15 Facts About the Summer Solstice

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It's the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, so soak up some of those direct sunrays (safely, of course) and celebrate the start of summer with these solstice facts.

1. THIS YEAR IT'S JUNE 21.

June 21 date against a yellow background
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The summer solstice always occurs between June 20 and June 22, but because the calendar doesn't exactly reflect the Earth's rotation, the precise time shifts slightly each year. For 2018, the sun will reach its greatest height in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere on June 21 at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time.

2. THE SUN WILL BE DIRECTLY OVERHEAD AT THE TROPIC OF CANCER.

A vintage mapped globe showing the Tropic of Cancer
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While the entire Northern Hemisphere will see its longest day of the year on the summer solstice, the sun is only directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude).

3. THE NAME COMES FROM THE FACT THAT THE SUN APPEARS TO STAND STILL.

Stonehenge at sunrise.
CARL DE SOUZA, AFP/Getty Images

The term "solstice" is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the sun's relative position in the sky at noon does not appear to change much during the solstice and its surrounding days. The rest of the year, the Earth's tilt on its axis—roughly 23.5 degrees—causes the sun's path in the sky to rise and fall from one day to the next.

4. THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BONFIRE WAS PART OF A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION.

A large bonfire
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Celebrations have been held in conjunction with the solstice in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Among these is Sankthans, or "Midsummer," which is celebrated on June 24 in Scandinavian countries. In 2016, the people of Ålesund, Norway, set a world record for the tallest bonfire with their 155.5-foot celebratory bonfire.

5. THE HOT WEATHER FOLLOWS THE SUN BY A FEW WEEKS.

Colorful picture of the sun hitting ocean waves.
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You may wonder why, if the solstice is the longest day of the year—and thus gets the most sunlight—the temperature usually doesn't reach its annual peak until a month or two later. It's because water, which makes up most of the Earth's surface, has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a while to both heat up and cool down. Because of this, the Earth's temperature takes about six weeks to catch up to the sun.

6. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE GATHER AT STONEHENGE TO CELEBRATE.

Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

People have long believed that Stonehenge was the site of ancient druid solstice celebrations because of the way the sun lines up with the stones on the winter and summer solstices. While there's no proven connection between Celtic solstice celebrations and Stonehenge, these days, thousands of modern pagans gather at the landmark to watch the sunrise on the solstice.

7. PAGANS CELEBRATE THE SOLSTICE WITH SYMBOLS OF FIRE AND WATER.

Arty image of fire and water colliding.
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In Paganism and Wicca, Midsummer is celebrated with a festival known as Litha. In ancient Europe, the festival involved rolling giant wheels lit on fire into bodies of water to symbolize the balance between fire and water.

8. IN ANCIENT EGYPT, THE SOLSTICE HERALDED THE NEW YEAR.

Stars in the night sky.
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In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice preceded the appearance of the Sirius star, which the Egyptians believed was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile that they relied upon for agriculture. Because of this, the Egyptian calendar was set so that the start of the year coincided with the appearance of Sirius, just after the solstice.

9. THE ANCIENT CHINESE HONORED THE YIN ON THE SOLSTICE.

Yin and yang symbol on textured sand.
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In ancient China, the summer solstice was the yin to the winter solstice's yang—literally. Throughout the year, the Chinese believed, the powers of yin and yang waxed and waned in reverse proportion to each other. At the summer solstice, the influence of yang was at its height, but the celebration centered on the impending switch to yin. At the winter solstice, the opposite switch was honored.

10. IN ALASKA, THE SOLSTICE IS CELEBRATED WITH A MIDNIGHT BASEBALL GAME.

Silhouette of a baseball player.
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Each year on the summer solstice, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks celebrate their status as the most northerly baseball team on the planet with a game that starts at 10:00 p.m. and stretches well into the following morning—without the need for artificial light—known as the Midnight Sun Game. The tradition originated in 1906 and was taken over by the Goldpanners in their first year of existence, 1960.

11. THE EARTH IS ACTUALLY AT ITS FARTHEST FROM THE SUN DURING THE SOLSTICE.

The Earth tilted on its axis.
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You might think that because the solstice occurs in summer that it means the Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical revolution. However, the Earth is actually closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and is farthest away during the summer solstice. The warmth of summer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth's axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time. 

