I know not eveyone pays attention to the science of the solstice but being a Geography major at university and a certified geography geek I actually know the science and even remember the degrees the earths's axis is tilted at relative to the sun!!! Thank you Miss Metcalfe - geography teacher extrodinaire (even if she made latecomers to class stand in the garbage can.....ha ha).
Here is a National Geographic concise explanation:
The summer solstice is a result of the Earth's north-south axis being tilted 23.4 degrees relative to the sun. The tilt causes different amounts of sunlight to reach different regions of the planet. Today the North Pole is tipped more toward the sun than on any other day of 2011. The opposite holds true for the Southern Hemisphere, where today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. As a result, at high noon on the first day of summer, the sun appears at its highest point in the sky—its most directly overhead position—in the Northern Hemisphere.
Here in the wacky Northwest (and famously at Stonehenge in the UK) many celebrate this day with parties and dancing under the skies late into the night. I don't really "get" what exactly the celebration is about but it seems ancient and mystical (and a teensy bit weird.......to me..... the geography geek.......I realise this is a pot/kettle situation). I liked this excerpt, again from National Geographic that has various points of view.
Summer Solstice Not What It Used to Be
For many of the ancients, the summer solstice wasn't just an excuse to party or pray—it was essential to their well-being. Associated with agriculture, the summer solstice was a reminder that a turning point in the growing season had been reached. "The calendar was very important—much more important than it is now," said Ricky Patterson, an astronomer at the University of Virginia. "People wanted to know what was going to happen, so that they could be ready."
But for many modern cultures the solstices and equinoxes no longer attract the same kind of attention that they once did. "The only people who really pay attention to what's going on outside on a regular basis still are like the neo-pagans in America and farmers, because it's important for their growing and harvest seasons," said Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "But we're pretty much an indoor culture at this point … so we have less of a connection to the sky."
Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, said he doesn't feel too bad about the declining significance of the solstices in modern society. "Ancient cultures and some modern religions pay very, very close attention to certain natural alignments … and there's a lot of mysticism and special supernatural significance attached to them," he said. "The fact that we don't pay attention to that stuff as much anymore, I think, is a rational thing."
The University of Arizona's Holbrook, however, thinks there are certain benefits in keeping the tradition alive. "Paying attention to the solstices is a way of teaching mathematics, celestial mechanics and astronomy and culture and history," she said. "It is also a pretty good party."
So whatever you are doing tonight (if you are in the northern hemisphere) let's hope this long sunny evening is only the start of a long awaited warm and sunny summer of 2011! And why oh why am I in a Board meeting?