For once the most watched event of the week didn't involve Simon Cowell, Sir Tom Jones in a big chair or a D-list celebrity on ice. In fact, it wasn't even on TV. For a few minutes in March 2015 the nation's attention was focused on the heavens in anticipation of the first UK solar eclipse in 14 years.
At around 9:30 that Friday morning the moon wandered between the earth and the sun depriving our planet of it's light. For just a moment, as the eclipse reached its majestic peak, it was night-time. The birds stopped singing and all was quiet - it was simply...beautiful. Well, that's not exactly how I experienced it. I was actually standing near the M25 under an overcast sky at the moment the eclipse occurred. The birds may have ceased their chirping but I wouldn't have noticed over the white noise of traffic. I'm pretty sure that the sky transitioned from a medium grey to a darkish grey - well it must have done as the street lights came on.
As I stood there under the yellow hue of the sodium lamp listening to the traffic pass it was more apparent than ever how disconnected we've become from the natural world in which our species evolved. It's quite poetic that one of the best places to see the eclipse turned out to be Stonehenge, a structure built in an age when the sky had such a profound grasp on the human imagination that our ancestors were willing to painstakingly maneuverer 50 tonne stones and countless timbers into alignment with celestial events such as eclipses, solstices and equinoxes. The stars were their clock, calendar, compass and, for some civilisations, their Gods. It's difficult to comprehend how differently our ancestors must have viewed the night sky.
It's hard to underestimate how profound the physiological effect of this eternal daytime can be.
For one thing the star studded canvas which they gazed upon would have appeared clearer than any we see today. A study conducted by the university of Exeter, assessed the worldwide variations in artificial sky glow and found, unsurprisingly, that our night skies are now the brightest in human history. Nearly all of the 50 sites studied were found to be contaminated with artificial light. With the brightest location, the Dutch town of Schipluiden, found to have a night sky 10,000 times brighter than that of the darkest. Standing in a modern city you're lucky if you can distinguish anything more than the moon and a few blinking aviation lights above the electrified urban illumination. It's hard to underestimate how profound the physiological effect of this eternal daytime can be. For instance it's well documented that our circadian rhythm - the 24 hour cycle which not only drives our sleep patterns but influences the time of day certain genes are expressed, which proteins are produced and fundamentally regulates our biochemistry - is calibrated, in part, by variations in the colour and intensity of light incident on our retinas throughout the day. As the evening sun moves towards the horizon it's light must travel further through the Earth's atmosphere to reach your eyes, the higher frequency part of the light spectrum is scattered away leaving only the vibrant reds and burnt oranges of a characteristic sunset. Not only did this cue our ancient ancestors to down tools for the evening, it triggered physiological processes readying them for sleep. In the modern world we instinctively try to replicate the sun's behaviour by having whiter light in places of work and redder hues when relaxing. But when it comes to public lighting - the main source of light pollution - we're exposed to an uncontrolled amalgamation of colour throwing our natural rhythms into chaos.
I find it difficult to imagine how our ancestors must have felt gazing up at the celestial void, deprived of the discoveries that their distant offspring - our forefathers - went on to make about the universe. When we gaze skywards the great discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo and Hubble, to name but a few, do not simply come swimming to the surface but are an intrinsic component of our experience - it takes considerable mental power to even imagine that the earth were flat; it jars too heavily with our personal manifestation of reality. Our ancestors, unburdened by this knowledge, were free to let their imaginations run wild. Heavenly bodies became deities which inspired folklore, customs and music. When you consider that recent archaeological discoveries point towards religious festivals, not farming, as the trigger for mankind's transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a settled one, it's becomes quite feasible that celestial events such as eclipse were the catalyst for modern civilisation.
It's interesting to think that at some point in our evolutionary history, one of our distant ancestors was the first person to ever look up at an eclipse and truly pay attention. The first individual to stare skyward in wonderment and ask questions which would take hundreds of thousands of years to answer. Whenever and wherever this event happened, I can say with some certainty that it was a much more inspirational moment than I experience in the shadow of the M25.