12. IRONICALLY, THE SOLSTICE MARKS A DARK TIME IN SCIENCE HISTORY.

Galileo working on a book.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Legend has it that it was on the summer solstice in 1633 that Galileo was forced to recant his declaration that the Earth revolves around the Sun; even with doing so, he still spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. AN ALTERNATIVE CALENDAR HAD AN EXTRA MONTH NAMED AFTER THE SOLSTICE.

Pages of a calendar
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In 1902, a British railway system employee named Moses B. Cotsworth attempted to institute a new calendar system that would standardize the months into even four-week segments. To do so, he needed to add an extra month to the year. The additional month was inserted between June and July and named Sol because the summer solstice would always fall during this time. Despite Cotsworth's traveling campaign to promote his new calendar, it failed to catch on.

14. IN ANCIENT GREECE, THE SOLSTICE FESTIVAL MARKED A TIME OF SOCIAL EQUALITY.

Ancient Greek sculpture in stone.
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The Greek festival of Kronia, which honored Cronus, the god of agriculture, coincided with the solstice. The festival was distinguished from other annual feasts and celebrations in that slaves and freemen participated in the festivities as equals.

15. ANCIENT ROME HONORED THE GODDESS VESTA ON THE SOLSTICE.

Roman statue of a vestal virgin
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In Rome, midsummer coincided with the festival of Vestalia, which honored Vesta, the Roman goddess who guarded virginity and was considered the patron of the domestic sphere. On the first day of this festival, married women were allowed to enter the temple of the Vestal virgins, from which they were barred the rest of the year.

A version of this list originally ran in 2015.

11 Things You Might Not Know About Sports Night

ABC
ABC

Before there was The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, or The Newsroom, there was Sports Night. Premiering in the fall of 1998, Aaron Sorkin's freshman foray into television told the story of a late-night sports news show and the personalities that made it run, both in front of and behind the camera. Here are 11 things you might not know about the two-season dramedy, on its 20th anniversary.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A BOOK.

Originally, it didn't occur to Sorkin to think about Sports Night as a television series. He thought it might make an interesting book, and his agent at the time suggested a movie might be better—"Kind of a Broadcast News set in a SportsCenter place," Sorkin explained to TV Guide. "But I had a hard time thinking of a two-hour story to tell. It all seemed episodic to me, like small stories. I dismissed it, because it didn't occur to me to do a television series." A few years later, Sorkin found himself pitching the idea to ABC.

2. IT IS LOOSELY BASED ON SPORTSCENTER.

Shortly after Sports Night's premiere, Keith Olbermann—former co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter—couldn't help but notice the similarities between Sports Night’s fictional anchors Dan Rydell (played by Josh Charles) and Casey McCall (played by Peter Krause) and he and his SportsCenter co-host, Dan Patrick, respectively. After asking Sports Illustrated, "How much more of my life can these people borrow before they have to pay me?" Esquire sat Olbermann and Sorkin down together to hash it out. When Olbermann commented that "I have heard various stories about the origin of this series," Sorkin quickly confirmed that, "You are the origin. I sat in [a] hotel room for 13 months writing The American President. To keep me company, I would have SportsCenter on. I'd watch The Big Show four times in a row, and I thought it was the best-written show on television. It turned me into a big-time sports fan. As soon as I was done with The American President, I told [then-ABC head] Jamie Tarses, 'Send me off and let me write a pilot.'" Craig Kilborn has also long been rumored as part of the inspiration for Krause's McCall.

3. AARON SORKIN SPENT SOME TIME ON THE ESPN CAMPUS.

In order to research the series, Sorkin spent some time observing the goings-on at ESPN's main campus in Bristol, Connecticut. And it's there that he found the inspiration for Felicity Huffman's character, Dana Whitaker. "When I visited ESPN, I was very impressed with a particular producer who was juggling about a hundred things at once," Sorkin said. "She was the inspiration for casting a woman in the role of producer of Sports Night."

