Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Looking At The Sun

According to Stephen Hawkings ‘We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.’ I don’t know about how well we understand the Universe or the degree of our specialness, but as far as monkeys go, we are certainly naked apes that distinguish ourselves from our cousins and other fellow living creatures by our capacity to worry and fret about life even when these anxieties have little bearing on the cosmic scale.

From the pantheon’s perspectives we probably look comical but from our point of view down here we are actors in a Greek Tragedy forever in fear of our mortality, uptight about morality and obsessed about making our mark in the world. We’re probably the only species that want to exist in our fellow human being’s eyes while we’re alive, and be honoured and remembered after we’re gone: A little creature with a big Ego who think we could make a difference to the planet and the natural order of things. Who think that our faiths and beliefs matter to the health of the solar system and our activities and inventiveness make a difference to the way the earth rotates.

Actually these are some of the thoughts that every now and then cross my mind when I sweat the small stuff such as getting annoyed by the horrendous traffic in Jakarta, not getting the dish I ordered in a restaurant or when other people are so obtuse they can’t do a simple thing like read my mind and know exactly what I mean or want. After all, there is nothing quite like musing about the fate of the Universe to put one’s pathetic little life in perspectives, both cosmic and microscopic: that our preoccupations with religion, pornography and sex outside marriage barely register a blip in the galactic consciousness.

The only thing that makes us special is our solipsistic capacity to think we are special. Big deal. Our solar system is six billion years old but Homo sapiens sapiens (us) have only been around for two hundred thousand years. We think we are kings of the planet because we could trace our human civilization back to five thousand years ago and now have Facebook and Twitter and 3D animation.
Well, apparently we could lose all that, not through the amount of greenhouse gases we’re emitting or the earthly hubris we’re committing, but because of the sun’s natural behaviour that will have an impact on our planet. It may not be the end of the world, but it might well be the end of life as we know it.

Other than the Mayan calendar coming to an end in 2012, which if you’ve seen the film, also signals the end of the world, according to Nasa, sometime in May, 2013, solar flares from huge space storms will wreak havoc on electricity thus disrupting communication. If that happen many parts of the world would have a power blackout for months, or at the very least, areas with weak power grids would be left without electricity for hours or even days: with no access to electronic devices.

Which means we won’t be able to Tweet what’s going on – the equivalent of death for many of us whose only tangible proof of our existence is through the digital blips we contribute to this planetary electro-magnetic frequency.

What will happen is that, according to scientists, every 22 years the Sun’s magnetic energy cycle peaks while the number of sun spots – or flares – hits a maximum level every 11 years. The storm will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of more than 10,000 F (5500C) and the Earth will be hit with unprecedented levels of magnetic energy from the solar flares with a hit like a bolt of lighting that could cause catastrophic impacts on the world. These solar storms have happened before but it is only recently that our lives are so dependent on all things electronic that are sensitive to magnetic energy.

Satellites, hospital equipment, banking systems, air traffic control devices would be damaged, as well as everyday items such as home computers, iPods, satellite navigation systems and all those electronic gadgets and communication tools that make life in the 21st Century so wonderful.

A “space weather” conference in Washington DC last week, attended by Nasa scientists, policy-makers, researchers and government officials, was warned of the impact the solar flares would have on the earth’s magnetic field and that governments must take the necessary precautions and set up backup systems.

Not only that but imagine the kind of bills that countries must fork out to pay for all the damages the solar storms will cause and the havoc it will cause to our lives when bereft of our electronic devices. The economic impact will no doubt be enormous (we won’t be able to draw our money out from the bank if the system is down), while the social networking effect would be catastrophic - we could no longer air our gripes and voice our opinions, upload our photos, instant-message and do all the things in cyberspace that give meaning to our lives.

On the upside, in this country at least, our national electric company PLN, has given us plenty of rehearsals on what to do in the event of power blackouts. We could also use the opportunity to become Hindus and practice Nyepi or take up some serious meditations and adapt to the changing in the earth’s electro-magnetic field by increasing our own magnetic frequency.

Who knows, when we come out of it, we would not only get our electricity back, but we would have also achieved enlightenment.

(Desi Anwar: First published in The Jakarta Globe)

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