How useful is your college degree?
I often joke with my friends who have Hard Science backgrounds, ridiculing them for not studying something more useful: a social science perhaps, like psychology. This is all ironic, of course, since there are few degrees more useless than psychology and few more useful than a Hard Science.
Sometimes my lack of Hard Science education thwarts me in unexpected ways. I have a fundamental lack of understanding about electricity, for example, meaning that when I’m rewiring the house, I’m undertaking a leap of faith. I have a poor grasp of rudimentary physics concepts. Biology is basically a grand mystery to me. I may be able to tell you all about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or to discuss the fascinating merits of Gestalt theory, but I cannot tell you where the pancreas is located.
I did take astronomy in college, for what it’s worth; yet, having astronomy as one’s lone physical science isn’t particularly useful.
Our newly tilled garden (can you believe I tilled the garden plot in mid-February?!?) is currently completely shaded by the arborvitae hedge to the south of our lot. I’ve planted peas along the fence, next to the hedge, but I have little hope that they’ll germinate without the warming rays of the sun. When will they get the sun? We know that the garden plot received full sun during the summer, but we haven’t really paid attention to it since.
This sounds like a job for Astronomy Man!
I tried to work this out in my head as Kris and I were driving home the other night: “So if Portland is just north of the 45th parallel, that means the sun is about 45-degrees high in the sky at the Vernal Equinox, right?”
“I don’t know,” said Kris, my wife, upon whom I generally rely to answer all of my Hard Science questions. She’s not so good at astronomy, though.
“I think that’s so,” I said. “And we know that the sun ranges 46-degrees from solstice to solstice, right? The tropics are at 23 degrees north and south latitudes. That means the sun must move approximately eight degrees a month. Give or take.” — I figure the sun’s apparent trajectory must “flatten” near the solstices and “accelerate” between them — “So, in theory, the noon-day sun must sit at 22 degrees above the horizon at the Winter Solstice, and it must be at 68 degrees above the horizon at the Summer Solstice. Our garden plot is ten feet wide and is only now just in complete shade. When will it be in full sun?”
I knew how to frame the problem, you see, but then I ran into trouble. I could not determine the proper geometry formula to work out in my head. Even now, I’m not sure I have enough information. I know the approximate angle of the sun at one-month intervals, and I know the length of the shadow cast by the arborvitae on Feb. 21st, so can I determine the position of the shadows one month from now? Two months from now?
I don’t know.
But I’m going to have fun trying!
(This problem would be a whole lot easier with visual aids. This web site may help.)