Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Age of Miracles

Karen Walker-Thompson's novel ‘The Age of Miracles’ is not an obvious literary award winner though it is a compulsive read and contains a number of interesting themes and challenging ideas - all introduced as the result of the phenomenon of Earth’s rotation slowing.

My previous blog ‘How fragile we are’ looked at the novel’s apocalyptic catastrophe theme - the dire consequences to all life on Earth as a result of the planet’s rotation gradually slowing and therefore extending both day and night.

But there are more subtle implications also to be considered when looking at the effects exaggerated daylight and dark hours might have on the normal working of our own bodies.


Midway through the book at the beginning of chapter 17, Thompson-Walker writes: "Two thousand years of art and superstition would suggest that it is darkness that haunts us most... but dozens of experiments conducted in the aftermath of the slowing revealed that it was not darkness that tampered most with our moods - it was light."

The implication, though not the cause, of night turning into day is not a million miles from the theme adopted by The Lighthouse Keeper for two of this autumn’s blog essays - ‘Fear of the dark’ and ‘Blinded by the night’.

It is now well-established by the medical profession that working through the night and the influence of light after dark can affect our circadian rhythms and long-term health and well-being in significant ways.

In his 2012 paper ‘Light Pollution, Nuisance and Planning Laws in the UK’ Martin Morgan-Taylor, principal lecturer in law at Leicester’s De Montfort University, states that artificial lighting is known to cause "some fairly obvious negative effects on human health and well-being" - in as much as floodlighting or illuminated advertising hoardings may disturb sleep by shining in bedroom windows.

"Indeed, it may be thought that sleeplessness may cause only temporary or negligible problems, but medical research is increasingly linking artificial light at night with some serious health effects, such as cancer and depression," he says.

"Other research indicates that artificial light at night may general disrupt human circadian rhythms."

In addressing the question of why this might by the case, Prof Morgan-Taylor pins the likely cause on what is known is that ‘white’ or ‘blue rich’ lighting, which mimics natural daylight and is being increasingly used at night.

"This type of light particularly suppresses the production of a circadian rhythm hormone called Melotin, so disturbing circadian rhythms," he states. Melotin is believed to be a powerful anti-oxidant that helps to ward off some human cancers.

"In other words, an avoidable exposure to ‘white/blue rich’ light at night may increase a person’s susceptibility to some cancers - and we are increasing our use of this form of lighting at night," he adds.

In ‘The Age of Miracles’ the world at large is thrust into ever-lengthening days and nights as Earth slows gradually from its standard 24 hour rotation.

At first the consequences are manageable, more of an inconvenience, but as the daylight hours stretch into periods of 30 and then 40 hours, and likewise the night, the effects on daily life become ever more pronounced and difficult. 


The terminator dividing day from night across Earth as seen
from the International Space Station.

The novel takes the concept of our bodies adapting to unnatural light patterns to a whole new level - but in considering current light pollution levels across the developed world (in England it increased by 24 percent between 1993 and 2000) the extrapolation is valuable.

The first chapter of Genesis in the Bible states that God ‘divided the light from the darkness’, which in Biblical terms can be viewed as both symbolic as well as being a statement about the natural environment. In essence we need them both because light allows us to see and darkness gives us an opportunity to sleep.

By lighting our neighbourhoods, towns and cities to excess and flooding our yards with unnecessary light we are wasting energy and undoubttedly contributing to climate change. In a more subtle way we may also be tampering with the laws of nature - and perhaps even creation itself. 

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