gluttony, according to an analysis of its mitochondrial DNA. (Sangtae Kim / Sungshin Women’s University )

Here’s an interesting science story for you. From the LA Times: Sex, gluttony and hoarding marked evolution of flowering plants.

Never mind the selfish gene – the cellular family history of the oldest living species of flowering plants is marked by enough sex and gluttony to earn a place in Shakespeare’s folio.

The powerhouse organelles inside cells of Amborella trichopoda, a woody shrub that grows only in the humid jungles of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, gobbled up and retained the entire genome from the equivalent organelles of four different species, three of algae and one of moss, according to a study of the plant’s mitochondrial DNA published this week in the journal Science.

The results are the product of a years-long effort to sequence the full genome of the plant, a crucial step in solving what Charles Darwin once called “the abominable mystery” — the sudden flourishing long ago of several hundred thousand species of flowering plants.

An analysis of the nuclear DNA of the species, published in the same edition of Science, revealed that the plant is the equivalent of the animal kingdom’s duck-billed platypus — a solitary sister left behind more than 100 million years ago by what became a panoply of flowering, or fruiting, plants.

Read the rest at the link. More from Science Recorder: Oldest flowering plant genome explains Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’

One question that plagued Darwin was why flowers suddenly proliferated on Earth millions of years ago. He referred to it as an “abominable mystery.” A new study published in Science by the Amborella Genome Sequencing Project decodes the DNA of the oldest living relative of those flowers, the Amborella. It grows natively in 18 spots and its reproductive organs are closed in by tepals, a hybrid between petals and sepals, Nature explains. It is also the only species in its genus, family and order, making it unique specimen to study.

The flower is the only link to the ancient flowers that covered the planet and is helping scientists understand the evolutionary processes that led to the 300,000 species of flowers that currently cover Earth.

“In the same way that the genome sequence of the platypus — a survivor of an ancient lineage — can help us study the evolution of all mammals, the genome sequence of Amborella can help us learn about the evolution of all flowers,” said Victor Albert of the University at Buffalo in a press release.

By comparing the genome of Amborella with other plants scientists were able to determine that about 200 million years ago a genome doubling event occurred that allowed the plants to take on new functions, such as flowering. They believe that the genome doubling may also have led to the diversification and spread of different species of flowers.

I’ll wrap this up with a couple of reactions to the Duck Dynasty kerfluffle.

This one from ABC News goes in the “Duh!” file: Phil Robertson and A&E Fight Not About 1st Amendment, Expert Says.

Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the issue is not actually a First Amendment violation.

“The First Amendment, like the constitution generally, only applies to the government, so if the government stops someone from talking or punishes them, that’s a First Amendment issue. If a private person says I won’t hire you or let you be on TV anymore, that’s not,” Roosevelt said.

“The idea is we don’t let the government decide what’s a good opinion, but we do let individuals decide what they think is offensive and what should be rewarded and what should be discouraged. That’s the way the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work,” he said.

Roosevelt also pointed out that the U.S. has anti-discrimination laws that bar a company from firing someone for their race or religion, but allow it to fire someone if they have opinions the company doesn’t like.

“There’s a line that is difficult to draw between religious beliefs and religiously motivated conduct, but what the Supreme Court has said is you can’t treat people differently because of their beliefs but if those beliefs lead them to engage in certain actions, you can treat them like someone who had engaged in those actions for a nonreligious belief,” he said.

It’s really too bad that people like Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin need an expert to explain how the first amendment works.

And from Darren Leonard Hutchinson at Dissenting Justice: Duck Dynasty and Discrimination: Firing Phil Robertson Will Not Advance Gay Rights Or Racial Justice! I’ll let you read Hutchinson’s argument at his blog.

Those are my offerings for today. What stories are you focusing on? Please post your recommended links in the comment thread.

Happy Winter Solstice!!