How Long is the Night?
By Ana George
"OK, this one's interesting," I said. I was reading the personals section of the funky metro area newspaper, over coffee.
"What?" said Beth, looking up from her book. "Oh, you're reading the personals again? They're so boring and repetitive."
"Not this time. Listen: "GWF seeks companion for longest night of the year. I want to ponder deep questions such as why that night has neither the latest sunrise nor the earliest sunset. Bring your books and your computer.
"…with the usual drop-box e-mail address."
"Hmmm… sounds like someone right out of your neighborhood, Laurie," said Beth. "You going to answer?"
"Um, gulp, yeah, I guess I should." I was feeling a little stampeded by the suddenness, the reality, of the concept of actually responding to one of these ads.
"It's not exactly my idea of a fun time," said Beth. "I mean, I'm kind of a math phobe and all, but doing calculations all night with, what, a date? Why? Can't she think of anything better to do?"
"I don't know," I mused, "It sounds kind of interesting. At least we wouldn't have to think of a topic for small talk. I hate small talk. What should I write in my answer?"
"That's your problem. I'm off to give my American Lit final."
"Jen?" I asked, disbelieving. Entering the restaurant, looking around for a woman alone, I saw her unmistakable mane from behind: voluminous, curly, black shot through with enough silver to betoken wisdom. "I'd recognize that hair anywhere."
"Laurie." She turned her head. "I should have known you'd turn out to be somebody I know." We'd been having lunch once a month or so since we'd met, when the male colleagues in our two departments had sentenced us to simultaneous terms in the Faculty Senate. Two academic spinsters in science and math departments dominated by men; it seemed a natural friendship.
The out of town blind date thing was so stereotyped as to be laughable. In a way it was nice to share the experience with someone I knew pretty well, if only for the reassurance that I'm not the only one who does this sort of thing.
"Loved your ad," I remarked, over dessert.
"Most of them--both the ads and the respondents--are just sooo boring. I figured that mathematophobia would weed out the airheads, most of the goths, and the riotgrrrls."
"And bring your fellow faculty members out of the, er, woodwork," I said, narrowly avoiding the most obvious cliche.
"Besides," said Jen, "a relationship should be based on shared interests and experiences, not just those three letter acronyms at the beginning of a personals ad." I had to agree.
She looked into my eyes for a long moment. Many thoughts and feelings were almost expressed by the twitches of the tiny muscles around her eyes, but ultimately I learned all I needed to know from her words, and her touch. "Come to my place," she said, pushing her hand across the table, interlocking our fingers.
"Ooo," I said, coyly. "Interdigitating on the first date."
She laughed. "And more, I hope."
"The idea I have is to calculate the time of sunrise between now and morning," she explained.
"Sounds like fun," I said. "The extra hours we have tonight may allow for other things," I said, raising an eyebrow.
"Depends," she said, smiling.
Her place. The house was cold and dark. The bedroom was large, built onto the back of an otherwise unremarkable house. Rather than turn up the thermostat, she stoked the wood stove, and knelt in earnest attention on the hearth before it, nurturing the flame until it was self-sustaining.
In the half light I could see her bookcase against the far wall. The windows were dark, looking out onto unbroken snow in the back yard. The rye grass was beautiful, with dried seed heads silver in the winter, six feet tall.
"Wa-i-lat-pu," I murmured.
"What?" asked Jen.
"Place of the rye grass, in some northwestern Indian language. It's the name of an old mission in Idaho or somewhere," I explained.
"Nice," she said. "Wine?"
On the other side of the bed, there was, believe it or not, a whiteboard. In the bedroom. I laughed.
"Hey, I do some of my best work here. A glass of wine, a whiteboard, and thou," she said, drawing me into her arms. She kissed me once, twice, in a way that told me that someone Jen kisses stays kissed. A thrill shuddered through my body.
"So there are two effects to worry about. One for each of us. The earth's not in a circular orbit, so this time of year, when we're closest to the sun, the sun moves across the sky a little faster. The day of closest approach to the sun is January 2nd."
"Let's see… the average per day is about 24 hours divided by 365 days…" I mumbled for a while, doing arithmetic. "Four minutes and change. Oh, yeah, I remember being told that the earth rotates in 23 hours and 56 minutes."
"Relative to the stars, yes." said Jen. "We should look up the precise number, but you've got the idea."
"OK, so what we're worried about is the fact that the sun is not a good clock, because it doesn't lose exactly 4 minutes per day (or whatever the number is)."
"Exactly. For two reasons--the earth's orbit is elliptical, and it's rotating around an axis tilted relative to the orbit plane. So when the sun is far from the equator (in the south, tonight), it gets more degrees of longitude per day even if it were moving at a constant speed around the orbit."
"Ah. Spherical trig. I can do spherical trig," I said, going over to the whiteboard and drawing a large circle.
As the room warmed, we had shed layers of our winter clothing, and Jen turned on the electric fans, one blowing on the wood stove, and also the ceiling fan. It felt good, capturing the radiant heat from the stove on bare skin, and turning slowly around as I wrote cosines on the whiteboard.
I glanced over at Jen, slouched comfortably in her overstuffed chair. Her left foot was tucked under her, and a large book was perched in the crook of her knee. Her right leg was draped over the chair's arm, with a clipboard balanced against her thigh. It made sense to keep her feet up off the chilly floor. She held a smaller book in her left hand, and by turns wrote equations, sipped wine, and managed her hair with the other hand.
"I see you work this way a lot," I chuckled.
She considered her situation--nude, in a nest of books and papers, alone with a good friend, past midnight in the wood stove's warm flickering glow. "It doesn't get any better than this," she laughed.
"Sure it does," I said. Walking over to her, I took each book in turn, laid it face down on the carpet, and pulling her up out of the chair, took her to bed.
"So where were we?" asked Jen, going back to her books. "I have an equation for my part, but I'll need a computer to solve it." Getting up, she wandered into another room and returned with a laptop. She returned for chords, a mouse, and other accessories.
"You give me the ecliptic longitude of the sun, and I'll convert it to the time correction. Add that to the clock time (after taking account of the fact that we don't live in the middle of our time zone), and we should have the time of sunrise. Before sunrise. It's always so much better to make the predictions before the fact…"
We finished the calculation about four o'clock, which left three and a half hours or so. We set the alarm to ring five minutes before our predicted sunrise time.
"If you put your head here, the sun will shine in through that window right in your eye," said Jen, placing a pillow for me. It was nice, for once, having someone warm to snuggle with on a winter night.
As it turns out, we neglected a couple of things in our calculations: the sun is a disc, rather than a point, and the earth's atmosphere bends the sun's rays, allowing us to see over the horizon a bit. So the alarm went off after the sun rose on our new relationship, dazzling our eyes.
You live, and you learn. The living is more important.
Ana George lives in the suburbs of Boston, and enjoys hiking, astronomy, reading, making music, and living alone, in addition to writing the occasional story. She works as a scientist (as you'll notice, reading the story). Ana can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.