Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Meaning & Zenith

Warning: This post gets very nerdy very fast. You have been warned.

There's something very odd about being a primarily "arts"-based student in a science class. You find yourself latching on to certain facts over others and you only ask particular questions.

In Astronomy class I found myself tuning out some of the discussion about the proper measurements of light years and all of the math inherent in that. I got a little lost when we started talking about planes (geometric planes, not airplanes) and didn't really focus on my teacher's theories about universal expansion (using, as she did, raisin cakes as an example...really?).

But then...we started talking about the celestial sphere. Which doesn't actually exist, by the way, but it's still used as a reference point in determining certain things in astronomy.

We were going along, discussing meridians and imaginary spheres...and then she started explaining the concept of the "zenith". Obviously this is a vocab word I've heard many, many times before. And USED before, of course. I'm a writer, after all. I often use the phrase "sun is at its zenith" to describe noon. Who doesn't, literarily speaking? It means the sun is at the highest point in the sky, right?

My teacher barely touched on what "zenith" really is, and I HAD to ask the question in class. And this prompted a discussion that took the whole rest of the class period and made me very smug. Because I managed to turn a scientific discussion into a linguistic/semantics one. Go me!

Basically, "the sun is at its zenith" is completely incorrect to say. The sun doesn't HAVE a zenith. The zenith is the straight line pointing above a particular object (usually a person's head). It is the highest point on a median. When you are standing anywhere, facing DUE south, if you were to draw a straight line from the southern horizon up and over yourself until you were pointing to the northern horizon (behind you), then that line is your median. The point exactly above you is the zenith.

Hence, the sun doesn't have a zenith.

However! The sun can be AT zenith (ie right above your head) but only if you're standing on the Equator on a certain day out of the year. So the sun being "at zenith" has a very small window of opportunity. But it IS possible.

So glad THAT was cleared up.

But then I realized...that has been the ONLY question I have asked in that class so far, and technically it had nothing to do with science and everything to do with semantics. No, that probably won't be on the test. And yes, I did just manage to turn a class full of astronomers into a class full of bickering amateur linguists, if only for a moment.

I'm so proud.

-The GLS

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