4. THE NETWORK INSISTED ON USING A LAUGH TRACK.

Given that Sports Night was a rather unconventional comedy, the network executives at ABC were worried that audiences wouldn’t get Sorkin’s sense of humor so they insisted on using a laugh track, much to everyone's dismay. "The network was looking for any touchstones that would make it feel like more of a traditional half-hour, and one of them was the laugh track," Sorkin told Entertainment Weekly in 2014. "By the second season, they said, 'You don’t have to use it anymore.' On those occasions when I go back and watch an old episode, that laugh track sounds so terrible." Added co-star Joshua Malina: "Would The Office have worked with a laugh track? No. At the time, studio executives were going, 'You don’t want to have a laugh track? But how are people going to know that it’s funny?'"

5. IT OVERLAPPED WITH THE WEST WING.

On September 22, 1999—exactly one year after Sports Night premiered—Sorkin's much beloved political drama, The West Wing, made its debut. While Sports Night struggled to find its audience (despite three Emmy wins and a Golden Globe nomination), The West Wing was an immediate hit, so much so that many people blame Sports Night's ultimate disappearance from the air after just two seasons on The West Wing. When ABC announced that it was canceling Sports Night, other channels—HBO and Showtime reportedly among them—came calling. But Sorkin decided that his attention would be better focused on The West Wing.

"While we received several intriguing offers for Sports Night to continue on another network, there were many other factors that were important for us to consider," Sorkin and his producing partner Thomas Schlamme said in a press statement. "We are tremendously proud of the two seasons' worth of episodes that aired on ABC and felt committed to reviving the show only if this creative integrity could continue. When we considered everything involved in making this happen, we felt it best for Sports Night to remain untarnished creatively."

6. JOSHUA MALINA WANTED TO PLAY DAN RYDELL.


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Joshua Malina originally auditioned for the role of Dan Rydell. "I immediately fixated on what would ultimately become Josh Charles’ role of Dan," Malina told Entertainment Weekly. "I thought it was perfect for me." But Sorkin knew he wanted Malina in the cast, so he decided to rewrite the role of researcher Jeremy Goodwin to Malina's strengths.

"Aaron called, and he was like, 'Hey, do you remember the role of Jeremy in the pilot?,'" Malina recalled. "As it was originally written, he was 21. And I was 30 at the time. He’s like, 'I know he’s young, but what if I took another pass at it?' And he started describing what he might do, and I just interrupted him and said, 'Are you trying to convince me? Yes! I would play anything in this!'"

7. ROBERT GUILLAUME REALLY DID HAVE A STROKE.

In January 1999, Robert Guillaume, who played managing editor Isaac Jaffe, suffered a stroke while on the set and was immediately rushed to the hospital, where he insisted that "I haven't had a stroke. I can't have a stroke. Disney doesn't allow it. Not during business hours." In order to explain his absence from part of the first season, Sorkin wrote his stroke into the series. He returned at the end of season one. Guillaume passed away of prostate cancer on October 24, 2017, just one month away from his 90th birthday.

8. CASEY MCCALL MADE A SPIN CITY CAMEO.

In 1999, Peter Krause made a cameo as Casey McCall in an episode of Spin City, which immediately preceded Sports Night on ABC's Tuesday night lineup. In the episode, Mike (Michael J. Fox's character) and his girlfriend watch the show-within-the-show version of Sports Night, which then segued into the evening's actual episode.

9. THE SHOW WASN'T LACKING IN CRITICAL ACCLAIM.

Though it struggled to find an audience, Sports Night was never lacking in critical acclaim. The show was nominated for eight Emmy Awards during its two-season run, and won three of them, including Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for Thomas Schlamme (for the pilot). In 2000, Felicity Huffman scored a Golden Globe nod for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV-Series - Comedy/Musical.

10. ITS "LOW" RATINGS WERE ACTUALLY PRETTY HIGH.

Though low ratings are often cited as the main reason for Sports Night's cancellation after two seasons, it averaged about 11.5 million viewers per week. If Sports Night were still on the air, it would be one of ABC's highest rated shows.

11. IN 2014, KEITH OLBERMANN CO-HOSTED WITH HIS ON-SCREEN ALTER EGO.

In 2014, Josh Charles reprised his role as Dan Rydell on The Big Show with Keith Olbermann. The pair reenacted Sports Night with highlights and witty banter, and allowed Olbermann to poke a little fun at Sorkin.

