THE winter solstice is the perfect time of year to connect with the cosmos. This Sunday,

December 22, is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, and for people in Glasgow that means that the sun will spend a paltry seven hours above the horizon.

If darkness isn’t your thing, you’ll be pleased to hear that from Monday onwards, the sun will rise a little earlier and set a little later each day, the days stretching out until the summer solstice on June 20, next year.

As an astronomer I like the darkness of winter nights, and in Scotland we have some of the darkest skies in Europe right on our doorstep. From Galloway Forest Dark Sky Park in the south, to the far north of Shetland, there are breathtaking astronomical sights visible at this time of the year, and long, dark nights in which to enjoy them.

The Milky Way is always spectacular to see, but it’s something that few people can easily experience thanks to light pollution. If you make the effort to head out somewhere dark, away from street lights and the glow of our towns and cities, you can witness the light from billions of stars in our galaxy, blended together in a beautiful silvery arc across the sky.

If you’re outside at night for long enough, and wrapped up warm, you can also expect to see a shooting star or two – tiny pieces of space-grit burning up as they enter our atmosphere at incredible speeds. You could even see a satellite passing steadily overhead.

The sheer abundance of stars visible on a clear, dark night can be overwhelming. From a big, brightly lit city like Glasgow you can only see a couple of hundred stars; away from cities you can see thousands. There are so many stars up there that making sense of it all can be a daunting task, and a good guide is essential.

The Planetarium at Glasgow Science Centre is one of our centrepiece attractions. It’s a state-of-the-art 120-seat space theatre where technology can simulate the night sky, and our expert team can help you piece together the jigsaw puzzle of constellations.

We can also fly you to the moon and back, through the rings of Saturn, and outside our galaxy to the furthest reaches of the universe. The feeling you get in a planetarium is one of profound amazement, but we try to make it more than that, to make our audiences feel connected to the cosmos. We are part of the universe after all, not separate from it. The atoms in our bodies were forged inside giant stars that exploded billions of years ago, scattering those atoms across the galaxy until they coalesced into our star the sun, our planet Earth, and ultimately us. As the late, great astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan put it: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

We’ve only known this fact for the past few decades, but that didn’t stop our ancestors from trying to form the same kinds of connections to the cosmos that science gives us today.

Thousands of years ago Neolithic stargazers tried to make sense of their place in the world by building monuments of stone to mark the passing of the seasons, and one of the most significant days in ancient calendars was the winter solstice, the shortest day.

All around Scotland we find testament to our ancestors’ worship of the sky. In Maeshowe in Orkney is a small burial chamber under a grassy mound. The only way inside is via a long, low tunnel, which faces the direction of mid-winter sunset. I’ve stood inside Maeshowe on the winter solstice and seen the sun stream into the chamber, lighting it up like something from an Indiana Jones movie.

The positioning of the tunnel in Maeshowe isn’t coincidental. You find similar alignments in cairns and stone circles all across Scotland, and further afield. Our ancestors may have seen this day as representing the rebirth of the year, as the days after lengthened and the darkness retreated. They would have felt a genuine connection to the changing sky and the advancing seasons, a connection that many people these days struggle to make.

That’s why places like The Planetarium at Glasgow Science Centre are so important. They’re not simply places to come to learn facts about science – they connect us to the cosmos in a profound way, and make us feel part of something much bigger.