I am sitting in the communion room of the railway cottage, the dog is in the kitchen again, and again he is whining despite the warmth. A few minutes ago four of us were standing on the road outside the row of cottages looking south up into the partially cloudy sky. It wasn’t fully dark outside, the sky was still blue though dark, and the clouds were grey. A few stars were breaking through. Thanks to technology and a lucky break in the clouds, we saw what we are looking for, the International Space Station zooming past.
Two comments were made: “nothing else crosses the sky like that”; and “I didn’t realise it moved so fast”. The first comment isn’t true. If you have spent more than a few minutes looking up at the same patch of night sky, you will have probably seen satellites fly overhead. They stand out because they travel in a straight line at a constant speed and my eyes at least seem to be drawn to the movement (I assume I am not unique). Satellites will also be reflecting light back on the Earth and are therefore lit up to a certain extend. The ISS with its large solar arrays appears very bright in the night sky because of the light it reflects back. When you think about it, it makes sense that the ISS is travelling faster than the Earth is spinning. It’s not going to be in a geostationary orbit because then it wouldn’t be able to survey the whole of the Earth’s surface, so it either needs to be further out and go slower than the Earth spins, or nearer and go faster. From the point of view of building, supplying and maintaining the ISS it makes sense that it is in a lower than geo-stationary orbit. I think Tim Peake said that they see six sunrises and sunsets in 24 hours on the ISS.
What has struck me today is a bewildering sense of scale. Where I live, the nearest shop is a five minute walk along the same road. Here in the Dales the nearest town and hence shop is twelve miles away; rather further than a quick trip on the bike would allow. Popping down to the local just isn’t done on the ISS.
The sense of scale was also with me as I visited the White Scar Cave today. There is a part of me that is claustrophobic, so I wasn’t sure about visiting an underground cave. We took the dog in the car, so I had a get-out clause if I needed it since he wasn’t allowed in the cave, but one of our hosts had seen the cave recently so I wasn’t needed in that sense. I decided to give a visit a go. I bolstered myself by remembering visiting caves in Spain as a child, and comparing the trip to having an endoscopy without being sedated; no way could it be that traumatic.
It didn’t start well. After paying and being fitted for a hardhat, we entered the system a short way before stopping for our tour guide to introduce himself. He made it quite clear that we were going to hit out heads (I think I only managed four times), we needed to climb 97 steps, and that we going to have to traverse through two sections over 90 metres long where the height decreased to four foot. The butterfly of panic fluttered briefly when I heard the latter but I reminded myself to breathe deeply and consoled myself that if necessary I could always turn back. The guide made it plain that that option was always open.
I would recommend going to see the caves but do wrap up warm, it is only 8 degrees C inside and dress to get wet. I made it through the whole eighty minute trip and two main things struck me. I cannot comprehend why cavers do what they do, but I am thankful to the coal miners who blasted wider passages to make visiting possible for the likes of me. The main thing was the time required for water to carve out the tunnels in the first place. A lot of the path was carved out by a still running stream on which scaffolding is built over and walked on. In places avens are carved in the roof where a whirlpool formed and pressure pushed it up slowly wearing the rock away. There were stalagmites and stalactites and columns which had joined up, did I hear right when he said it took twenty thousand years for a millimetre of the limestone formation to grow? Surely not. There were shelves that looked like dipped out sand pies I created on the beach, giant versions of the limescale that forms in kettles in hard water areas. I do remember that the fastest growing formations were the stalactite straws. These hollow stone formations grew at one millimetre every fifty years and some of the straws reached up to two metres in length. That’s up to one hundred thousand years of growth represented; and these are the express versions of stalactites!
The scale of time is mind blowing. I have studied the formation of the solar system. I know the Earth is over 4.3 billion years old. I know the universe is over 13 billion years old. I know there are billions of galaxies which contains billions of stars many of which will have orbiting planets around them. How is it possible to comprehend these numbers when I can’t even get my head around the distance the ISS is from where I am standing, how long the water took to carve the cave system out, or how little material is deposited with the dripping of water in the rock formations? These things that are within my experience.
Whilst I may fail to comprehend the scale of things I saw today, one thing I do know; I challenged myself, and overcame a fear using my knowledge of the past and trust in my own capabilities. I gained new experiences and insights in spite of my claustrophobic tendencies, and that is something worth celebrating.