Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Meteors, eclipses and a sense of perspective from the night skies

Things astronomical have dominated the news recently. Earlier this month there was the spectacle of the Perseid meteor shower, sometimes referred to poetically as the 'tears of Saint Lawrence'. And then the US witnessed the 'Great American Eclipse' – a total solar eclipse visible across the entire United States, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. So it seemed appropriate that I should be reading a thought-provoking book by Adam Ford called 'Galileo and the art of ageing mindfully'. Subtitled 'Wisdom from the night skies', this little volume is one of a series of slim hardbacks produced by Leaping Hare Press which deal, in a very entertaining and often rather tangential way, with mindfulness. (Other titles available include 'Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling' and 'The Art of Mindful Baking'.)

Adam Ford (who has written a number of the books in the Leaping Hare series, is an ordained Anglican priest, but there are more references to Buddhism than to Christianity in this philosophical reflection on what we can learn from astronomy. In a chapter called 'Time Tunnels and Eternity', Ford explains the speed of light and what it means to us. He points out how, if we look up at Orion in December we see Sirius (the brightest star in our sky):
"Like the sound of the woodcutter's axe delayed when seen from the far side of a field, the light of Sirius is somehow delayed by its speed, so we do not see it as it is now but as it was eight and a half years ago. What we see in our present moment is something happening eight and half years ago in our past. What were we doing then?"

Ford goes on to consider that, because of the time taken for light to travel, using light years as a measure of distance, when we look at Betelgeuse for example (450 light years away) "we see it now as it was in the past, in the first Elizabethan era." While the three stars of Orion's belt "are seen even further back in history, for they shine to us from hundreds of years ago before the days of William the Conqueror."


I, with little knowledge of astronomy and still less of Galileo, had never contemplated how, because of the speed of light, when we look at the stars we are looking into the past – a kind of everyday, interstellar time-travel that might help us maintain a healthy sense of perspective when we reflect on our place and time in the world.

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).