The Science of Sustainability

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The Sun in the act of crossing the horizon.I received an email from a man who wanted to know if there was any truth to the claim that, in the last few years, the tilt of Earth's axis had shifted by three degrees, and that there was a great cover-up to hide the fact from the populace.

The inquirer wanted a scientific response—that he was a history major, and was having some difficulty trying to debunk the rumor with someone he knew.

I explained that, no, I knew of no evidence to support the claim. To the contrary, Earth's North Pole was still pointing less than a degree away from the trusty North Star, Polaris, as it had been, more or less, for hundreds of years, still serving as the same constant marker of north today as it had been for seafaring navigators long ago. Had Earth's axis shifted by three degrees—in any direction—Polaris would consequently have moved far enough of the mark of the Celestial Pole for all to see—those who cared to look closely, at any rate. Certainly not something that a cover-up could keep secret. Seasonal conditions, too, would be affected, for all to experience.

I was thanked, and told that the explanation might be enough to assuage the concerns of the writer's acquaintance.

The next day I got an email from the acquaintance—actually, brother—a man in Missouri. I was told firmly—though politely—that I must be wrong, for he had seen the evidence with his own eyes: after a lifetime of knowing the Sun rises precisely in the east, one morning not long ago, he suddenly observed the Sun to rise quite a distance to the north of east.

I took the time to ask for a more detailed description of what the man had observed, and continued my explanation by talking about the seasonal change of the Sun's rising position caused by its annual trek northward and southward in the sky along the tilted plane of its path, the ecliptic.

The next email I got had a MapQuest map attached, with markers added. This man was certainly doing his homework.

"The red star marker is my driveway; the white hand symbol is the nearby mountain where I saw the Sun rise. This is simply not possible unless there has been a major change in the Earth's position."

I pulled out my protractor and slapped it to my computer screen, then wrote back, "Looks like you observed the Sun to rise about 30 degrees to the north of east—which is about where it should rise around summer solstice, from your latitude," (just shy of 37 degrees north).

I went on to say that next September 22nd—autumnal equinox—he should observe the Sun to rise exactly at the east point on the horizon, and on December 21st—winter solstice—it should rise a full 30 degrees to the south of east.

After a couple more emails, my inquisitor's tack had come about somewhat, and he seemed as close as a native Missourian can be to admitting he might have been mistaken without actually seeing the crucial evidence for himself, yet (my father is a native Missourian, so I have some insight here; that's probably where I get it, too). He did say that he would check out where the Sun would rise in September, and decide then who was right–but he conceded that my explanation might turn out to be right.

What impressed me was the man's willingness to keep an open mind despite his apparent concrete convictions, and the earnest effort he made to test the explanation I had provided. I've been there, too: absolutely convinced that this or that was most certainly thus, having seen it for myself, only to find out that it wasn't my observation that was the problem, but my interpretation of what I observed, and perhaps the context I had placed it in.

But if science is nothing else, I feel, it is the frame of mind to question one's own interpretations of reality, and to poke and prod the perception to test what may be fact, and what may be misinterpretation.

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Category: Astronomy

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.