Africa
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Lessons in Starry Skies

Published here for Royal Chundu >

“A still more glorious dawn awaits, not a sunrise but a galaxy-rise, a morning filled with 400 billion suns, the rising of the milky way.” ~ Carl Sagan

There is nothing quite like gawking up at the dark African sky to put us in our place. It’s when we realise not only how little we are and how little we know, but that what we know is not true. The stars in our African sky appear to twinkle, but they don’t. They appear to form meaningful patterns, but they don’t. They look as though we could reach out and touch them. And yet…

It’s all about light. Light is made up of individual particles called photons that journey in waves from the sun to our Earth in 8 minutes and 20 seconds. Light from our next closest star, Proxima Centauri would take roughly 4.22 light-years to reach Earth. What we see when we stare up at stars is what they were light-years ago. We are looking back in time, oblivious to the irony that the best place to look for light is in the darkest night.

In his book, ‘Stargazing for Dummies’, Steve Owens points out that we have been finding patterns in random dots of light in the night sky for thousands of years. Pareidolia is our human tendency to see faces in clouds and rocks, to see, for instance, a scorpion in a group of stars. There are 88 officially recognised constellations that include all manner of gods, animals, birds, a coalsack and the signs of the Zodiac. Smaller collections of stars aren’t ignored, the Southern Cross is officially an asterism and belongs to the constellation of Crux. Finding patterns and naming them apparently helped us avoid predators back in our past.

Searching for the Big Five near the Centre of Africa

The Astronomical Society of Southern Africa considers the Celestial Big Five to include the Southern Pleiades (an open cluster), the Omega Centauri (a globular cluster), the Coalsack (a dark nebula), the Eta Carinae (a bright nebula) and the Milky Way Galaxy. To ‘bag’ this big 5, the bright city lights need to be left behind. On our remote riverbank, the dark night sky reveals more stars than we can take in.

Regardless of where on Earth you lay your head, the Milky Way is a part of your sky, a galaxy that is estimated to contain between 100 and 400 billion stars and more than 100 billion planets. A galaxy in which our lonely planet, in our obscure solar system, is an insignificant speck. A galaxy that is itself one of 100 billion galaxies in the universe and perhaps more importantly a galaxy that photographs really, really well.

On our Zambezi, we stare up at the sky in a part of the world that hasn’t changed much in the last 50 000 years or so and we feel small and completely connected and awestruck. We bathe in the twinkling photons and feel their comfort.

For as long as there has been animal life on Earth the stars have supplied a means of navigation.

While most stars are valued more for beauty than function, the North Star and the Southern Cross have been used for night time navigation for hundreds of years. The Southern Cross is too far south to be viewed in the northern hemisphere so, if you’re new to our side of the Equator, it’s a good idea to learn how it works just in case you’re feeling lost or can’t find your way to your bed under the stars. It’s probably best to ask a guide to point it out, as the False Cross makes things tricky and has led many a confused sailor onto a rocky coast, back in the day.

Many birds use celestial navigation for their migrations and the humble dung beetle has been shown to use the Milky Way as a guide to rolling its meal in the right direction. It is, perhaps, the only animal known to orient itself using a galaxy.

Early Africans measured time, kept abreast of seasonal changes and navigated by the stars. When early humans left Africa to populate the globe they were probably guided by the stars. When they sat around a campfire after a hard day of hunting and gathering they told stories and built rich folklore around the stars as they attempted to make sense of the largest of all mysteries.

The sky is a solid dome of blue-black rock, resting on the Earth and the stars are holes in this rocky arch. The Milky Way was created by a girl of the ancient race who, in a tantrum, scooped ash and roots from the cooking fire and flung them into the sky making a glowing path which guided night travellers.

Later the Khoikhoi used the Pleiades to forecast the start of the rainy season. The Maasai referred to Orion’s Belt as “Three Old Men Pursued by Lonesome Widows”. A lazy man had his glowing head cut off and thrown into the sky to become the moon and still later we stand here, taking in new lessons from the twinkling photons.

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