Those of us aware that life is a symphony composed of alternating rhythms may be less bummed about the recent Supreme Court shenanigans. Things change, and with a shrug we might assume that this too will change.
But natural rather than political happenings are this column’s bailiwick as it approaches the half-century mark since The Night Sky first appeared. Yet all this time we’ve not once looked at the deepest rhythms. Of course, everyone notices solar patterns — like the recent solstice that now gives us the year’s strongest rays and longest days. A few are even quizzically noticing that days are now getting shorter. Less than a minute decrease per day but, still. . .
All cultures through time paid attention to the solar patterns because their food production depended on it. Next in line were the Moon’s rhythms, mostly that its phases repeat every 29½ days — the very origin of our word month. Far fewer noticed that the human gestation period very nearly divides evenly into ten lunations, so that, on average, you were born during the same moon phase on which you were conceived. And the human menstrual cycle is also suspiciously close to that 29½ day period of full-moon-to-full-moon, a trait we share only with the opossum. No wonder languages that assigned gender to inanimate objects universally regarded the Moon as feminine.
Backyard astronomers go much further. We can’t help but notice that all the planets are currently bunched up in the east just before sunrise, and all will reach their closest, brightest and most convenient (best seen around dinnertime) this fall. So this year, autumn is for planets. More rhythms.
Many ancient civilizations (e.g. the Mayans, the Babylonians and the ancient Greeks) did astoundingly better, while others (e.g. the Hebrews and the early Native Americans) didn’t seem to care at all about such things. For example, the Babylonians and Greeks noticed that after any kind of eclipse, the same eclipse will repeat in the same part of the sky after 18 years plus 10 1/3 days. They called this period a Saros. They even noticed that three saroses, which amounted to 54 years plus one month, would accumulate those three 1/3-day intervals and cause the same eclipse to repeat over the same place! They called that interval the exeligmos. Since that 54 years was probably a full human lifespan back then, they’d done extraordinarily well to notice it. These days you’d be unlikely to find anyone who’s ever heard of the exeligmos.
But it sure matters to me. My first total solar eclipse — the most sacred, gorgeous, mind-bending event of nature — unfolded over Virginia Beach on March 7, 1970. Finally, at long last, one exeligmos later on April 8, 2024, our region will see the next total solar eclipse of that series, with your friend and scribner Bob now 54 years older.
The early Greeks also searched desperately but futilely for patterns that might tell them the nature of this entire thing we call the universe, or life, or existence. A hundred years ago some brilliant physicists thought its nature was energy and matter which popped out of nothingness 13.8 billion years ago. But by the 1930s a new generation of theorists decided that nothing was more basic than consciousness (the parade of experiences) — or at least, it alone seemed underivable from anything else and was thus fundamental. Unlike planets, stars, or even life forms, it alone could not spring up accidentally out of nothing no matter how arduous the process or complicated the stages.
And thus this idea of an eternity of experience has slowly become the growing paradigm for the cosmos, at least for a minority of theorists. I’ve repeated it on this page this past year because I’m still letting it sink in. Moreover, as some of us age to where we’re starting to feel a bit wary about death, it may not be a bad thing to abandon the common notion that we are no more than these bodies, and join the likes of Nobelist Heisenberg who came away convinced that the real “me” is eternal consciousness. In which case death doesn’t exist.
But if so, good luck keeping track of that pattern, if one is even there somewhere.