Long shadows at noon, and Wittgenstein.

I was driving at noon one day in December and the passenger by my side said "It seems like summer!" The sun was out, the sky was blue, we were inside a car so we could not feel the outside temperature. I was amazed, though, that my companion had not noticed that the shadows were too long for a northern Italian Summer lunchtime.

I mentioned this, tactful little sod that I am, and my passenger got shirty and huffy with me.

And I was reminded of an anecdote about Wittgenstein:

“Tell me," Wittgenstein's asked a friend, "why do people always say, it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?" His friend replied, "Well, obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth." Wittgenstein replied, "Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”

Now, I must admit, I've had to read the previous paragraph three times before really grokking it. And, I wondered, if Wittgenstein had been born 1000 years earlier whether he would guessed the truth. It's easy to know things once you, er, know them.

And I was reminded that once or twice in my life I've had the sensation of feeling the Earth's surface, and the Earth itself, rolling away from the Sun at sunset. I don't mean that I just knew it, but I felt it, and suddenly you feel small on a planet swimming in infinity, with emptiness above and below. You see the sun as it is, a very close star.

You can try to reproduce the effect, (I know I have) by watching a sunset and imagining the sun fixed and your body, and the ground on which you stand, rolling backwards away from it. It might work.

(Some say the quote by Wittgenstein is an invention of Tom Stoppard, by the way.)


  1. Lovely ...

    The last time I recall managing to see myself on the earth orbiting the sun was in Northern Scotland at sunset near mid-summer and all the angles were extreme and unfamiliar - so I concentrated on trying to visualise the various tilts, axes of rotation etc. and succeeded (to an extent). Very uplifting.

    As for Wittgenstein's question, I suspect that, when it comes to the relative movement between two bodies, it's easier to think of the one we perceive as being smaller as moving and the larger one as fixed.


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