The Start of New Year

an old post card
an old post card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to sources on the Internet, the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere occurs at 10:51 am UT on 21 June (this year, 2014). That translates to 10:51 pm in New Zealand. Just as in the Northern Hemisphere the start of the year corresponds roughly to the winter solstice  there, I like to think that the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere corresponds to the start of the year in the Southern Hemisphere. I don’t think that I would get much support to the start of the year officially changed, though!

The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical)...
The Earth at the start of the 4 (astronomical) seasons as seen from the south and ignoring the atmosphere (no clouds, no twilight). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The year can be divided into halves by the solstices, the winter solstice marking the sun’s most negative elevation with respect to the South Astronomical Pole since the previous June. From that moment in time the sun starts to move higher into the sky until, at or around 21 December, when the summer solstice occurs.

Midway between the solstices falls a time when the day and night are roughly equal in length. Around this time the sun crosses the celestial equator, and this time is called an equinox. There are two in the year, one when the sun is apparently moving south in the sky (the vernal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere) and one when it is moving north in the sky (the autumnal equinox in the Southern Hemisphere).

The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Ear...
The Sun & the ecliptic rotation around the Earth : The green Sun is the one of the vernal equinox (march), it is followed by a summer solstice Sun. Then automn equinox and winter solstice. The ground plane (latitude 50°N) is green, the rotating ecliptic plane is blue. Also represented are the celestial equator, the two tropics and the rotation axis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Each of these quarter points of the year is or was celebrated with a festival of some sort, some of which, particularly the winter solstice were supposedly characterised by “unrestrained revelry“. The summer solstice was comparatively restrained, the vernal equinox was a celebration of new growth, and the autumnal equinox was a harvest festival, a gathering in and celebration of bounty produced by the year’s hard work.

What I wasn’t aware of is that there were other events called “Cross Quarter moments”. These are moments halfway between the equinoxes and solstices, and they are known as Embolc, Beltaine, Lughnasad, and Samhain. The Cross Quarter moments. the solstices and the equinoxes are set out in order for 2014 in the chart referenced here.

English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals...
English: Wheel of the Year with Fire Festivals and Quarter Festivals, Neopagan holidays: Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltane, Litha, Lughnasadh, Mabon, Samhain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two of the Cross Quarter moments I have heard of, Beltane and Samhain. Beltane falls between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice and is roughly at the beginning of May, so corresponds roughly with May Day. It is astronomically the beginning of summer, but seasonal lag means that the season starts a little later than this.

English: Beer brewed during the night of Samha...
English: Beer brewed during the night of Samhain. Français : Bière brassée pendant la nuit de Samain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Children (usually girls) still dance around the maypole or maytree, but few of them, and probably few of the adults have any idea of the origins of this ritual. Although it probably is related to Beltane or the start of summer, the significance and symbolism of the maypole is still debated. Some of the possible suggestions seem dubious and far-fetched, and I don’t think that is wrong to suggest that they reflect the prejudices of the people that make them. In particular it appears that Puritan Christians may have over-emphasised some aspects of the dance and celebration to argue for its banning.

English: Dance around the maypole during the M...
English: Dance around the maypole during the Midsummer celebration, in Åmmeberg, Sweden. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Morris dancing is also associated with a spring festival, usually Whitsun. It may possibly have been associated with Beltrane, but I don’t know the history of morris dancing, Whitsun and Beltrane or spring festivals in general well enough to assert this. There is a long tradition of ancient non-Christian rituals being adopted and given a Christian slant, so this may be possible.

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds o...
Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England — Exeter Morris Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Samhain also has a long history and probably pre-dates Christianity. It is associated with the beginning of winter and marks the point where all crops are gathered and animals prepared for winter. Once again the Christian church has adopted the festival and the roots of “harvest festivals” are to be found in Samhain’s pre-Christian traditions.

English: A Donjari float used in Saijo's fall ...
English: A Donjari float used in Saijo’s fall harvest festival. I took this photo in October 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Christian church adopted the festival as All Saints (Hallows) Eve or Halloween. I note from the Wikipedia article that I linked to that some people consider that Halloween has no relationship with Samhain, but considering the similarities of the two traditions which happen at the same time of the year, I think that this seems unlikely.

Jack-o-lantern (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bonfires form a great part of the Samhain festival, maybe as an attempt to ward off the coming darkness of winter. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there are still “celebrations” on 5 November, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Day. An effigy of Guy Fawkes is burnt on a bonfire, in spite of the fact that Guy Fawkes was actually hanged.

All of the example above refer to the “Gaelic versions” of the various dates and festivals. It’s a bit simplistic to refer to a single “Gaelic version” as the dates and festivals have, naturally, changed over the years. Other cultures of course have their own versions of the various festivals. In the Tropics (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn the sun is overhead at least once in the year, an obvious time for a festival!

English: Vector version of a design from the B...
English: Vector version of a design from the Book of Kells, fol. 29r. Traced outlines in black and white representing three intertwined dogs. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since we have just passed the winter solstice, we can look forward to longer days and shorter nights from now until the summer solstice, which for us in the Southern Hemisphere comes around 21 December. So far this year winter has been fairly mild and a little wet. As we move towards the vernal equinox we still have the bulk of winter to come, as the astronomical year does not match the climatic year because of the seasonal lag.

English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerse...
English: Winter landscape off Ham Wall Somerset. The most peaceful place on earth created from worked-out peat diggings. Excellent wetland habitat with characteristic reed beds. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nevertheless it is a time to look forward and one can understand why the winter solstice is a such a time. It is a time of feasting, of using up some of the stores put away at the time of the autumnal equinox, the salted beef and cured hams. It is a time to relax, for mending and repairing, and for staying out of the weather as much as possible, as the weather of winter means that essential tasks only will be undertaken and the rush of springtime is still ahead. While the end of winter may bring shortages , it is still near the beginning and the stores are still full.

