This word makes me think of Murray Perahia, a well-known concert pianist, but it also makes me think of Trent Reznor and Stig Larsson, as well as sci-fi author Dan Simmons and a British perfume chain.

It makes me think of Reznor and Larsson because one of the pieces on Reznor’s sound track for the movie of Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is called “Perihelion.” It’s a brooding, atmospheric piece, the sort of thing I used to hear on CBC Radio 2’s program Nightline when I was delivering newspapers at 5 am in Edmonton under the aurora borealis. It all fit together very well then. Of course I didn’t hear this piece at the time, as Larsson hadn’t even written the book in 1989. But the style fits. Never mind that I never delivered papers at perihelion – I did it for less than a year and missed the dead of winter.

It makes me think of Dan Simmons because it seems like a name for a book he could have written. But no, that’s Hyperion. But there are books out there called Perihelion, including a book in the Isaac Asimov’s Robot City series (the book is by William F. Wu) and a sci-fi erotica title by Sylvia Walters.

And it makes me think of a British perfume chain because the chain is called Penhaligon’s. Which to my ears has an echo of perihelion.

This word also seems somehow arch to me. The /p/ at the front is pert, perhaps prim but perhaps perky, but a /h/ in the middle of a word always seems to have a current of violence or vehemence or some reptilian, perhaps ophidian, quality, especially when it is so heavily exhaling between two vowels. Could it all be the heavy purr-exhaling of a lion?

It’s Greek, originally, as you may have noted. The peri typically means ‘around, about’; the helion is from the root for ‘sun’. The ancient Greeks didn’t use this word because they had no reason to; there was no conception of bodies orbiting the sun on elliptical paths until rather later, and it didn’t really seem necessary to invent a word just to talk about Daedalus and Icarus. Johannes Kepler invented the word in a Latinized form as perihelium in 1609, and it was soon thereafter modified into a purely Greek form. It’s the opposite of aphelion (which is pronounced as ap plus helion, not a plus phelion). In an elliptical orbit around the sun, the aphelion is when the body (planet, comet, asteroid) is farthest from the sun, and the perihelion is when it is closest.

So how’s your memory of the astronomy you learned in school? When is the earth closest to the sun in its elliptical orbit? Not when it’s summer in the northern hemisphere… Nope, earth’s perihelion is January 3, and its aphelion July 4. I will glide past the fact that the earth is farthest from its source of light on the American national holiday. There are no national holidays on January 3, although I do note that on that day in 1496 Leonardo da Vinci tested a flying machine… without success.

One response to “perihelion

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