Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Le Fin des Landes

Supposedly "Finland" got its name from Medieval French sailors, who called it "the end of the lands." I don't know if they meant it based on land features, or based on distance, but to me it's more like "the end of the Earth." In other words, it was a long trip. Despite a strike at Lufthansa, my flights ran reasonably on time and completely without anything remarkable happening, unless you count seeing the sun set twice in the same day. We left Munich at dusk, with the sun slipping below the horizon. There was a good bit of cloud cover over central Germany, but as we got clear of it over the Baltic Sea I noticed the sun was back in the sky again, and witnessed a very long slow second sunset. We landed in Helsinki at about 11:30pm, and the last rays of daylight were fading -- but not enough to notice any stars.

I started wondering if there were any great Scandinavian astronomers from back before people could and did travel everywhere: what kind of observations could they make in a land where it doesn't get dark enough to see the stars for several months out of the year? But then, what kind of observations could they make in a land where it's very dark indeed for several months of the year? I can't imagine what it would be like to live this far north. Sure, Summer is warm and glorious right now (high 70's), but in the winter it can get down to the negative teens!

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