Halo, how ya doin’?

By Phil Plait | March 18, 2005 4:44 pm

The other day I was walking across the campus here in California, and I saw a nice halo around the Sun. Well, really only the top half of the halo; the bottom half was cut off because of clouds. Halos are really pretty– ethereal circles of diffuse light around the Sun caused by sunlight bending around inside of ice crystals in the air. It’s getting late in the season for halos, because soon enough it’ll be too warm for ice crystals. So it was a nice surprise to see one.

The best one I ever saw was a couple of years ago. I had just dropped my daughter off at school, and glanced up in the sky. The halo was vivid, as if it were etched into a crystal hemisphere. It was flanked by two teardrop-shaped flares of light called parhelia, or more often called sundogs. The sundogs stretched out to either side, focusing into lines of light that shot straight out, parallel to the horizon, nearly halfway around the sky. I had never seen the like.

I was stunned, mesmerized by what I saw. It was beautiful. See for yourself: I took the picture above of the event (click on it for a bigger version). You can see the sundogs and everything. It was a real stunner. To be honest, this image is actually a mosaic of several smaller shots, combined by an artist with whom I work.

Anyway, I ran back inside the school to grab the kids and show them the halo. They all “oohed” and “ahhhhed”, and I explained how the ice crystals bent the light and all that. After a while they went back in, and I started home. On the way back, I saw a woman I knew vaguely (I see her a lot on the way to dropping off my daughter). I showed her the halo too. Her reaction was not what I expected.

She gasped, looked at it for a moment, and then asked me, “What does it mean?”

I gawked at her for a second. “What do you mean, ‘what does it mean’?” I asked.

She looked right back at me. Her tone was more plaintive. “What does it mean?” she repeated.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” I replied. “It just is.”

She watched me for a moment, then turned back to the sky. I waited for her to say something more, but when she didn’t, I began walking back home again, leaving her to try to extract some sort of purpose from a random event.

Humans are pattern-seeking animals, and we constantly look for meaning in our lives. I don’t think that halo really meant anything. It wasn’t a sign, an omen, a harbinger, or a portent of anything.

What it was, was pretty. And interesting, in a scientific way, but really, it was just very pretty. Can’t that be enough?


Comments (11)

  1. It means that the universe still works in accordance with the physical laws that we understand. All is well.

  2. Michelle Rochon

    …In this day and age, some people still look for what an event in the sky means for their lives? That’s pretty sad…
    I guess that one might mean it’s cold outside? Ah, that would be a good meaning, predicting how cold you feel? (I’m not sure, do they appear only when it’s cold?? They do here!)

  3. Christopher Ferro

    Maybe she wanted to know if it had any predictive value when it comes to weather? Usually when we’d see haloes around the Moon or Sun when I was growing up in MA it preceded snow by about a day or so (I think).

  4. Nicolas

    What an amazing halo!!!

    Nice symetrical sundogs too. I’ve seen sundogs that looked more like the real sun, but never such a sweet halo!

  5. TheGalaxyTrio

    Well, I’m willing to be fair. Maybe she meant “what is causing it.”

    What it means is that there’s ice crystals of a certain size and shape in the sky.

    I’m the only one I know who notices things in the sky, too. I have a freind in his late 30’s recently noticed contrails for the first time, and my 47 year old sister with a graduate medical degree had never heard the word “contrail” before last week. Made me understand how the whole “chemtrail” myth got a foothold. For many people the shy is just one big blind spot.

  6. Funny you should be talking about this. Yesterday I was at a large music festival in Tempe Arizona, waiting impatiently for my favorite band (blues traveler) to take the stage. I was suffering through a performance by an unspeakably bad local hip hop cover band that played against canned music and whose only idea of stage special effects was 6 gallons of jiggling silicone, and my mind wandered and I sought something else to distract me from the unspeakable horror on stage.

    I glanced skyward and saw a fantastic halo-rainbow. A full-circle rainbow halo around the sun. I was rather surprised, as this was a mostly sunny day (the few clouds that were in the sky were very strategically positioned, much to my delight) and was also very warm (85 degrees). The halo must have been regular water droplets instead of ice crystals. Either way, it was pretty and as someone who is studying to be an astronomy teacher, I decided to point out the phenomenon to several people around me who also couldn’t stand the awful hip-hoppery. Most of the people oohed and aahed, and didn’t mistake it for anything other than a pretty celestial event.

    The two guys who had been consuming copious amounts of psylocibin (sp?) mushrooms, on the other hand, were a different story. These guys were terrified by the halo in the sky. They may have been seeing it somewhat differently due to the large amounts of illegal hallucinogens in their systems, but these guys freaked out. They started crying and begging the “space goddes alien government mind waves”, or something of that nature, not to kill them or invade their minds or something.

    Remember kids, just say no.

  7. b3ast1e

    I don’t think this is sad at all. For millenia, man has looked up to the sky and asked himself, “why?”. He’s looked for portents, for inspiration, for the presence of God, whatever. Out there, somewhere, he’s supposed on countless ocassions, is the answer to every question.

    All this lady is doing is taking a moment to marvel at the beauty and mystery of it, trying to make sense of it’s importance to her, as she scurries about, living her everyday life.

    I find that comforting. To this day, knowing all we know, with all the mysteries we’ve unravelled, for many of us, there’s still opportunities for us to look up at the brilliantly crisp December sky and just wonder at it.

  8. Les

    Sometimes we forget that many people just haven’t been exposed to what incredible variety is there is in the sky, in the grass at our feet, on a slide under the microscope (or behind my refrigerator). As a result, things that are so entirely outside one’s expeience are truly frightening. It’s speaking the obvious to say that’s why we need more science in the classroom…so we can all have the ability to observe with awe rather than fear. And thank you for posting that glorious photo. It’s breathtaking.

  9. Ken G

    On the subject of what people have not noticed in the sky, there is one really striking example– I have found that about 1 in 4 college students does not know that you can see the Moon in the daytime. It’s not so surprising, when you realize that all the media they’ve seen since infancy has stressed the Moon as a nighttime object. But what this means, although I’ve never had the audacity to try it, is that you could probably see the Moon some afternoon and go around pointing it out to strangers, and fairly quickly find one who is truly amazed by the sight.

  10. dale

    I have been checking out Halo Talk and they seem to have a great preview of Halo 3 up now. You guys have to check it out:)

  11. What does it mean?

    It is a precursor to a supernova. Or a solar flare. Or an alien invasion. Something terrible. We all know that nothing visually interesting happens in the sky unless something bad is going to happen. Don’t you guys watch any movies? Sheesh.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar