To celebrate this year’s winter solstice, we’ve teamed up with the Science Museum to explore the ways that humans have made sense of the sun throughout history.
You can learn more about the sun, by visiting the Science Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, The Sun: Living With Our Star.
Lead curator of the Science Museum’s exhibition Dr Harry Cliff explores this ‘year without summer’, and the fear and art it inspired.
The importance of the sun
In the northern hemisphere, the winter solstice takes place on or around 21 December each year. It’s the moment when the northern half of the planet is tilted at its furthest point away from the sun. The sun is at its lowest point in the sky, giving us the shortest day and the longest night of the year.
Many parts of Stonehenge are aligned with the winter and summer solstices – in particular, the sunrise at midsummer and the sunset at midwinter. Although we can’t know for sure exactly why the people of Stonehenge built it this way, most archaeologists agree that it was deliberate. The changing of the seasons – and the warmth and light of the sun – would have been of immense practical significance to these early farmers, and it probably had a role to play in their belief systems too.
Archaeologists think that the people of Stonehenge held huge feasts at midwinter – find out more here.
The sun barely rises in the sky in the days around midwinter. It’s possible that our prehistoric ancestors saw the solstice as a time when the sun almost seemed to die, before slowly and surely being reborn with the promise of longer, warmer days to come.
Two hundred years ago people were also worried that the sun was dying. In 1816, sunspots appeared on the face of the sun during a cold, wet summer, and many believed that the star’s days were numbered.
The death of the sun
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation
– Darkness, by Lord Byron
Lord Byron was inspired to write this apocalyptic poem while staying by the banks of Lake Geneva in July 1816. That year, Europe and North America were in the grip of one of the coldest summers on record. A strange darkness covered the land, thunder rumbled in the mountains and torrential rain swelled the lake.
Forced to abandon their plans in the countryside, Byron and his guests retreated indoors at the Villa Diodati and amused themselves by writing ghost stories by candlelight. Mary Shelley was among the party, and it was in this rather charged atmosphere that she went on to pen Frankenstein.
In his poem Darkness, Byron imagined the grim fate of humanity after the sudden death of the sun but this was more than just apocalyptic fantasy. The bad weather had devastated crops across Europe, leading to famines, typhus outbreaks and rioting. In North America, snow storms swept across New England in June, while woodland birds were driven into New York City, where they fell dead in the streets.
Growing fears amongst the public
Meanwhile, a strange haze dimmed the sun and monstrous sunspots spread across its surface like ‘black bile’. The spots were so large that they could even be seen without a telescope, just by looking through a piece of coloured glass. As people searched for an explanation for these frightening events, an astronomer in Bologna blamed the sunspots and said they signalled the imminent death of the sun. According to his prediction, the sun would go out on 18 July 1816.
Rumours of this spread through Europe and England, stirring further hysteria among populations already pushed to their limits by famine, disease and civil strife.
While several newspapers attempted to calm public fears of the imminent end of the world, others explicitly described the connection between sunspots and weather patterns. An article in the Perth Courier stated:
It is in an undoubted fact that, during the whole season, the weather has been uniformly coldest, at least in this country, when the largest spots were turned towards the earth; and, indeed, if it be admitted that the Sun is the principal source of heat to the planets which revolve around him, that whatever affects the splendour of his atmosphere… must affect, in a corresponding degree, the temperature of these bodies.
Sunspots and the climate
The idea that sunspots could influence the climate had been advanced by the astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, William Herschel. In 1801, Herschel had presented a study to the Royal Society that compared grain prices from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations to his own 40-year record of sunspot activity. He concluded that there was a probable link between the number of sunspots and the harvests. Though ridiculed by some of his peers, Herschel’s ideas remained popular for much of the 19th century and may have influenced the response to the events of 1816.
As 18 July approached, the panic reached fever-pitch, and riots broke out across Europe. In Austria, troops were drafted in to control anxious crowds, while newspapers speculated that the ‘prophecy’ of the death of the sun had been spread to provoke revolution.
The French government was so concerned by the public mood that it produced pamphlets explaining that the sunspots were harmless. According to reports, one maidservant became so distressed at the prospect of the end of the world that she committed suicide.
In the end, 18 July came and went, and the sun continued to shine.
What caused the terrible summer?
Yet the anxious mood persisted and the following months proved to be extremely challenging for the people of Europe and North America. The corn crop failed in the eastern United States, driving subsistence farmers west in search of better conditions further. In Ireland, the famine triggered a typhus outbreak, which soon spread to the rest of the British Isles, killing over 65,000 people.
The sunspots weren’t actually to blame for the cold summer. Instead, it was the delayed result of the eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies. Between 5 and 12 April 1815, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history shattered the island of Sumbawa. As Tambora erupted, rock, ash and dust were blasted into the atmosphere, raining death and destruction across hundreds of miles. Of the 12,000 inhabitants of the island, a mere 26 survived.
Over the following year, the dust and volcanic gas spread across the globe, dimming the sun and causing temperatures to drop by several degrees in some regions. An aerosol of volcanic particles produced strange yellow hazes and lurid sunsets. Some think these lighting conditions are reflected in the paintings of William Turner, particularly Chichester Canal (though they could also be the result of the eye-damage that Turner suffered from staring directly at the sun – a practice thought to help relax the eyes).
This remarkable episode highlights just how dependent we are on the sun. Tambora’s eruption led to a relatively tiny reduction in the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface, and yet the impact in Europe and North America was dramatic.
Byron’s poetry may paint a fantastical picture but in 1816 the prospect of a world without the sun seemed terrifyingly real.
The sun and solstice today
Today we take it for granted that the sun will rise and set every day. But many people still celebrate our nearest star at midwinter and midsummer, and nowhere more so than at Stonehenge.
Stonehenge was erected in about 2500 BC and one of its most important features is its alignment with the midwinter sunset and midsummer sunrise. To this day thousands of people still gather at the stones to celebrate the sun.
On 22 December, the tradition continues.
- Discover more about the history of Stonehenge.
- Plan your visit to Stonehenge.
- Find out more about the winter solstice at Stonehenge.
- Explore the Science Museum’s new exhibition The Sun: Living With Our Star