13 Facts About Notre-Dame Cathedral

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Constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries, Notre-Dame de Paris has centuries of French history built into its stone. The Gothic cathedral reflects the prominent role of Paris as an economic and spiritual center in the 12th century, and its scars from the French Revolution are reminders of its long connection with the monarchy—a connection that almost resulted in its demolition. Yet although thousands of tourists enter its doors each day to photograph its rose windows and flying buttresses, this sacred destination still has its secrets. Here are 13 lesser-known facts about Notre-Dame de Paris.

1. A PAGAN CITY LIES BELOW THE CATHEDRAL.

The Île-de-la-Cité on which Notre-Dame de Paris now stands was once a Gallo-Roman city known as Lutetia. The cathedral may have been built right over remnants of a temple: Around 1710, pieces of a sculpted altar dedicated to Jupiter and other deities were discovered during an excavation under the choir (although it remains unclear if this is evidence of an ancient temple, or if the pieces were recycled there from another location). Additional architectural ruins found in the 1960s and '70s, many dating back to this ancient era, lie in the archaeological crypt located beneath the square just in front of Notre-Dame.

2. THERE'S SOME RECYCLED ARCHITECTURE ON ITS FAÇADE.

The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame
The Sainte-Anne Portal at Notre-Dame

There are three portals on the western façade of Notre-Dame, each laden with sculpted saints and sacred scenes. One doesn't seem to fit, however—the Portal Sainte-Anne has a much earlier style than the rest. Its figures, such as the central Virgin and Child, look stiffer in their poses and less natural in their features compared to the other statues. That's because this tympanum, or semi-circular area of decoration, was recycled from a previous Romanesque church. A close examination in 1969 revealed that it was not originally made for this space, and had been adapted to fit the Gothic structure.

3. THERE'S A "FOREST" IN ITS ROOF.

The cathedral contains one of the oldest surviving wood-timber frames in Paris, involving around 52 acres of trees that were cut down in the 12th century. Each beam is made from an individual tree. For this reason, the lattice of historic woodwork is nicknamed "the Forest."

4. ITS FLYING BUTTRESSES WERE GOTHIC TRENDSETTERS.

Low angle view of the East end of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral at sunset with flying buttresses
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The cathedral was one of the earliest structures built with exterior flying buttresses. They were constructed around its nave in the 12th century to lend support to the thin walls, after the need for more light in the incredibly tall church required larger windows, and thus greater supports. The exposed flying buttresses became an iconic aspect of Gothic design, and although there's some debate over whether Notre-Dame was the first church to have them, they certainly set the trend in sacred architecture.

5. TWENTY-EIGHT OF ITS KINGS LOST THEIR HEADS IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

In 1793, in the midst of the French Revolution, 28 statues of biblical kings in the cathedral were pulled down with ropes and decapitated by a mob. (King Louis XVI was guillotined earlier that year, and any iconography tied to the monarchy was under attack.) The mutilated stones were eventually tossed in a trash heap, which the Minister of the Interior dealt with by ordering the material be repurposed for construction. It wasn't until 1977 that the heads of 21 of these kings were rediscovered during work on the basement of the French Bank of Foreign Trade. Now they're at the nearby Musée de Cluny.

6. THE TOWERS ARE NOT TWINS.

The two towers of Notre-Dame
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At first glance, Notre-Dame’s two towers appear like identical twins. Closer examination reveals that the north tower is in fact a bit bigger than the south. As with all the elements of the cathedral, they were built over time, and reflect how the cathedral is more of a collage of architectural trends and leadership than the culmination of one person’s vision.

7. ITS BELLS WERE ONCE MELTED DOWN FOR ARTILLERY.

The kings weren’t the only part of Notre-Dame destroyed during the French Revolution. The cathedral, like other churches around France, was transformed in the late 18th century from a Christian space and rededicated to the new Cult of Reason. All 20 of its bells—except the colossal 1681 bourdon called Emmanuel—were removed and melted down to make cannons.

While the bells at Notre-Dame were replaced in the 19th century, the new instruments were not as finely made as the older versions, and made a more dissonant noise when clanging. Finally, in 2013, a new ensemble of bells restored the cathedral to its 17th-century sound, with the deeply resonant Emmanuel still joining in the toll on special occasions.

