Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Bad Science Moment in Outlander

I recently started reading the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon.  Pretty good so far, although I'm only about 25% of the way through the first book.  At about this point I read through a couple of paragraphs in which the main character was told she missed the noon time meal.  The main character, Claire, looks outside and thinks to herself, yes, the Sun is slightly passed the zenith.  Um...this doesn't make any sense.

The zenith is the point directly above you on the sky.  The Outlander story takes place in Scotland.  Therefore the Sun can never be at or even very close to the zenith in the sky.  The farther north you are the lower the maximum altitude of the Sun in the sky.  Scotland is quite far north, well north of the northern tropic.  In fact, the only places on Earth in which the Sun can ever be seen directly above you at the zenith is somewhere between the two tropics.  The tropics are at latitudes of 23.5 degrees north and south.  If you live in this region, there are two days each year in which the Sun will rise and reach the zenith directly above you.  Just one day each year if you live directly on one of the tropics.  Scotland, however, is approximately 55 degrees north, so the Sun will only reach a maximum altitude of approximately 57 degrees.  That's far from reaching the zenith.

Did the author make a science mistake, or was the wrong word used?  It's possible the author meant to use the word 'meridian' instead of 'zenith'.  The meridian is the line that connects the southern horizon, directly south, to the zenith in the sky.  If the author meant to write that the sun was just passed the meridian in the sky, that would make sense.  But it doesn't make sense, if the story takes place in Scotland, to say the Sun is just passed the zenith.

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