Russian Celebration Zakuski
Russian Celebration Zakuski (Photo credit: Wikipedia)




Little Green Men


SETI is short for “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence”, or in other words, a search for the “Little Green Men”. The main thrust of SETI is to examine the light from other stars for signs of intelligent life, often on well known wavelengths such as wavelengths near the “water hole“,  a section of the electromagnetic spectrum associated with hydrogen and hydroxyl ions emissions lines. Hydrogen and hydroxyl together make water and water is supposedly necessary for life, so the thinking is that technically advanced life would possibly use this frequency to initiate contact with other civilisations.

Denomination of atomic shells and of character...
Denomination of atomic shells and of characteristic emission lines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The trouble is that this is just a guess and there are many possible frequencies that might seem plausible to technically advanced civilisations. If the little green men are not made of water, as we essentially are, they might pick a different frequency band to search. XKCD, my favourite web site has a cartoon which makes this point:

XKCD - the search
The Search

Suppose a remote civilisation did decide to broadcast in that waveband. If they are just announcing their presence, they would need to broadcast their signal in all directions, or they would need to pick out some likely looking star systems and send a directed signal in just a few directions.

If they broadcast in all directions, the power that they would require would be huge. The problem is that in any average stellar neighbourhood, there aren’t many stars. In the sun’s neighbourhood there is an average of 0.004 stars in a cubic light year. So the probability of finding a star one light year from a star in a neighbourhood like the sun’s is four in 1,000. If you look two light years out from the star, you will enclose a volume of eight times the volume of the search area up to one light year, meaning that the probability of finding a star in that volume is 0.032. You would need to look further than five light years out for there to be a fifty-fifty chance of finding a star in that volume, which would be 125 time the size of the original volume of one cubic light year. At 15 lightyears, there would likely be at least 10 stars within the search area.

Globular Cluster NGC 6397
Globular Cluster NGC 6397 (Photo credit: Hubble Heritage)

That’s all very well, but most if not all of these stars will be of the wrong type to support planets of the type that will have free water on them. In fact it is extremely unlikely that a suitable star with suitable planets can be found within, say 200 light years of our hypothetical advanced civilisation. (That’s an out and out guess, but see later).

The remnant of a supernova located 6000 light ...
The remnant of a supernova located 6000 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. (Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution)

The trouble is that the signal gets weaker and weaker the further it travels. If you use the signal strength at one light year as the yardstick, the strength is reduced to one quarter at two light years, one ninth at three light years and one sixteenth at four light years and so on because the signal is spread over an area proportional to the square of the distance from the source.  So if the signal strength at 200 light years will be 1/40,000th of the strength of the signal at one light year. If the signal has to travel further it will be correspondingly weaker.

My second attempt at illustrating the Inverse ...
My second attempt at illustrating the Inverse Square Law. S represents an ideal source of electromagnetic radiation and A represents an arbitrary segment of the surface of a sphere of radius r. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So likely systems are rare and the signal strength will be weak at the distance of a suitable system. This means that the signal needs to be very strong to be detectable.  Very strong means lots of energy. To broadcast to the Universe at large the civilisation would have to expend a considerable amount of its available energy to only potentially contact another civilisation. Imagine trying to get a project like into the planetary budget!

Clark's accompanying book to Civilisation
Clark’s accompanying book to Civilisation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the hypothetical civilisation is probably desperate to make contact. That may be because either they are in trouble themselves, or they want to warn all local civilisations about something. They are unlikely to do it on a whim, as they must know that the chances of success are pretty close to zero. There’s a faint possibility of a sort of “vampire civilisation” that must prey on other civilisations and so chooses to broadcast in the hope of finding a new victim. I consider that highly unlikely, since as I said the chances of success are nearly zero, and such a civilisation would need to find a new host in a relatively short period of time, astronomically speaking.

Mark of the Vampire
Mark of the Vampire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If a broadcast signal is very unlikely to find a receiver, how about a directional signal, maybe driven by a laser. The spread of a laser signal is much less than a broadcast signal, but the signal does spread. An advanced civilisation would still have to divert significant resources into sending the signal but it might be possible.

The civilisation would have an issue, though. If they wanted to get a signal to us and they used a ground based laser, their ground station would be in line with us once each local day, and our receiver would be in line with them once in every day too. Since it is unlikely that the day lengths would match, so the window for transmission would be short, even down to a minute or less.

Window of opportunity
Window of opportunity (Photo credit: GioPhotos)

The hypothetical aliens would most likely opt for an orbital laser. That could be pointed in our direction all the time, for every hour of every alien day, unless some local object got in the way. However we have a problem now. We would need to detect that a signal is coming from a point in space, in spite of all the extraneous noise that might mask it, and then we would need to concentrate our resources looking in that direction for a length of time. The hard part would probably be convincing ourselves that a signal is from LGM (little green men).

Littler Green Men
Littler Green Men (Photo credit: JD Hancock)

There’s an equation that purports to estimate the possible frequency of extraterrestrial civilisations, called the “Drake Equation”. It’s the sort of “equation” that gives mathematicians the heebie-jeebies, since it is derived from nothing and nothing is derivable from it. XKCD cruelly lampoons the equation, and while I don’t much like the sentiment expressed, I can understand why the Drake equation raises his ire – it is ad hoc, probabalistic, and presents as constants things which are fundamentally unknown. In other words, your guess is as good as mine, and both will fit comfortably in the Drake equation. I may return to the equation in a later post.

XKCD - the Drake Equation
The Drake equation as extended by XKCD


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