8. NAPOLÉON AND VICTOR HUGO SAVED IT.

When Napoléon Bonaparte decided to have his 1804 coronation as emperor in Notre-Dame, the building was in bad shape. Centuries of decay as the city developed and changed around it, as well as the vandalism of the French Revolution, had left it on the verge of demolition. For years it had been used as little more than a warehouse. So when Napoléon declared its return to church use, and hosted his grand ceremony within his walls—an event in which he famously crowned himself—it brought Notre-Dame to new prominence.

Nevertheless, the coronation didn’t fix its structural deterioration. Then author Victor Hugo used the building as a personification of France itself in his 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris. (The book’s name is often translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, yet the hunchbacked bell ringer Quasimodo is not the main character; the central figure is Notre-Dame.) And Hugo vividly evoked its decrepit 19th-century state:

“But noble as it has remained while growing old, one cannot but regret, cannot but feel indignant at the innumerable degradations and mutilations inflicted on the venerable pile, both by the action of time and the hand of man, regardless alike of Charlemagne, who laid the first stone, and Philip Augustus, who laid the last. On the face of this ancient queen of our cathedrals, beside each wrinkle one invariably finds a scar. 'Tempus edax, homo edacior,' which I would be inclined to translate: 'Time is blind, but man is senseless.'”

The book was a success, and the momentum led to a major restoration overseen by architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.

9. ITS MONSTERS ARE MODERN, NOT MEDIEVAL.

Gargoyle and wide city view from the roof of Notre-Dame
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Some of the most popular images of Notre-Dame are from the perspective of its gargoyles or chimera (the carved monsters that don’t act as waterspouts). Few visitors would guess that the fantastic creatures now on the cathedral weren't there until the 19th century; they were added between 1843 and 1864 during the radical restoration overseen by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

Hugo had described gargoyles extensively in Notre-Dame de Paris, and Viollet-le-Duc was reportedly inspired by this romantic vision of the past. A daguerreotype from before this overhaul shows a building more stark than the one we know today, with no beasts perched on its towers, its medieval gargoyles having long been removed. Unfortunately, many of the 19th-century gargoyles are now decaying; PVC pipes have taken the place of those that have been taken down for safety.

The gargoyles were far from the only fanciful addition by the architect Viollet-le-Duc. Among the 12 apostles he had installed around the new spire, he included himself as the face of Saint Thomas.

10. ITS SPIRE IS A SAINTLY LIGHTNING ROD.

Look way to the top of the spire and you'll spy a rooster. This is not a purely decorative bird. In 1935, three tiny relics—an alleged piece of the Crown of Thorns and some bits of Saint Denis and Saint Genevieve (the city's patron saints)—were secured inside the metal bird’s body. The idea, the story goes, was to create a sort of spiritual lightning rod to protect the parishioners within.

11. THE ORGAN IS THOUGHT TO BE THE LARGEST IN FRANCE.

The Notre-Dame organ involves almost 8000 pipes (some dating back to the 18th century) played with five keyboards, making it the biggest pipe organ in France (although some claim that Saint-Eustache has a larger one). While there are some slashes on the wood of the organ loft—damage from the French Revolution, when its fleur-de-lis symbols were carved off—it was restored in 2013 to mark the 850th anniversary of the cathedral.

12. ALL ROADS LEAD TO NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS.

Point Zero marker outside Notre-Dame in Paris
Jean-Pierre Bazard, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Mostly overlooked beneath the crowds of tourists milling around outside Notre-Dame is a diminutive circular marker with an eight-pointed bronze star embedded in the cobblestones. It’s engraved with the words Point zéro des routes de France, and is the point from which distances are measured from Paris to other cities in France. It was placed there in 1924, although it had to be temporarily dislodged in the 1960s during the excavations for what was intended to be an underground parking garage. Those construction plans were thwarted when workers turned up architectural ruins—now kept in the archaeological crypt.

13. BEES LIVE ON ITS ROOF.

On the Notre-Dame sacristy, adjacent to the cathedral, is a small hive of bees. It was installed in 2013, with Buckfast bees—a strain developed by a monk named Brother Adam and known for its gentleness—living in its hives. Their honey is made from the flowering plants in nearby gardens, including the Square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral. According to The New York Times, the sweet stuff is given away to the poor.

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