On December 21st, 2014, two things happened: 1. The winter solstice 2. Bloggers, scientists, angry people, and grad students got into an Internet bar fight… over a solstice. Kind of.
So here it is, the winter solstice. Everyone is happy that it’s the longest night of the year because we know the days only get longer from here on out until next year (but we aren’t worried about that yet, thank you very much). The Internet is full of articles, tweets, blog posts, and status updates regarding the upcoming event. Meanwhile, lots of…
…people are gathering at Stonehenge.
Then, someone wrote that it would be not only the longest night of the year, but the longest night ever. What’s more, the person who wrote that little factoid wrote it about 5 years ago on a WordPress blog. The statement was not only incorrect, but someone else noticed it and used the idea to write another incorrect article.
A Vox.com reporter published an article about the “longest day ever“, sourcing the aforementioned WordPress post from 2009. This time, the claim got a little more attention. So much, in fact, that the original WordPress author (who was not at all worried about something he probably forgot he wrote five “increasingly longer” years ago) received some backlash due to the Vox post.
The Vox article stated:
“Tonight’s period of darkness will be slightly longer than any other, ever — at least, since the planet started spinning right around the time it was first formed some 4.5 billion years ago. The reason is that the rotation of the Earth is slowing over time. Every year, scientists estimate, the length of a day increases by about 15 to 25 millionths of a second. It may be a truly tiny amount (and it means that even in your entire lifetime, the length of a day will only expand by about two milliseconds), but it forces official timekeepers to add a leap second every few years.”
This pretty much reflected exactly what the 2009 blog stated: the Earth’s rotation is slowing down.
Both writers assumed that would mean that each winter solstice would be longer than the last, which makes a little sense… unless you’re an actual scientist.
A guy from NewsBusters got really irked about this and published all his feels. Then, everything morphed into a battle between liberal and conservative news outlets and things started to look more and more like trolls in a wrestling ring instead of really cool science.
Enter distinguished grad student.