Earth rising

It’s Monday, 5am. Earth is pirouetting around the tip of its axis, spinning Africa back towards the sun. Birds have finished belting out their morning song (bloody racket, sometimes, the dawn chorus, but you can’t help loving it). Soon, a crescent of flaming orange will slice across the eastern horizon, as if someone’s peeping through a curtain.

I’d rather be in bed, but astronomical phenomena wait for no one. In two hours the moon will begin to roll between us and the sun, drawing the curtain closed again in a partial solar eclipse.

I have a pin-hole camera to make: two sheets of paper, a pen, one brisk stabbing motion to Sheet A, hold both sheets a few centimetres apart, watch the shadow of the moon creep across the face of the sun on Sheet B.

An eclipse is a marvellous thing! It’s a reminder that we’re travellers in space, spinning through the cosmos at 100 000km an hour on a giant chunk of rock and metal. All that we have separating us from outer space is a 100km-thin layer of air above us; that we’re all made from the same cosmic elements; that the moon might once have been part of earth.

(One theory about the moon’s origin goes something like this: shortly after earth’s formation a piece of space junk the size of Mars slammed into young earth, blasting out a chunk of its newly hardened crust. This debris was swept up by earth’s gravity and moulded like play dough into our silent, silvery companion.)

While I’m trying to catch the solar eclipse through the pin-hole camera in my back yard, the astronomers at SALT (the Southern African Large Telescope) in the Karoo are launching the International Year of Astronomy.

This marks four centuries of stargazing, since Galileo first turned his telescope skyward in 1609 and astronomy took its tottering steps into modernity. Consider how radically an understanding of the heavens has changed; how we view ourselves and our place in the universe. Once we thought we were at the centre of it all, with everything turning subserviently around us. Now we see ourselves as another organism, on a rare planet packed with myriad forms of life, in an expanding universe that is littered with other spinning globes, burning suns, collapsing stars and spiralling galaxies.

Something more sobering happened this month though. Energy and climate experts reported back on the international climate negotiations that took place in Poland in December. The consensus is that society’s response to climate change is disproportionately slow, relative to the speed at which the environmental changes are happening. Many scientists are saying now that we’re much further down the road towards catastrophic climate change than many of us realise.

Funny that we still tend to talk about this sort of planetary meltdown as though it’s the end of the world. Earth is only middle-aged. It has another five billion years to go before the sun explodes, incinerating earth.

Given that 99% of all life forms that have ever lived on earth until now are extinct, it’s safe to say that humans will also fade away into the geological timeline. We’ll be long gone before our sun dies and other species will surely have taken our place many times over before then.

Catastrophic climate change won’t be the end of the world — but the fact that we talk about it that way goes to show how eco-centric we still are.

It is pretty impressive to think that, of all the animals that have ever lived, one species should emerge that has a brain so smart that it has risen up to dominate the planet. In just 200 000 years, this soft-skinned, nearly-hairless ape has spread out across almost all reaches of the earth and become what biologist Edward Wilson calls a ‘geophysical force” on the planet.

We are capable of the kind of planetary-level changes that, until now, could only occur at the hand of meteor strikes, volcanic eruptions or continental drift. We may not bring about the end of the world, but certainly the end of the world as we know it.

I’ve given up on trying to catch the eclipse. The dimple I saw in the sun’s orb, cast by the pin-hole camera on to Sheet B, turned out to be an irregularity in the hole I’d punched in Sheet A with the pen. The birds didn’t seem to notice the second dawn either. Next time I’ll buy a pair of welder’s goggles so I can look directly into the eclipse without frying my eyeballs.

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Leonie Joubert
Leonie Joubert works from Cape Town. Science writer: political-economy of climate change, the hunger-obesity poverty-paradox in cities, mental health Leonie Joubert has over 1355 followers on Twitter.

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