It is comforting to know how small we are.
Over the winter holiday, we took a trip to the town of Sutherland, in the Northern Cape. Sutherland is the coldest town in South Africa, with a tiny population* and a single main road. It’s the home of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT), which pretty much controls the population and economy of the dorpie. The restaurants and B&B’s keep their lights dim to avoid light pollution during night-time, and by the time the sun has set, the town is still.
Those are Sutherland’s main attractions: snow and stargazing. We missed out on the snow, but my disappointment faded the moment we arrived and I emerged from the car only to be hit by a ferociously cold wind. A maximum of five degrees Celsius was cold enough – the snow could stay away. The stargazing, however, could not be missed.
As we huddled around two telescopes, our guide pointed out formations in the sky – Scorpio, the crown… Later he tapped in the coordinates on the telescope to reveal to us our first sighting, and, toes frozen in my boots, I awaited my turn to see Saturn. Soon I placed my eye before the lens, and there it was, a tiny orb of yellow, encircled in rings, 1.2 billion years away (shout-out to Google). Strange to think that this little image was real, was a planet 764 times larger than Earth.
Next, we observed three stars (the names of which I have sadly forgotten). They shone like gems through the telescope, boasting hues of pink and green. Then Jupiter, and its two vertical grey stripes, our guide explained, were the thunderstorms that rage on the planet. At last, we looked at the moon. It was close enough to our world that when we peered at it through the lens, we saw craters and shadows and shades. It was partly hidden in shadow, and gazing up at it with the naked eye, we saw the curve of its hidden half.
I thought this blog post might be too fluffy to share, but there is no other way that I can describe stargazing. It places you outside of yourself, just for a moment. I think it daft not to believe that there are beings other than ourselves living in the universe. We are but tiny dots in the universe, a grain of sand in the span of time. The expanse of the universe makes us seem inconsequential, and our problems rather irrelevant. To me, that is a fleeting but dear comfort, and one that we ought to remember.
*Population: just over 3600. (Makes Grahamstown look like Jo’burg.)
Header image: Janus Brink
Moon pics: taken on on my mom’s phone over the telescope.