Copernicus revealed the big news – the sun does not circle the earth. It does not rise in the East and set in the West. It took awhile, some 200 years, but finally science and the rest of the world agreed and said, “Of course”. We are the ones circling, not the sun. How could it ever have been thought otherwise? And yet, we say the sun “rises” though we know it does not, that in fact, the earth spins and reveals the sun and then keeps spinning and faces away from the sun. Our language still, after so many centuries, has no everyday words for the earth spinning and thus turning to the light in the morning. Sunrise is what we say. And Sunset.
At Mauna Kea – the top of the world and the site of some of the most advanced telescopes on earth, I listened to a nighttime Star talk by park rangers and up-and-coming scientists. They, led by Pablo, a personable ranger and an engaging speaker, describe the stars moving overhead. In a talk that ranges from nebulae to zodiac signs and their constellations, Pablo points out our galaxy that is so gorgeously spread across the night sky. And it is heartrendingly beautiful to see the stars in such clarity and such numbers, accustomed as I am to a city sky with its few stars twinkling here and there in the night. And I am fascinated by the constellations and the clusters of stars I see in the sky.
As night progresses, the scientists on site talk about the stars passing overhead. And I think once again: it’s the language. We all stand here, knowing that the stars will not circumnavigate our world, that our world spins its view of them each cycle. And yet we say the stars pass overhead, the sun rises and sets. Language is always in flux, we know, changing with our changing understanding of the world. And yet this particular aspect of our language is slow to catch up with our world view.
I sit on a balcony in Hawaii the next morning watching the sun “rise” and I work at not seeing the sun rise but focus instead on the earth turning. It takes some effort, as I am so accustomed to the notion of our sun “rising” and “setting”, but soon I begin to see it, the movement of the horizon as it dips into the sun’s light. We dip and then dip further, as we make our slow revolution, revealing just a bit of the sun’s rays and then more and then, voilá, the globe of the sun appears. And we are in the light.
The earth has turned and I have noticed, but I still have no new word for sunrise.
I’m aware that there are deep and philosophical conversations about how much language affects our thinking. Or how much it does not. The discussion on that chicken and the egg proceeds at its own pace. For me, though, the question of the sunrise brings me to ponder some of the other aspects of life. Like consciousness and its effect on our world. I have no word for the way consciousness affects the world around me—is that maybe why I find it so difficult to perceive this influence?