Wherever I am, I try to be up early enough to see the sunrise. My late-rising friends often admire my early rising, but that admiration does not get them up early.
During my recent visit to China, I observed a lot of sunrises and sunsets. This seems like a crazy thing to do, given the fact that the sun rises and sets everywhere, and we were in China, for goodness sake. Full daylight revealed a landscape and people fundamentally different than my Ohio experiences. Why bother with sunrises?
For one thing, the nighttime sky in China was pretty much the same as the sky I see in Ohio. We spent a lot of time hovering around 40 degrees latitude, which is about the same latitude as central Ohio. The same latitude means the same sky at night.
Besides, the nighttime sky in China was, quite frankly, terrible. We spent a lot of time in very large cities with very large light pollution. Given that, I was often lucky if I could see one star and the planet Jupiter. In the rural areas, we were often up high, but it was the rainy season, and the best the sky could do was a deep and all-pervading haze.
Sky fanatics take what we can get. And the haze made for some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.
So, up I got at 5 a.m. almost every single morning we were in China. Despite the jet lag, rising early was not a problem for me. For decades, I have done the same virtually every morning of my life.
Occasionally, my friends openly scoff at my sunrise addiction. One of them said to me, “After all, a sunrise is just a sunrise.”
On one level, he’s right. However, a sunrise tells you things, not just about the universe, but also about the frailty of our human experience and the evolution of human knowledge.
Up to just 400 years ago, the rising and motion of the sun, moon, stars, and planets had all of humanity absolutely persuaded that our planet was the center of the cosmos and that everything moved around us in great circles.
In fact, we still refer to sunrise and sunset as if the sun were moving and not our planet — and with good reason. Every aspect of the experience tells us that it is so.
It took a leap of imagination by people with names like Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler to see that Earth was rotating, spinning around completely once every day.
Astronomy proves that Earth is rotating, but we still don’t feel the motion in a visceral way. It takes only one experience of the Earth moving to help us feel it forever.
I have had that experience more than once, and I encourage you to do the same. It might take a hundred sunrises or sunsets to experience it, but once is all you need to fundamentally change your perception of your world and your universe.
The best time to do it is during the early morning of a full-moon night. On that morning, as the sun rises, the full moon, big and bright, is just setting.
Go out about an hour before sunrise. In binoculars or just the binoculars you were born with, watch the moon get closer and closer to the trees, then touch them, and then slowly be obscured by them.
Then quickly turn around. If you in the right frame of mind, you will feel the Earth spinning at 640 miles per hour in the opposite direction to the apparent motion of the moon. That’s at our latitude of 40 degrees. At the equator, you’re zipping along at about 1,000 miles per hour.
I was 12 years old when I had this experiential revelation for the first time. Intellectually, I knew I was on a spinning ball hurtling through space. Like most 12-year-olds, I had been forced to memorize the numbers in school: About 365.25 days for the Earth to orbit the sun. Nearly exactly 24 hours for the Earth to spin once on its axis. But that fine morning, I felt the numbers in a deep and life-changing way. I felt the Earth move.
As I result, I have spent many glorious, star-filled nights showing others the majesty of their universe. I have written in excess of 1,500 columns like this one trying to ignite that same spark in other 12-year-olds.
But there’s more. Next, notice that you are now facing in the direction of the sunrise. Don’t look directly at the sun, of course. You’ll damage your eyes.
Instead, watch the sky change color as the sun’s light, still below the horizon, bends around through Earth’s atmosphere. You have now experienced another quality, called atmospheric refraction, of the rising sun.
If you have a perfectly clear sky and a horizon unimpeded by trees or buildings, you may even see a perfect solar spectrum, a horizontal rainbow, huddled close to the horizon.
Such is the nature of refraction. It breaks the light of the sun into its component colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, all in perfect order. See it once, and the “Roy G Biv” mnemonic you had to learn in school will take on new meaning because you have experienced it for yourself.
But there is still more. The sunrise and sunset can have a profoundly human meaning deeper and more emotional than science can elicit.
As the sky changes color at sunrise, I often say to myself, “I’m still here. I have survived another dark night. I am still here to appreciate this beauty, to experience for good or for ill the precious gift of life.”
And as the sun sets, I often think, “I am still here. I know not whether I will see another sunrise, but I have been blessed to be awake and alive to experience yet another day.”
In China, the ever-present haze and the light from the cities precluded any real nighttime observing, so I contented myself with the morning sunrises. They varied from dull because of the rain and clouds to spectacular because of the haze.
I will never forget one of them. We were in Yangzhou, a small town, by Chinese standards, of only 300,000 people. That morning, I walked to a pedestrian bridge that stood above the street below and watched the sunrise through the mountains.
I took a dozen or so images, but none of them capture the subtlety and beauty of the event. Two mountains in the foreground framed a smaller hill in the distance. The distant hill was barely visible in the haze.
In a matter of seconds, the haze caused the entire sky in that direction to change from a deep red-orange to a vibrant purple. In three blinks of an eye, Roy transformed into G Biv.
I don’t have the words to capture the beauty and profundity of the event. Luckily, at the moment the color changed, these half-remembered words from the Japanese poet Basho flowed through my head.
Suddenly, it’s evening.
And the hill we never named is hidden in the mist.
Basho’s haiku, or at least my hazily recollected version of it, is about regret. We promise ourselves that we will accomplish many tasks and experience many things in our lives. But a moment comes in older age when we realize that it is too late.
Let me say this as the evening of my life begins: That half-hidden hill probably already had a name, but to me, it will always be Kensho, the Buddhist word for discovering your deepest and most perfect self. And thus I named it.
And at that moment, I realized why I traveled to a place halfway around the globe. It was to see such a sunrise, to see such a hill half-hidden in the haze, and to give that hill a name.
Later, as we walked across the bridge, I noted that my little mountain was completely obscured by the mist. A return visit the next morning was a total washout in the rain.
That few seconds was all I got, but it was enough. You can live a lifetime in a few seconds.
Westerners tend to diminish the value of such events by calling them elements of a “bucket list,” the things we want to do and the things we want to see before we kick the bucket.
However, at their best, those journeys are filled with moments of quiet joy. They are odysseys of self-discovery, of finding our true selves unencumbered by the dross of our daily concerns and unfulfilled desires.
Seeing that sunrise was part of that journey. Seeing and naming that little hill half-hidden in the haze was one of those moments.
Sadly, in our obsession with the search for ever-greater and more sensational experience, we have lost the ability to see the profundity of simple things like sunrises and sunsets. We have pushed aside the greatest accomplishments of all — to love and be loved.
It doesn’t take a trip to China to have such an experience. Sunrises happen every day and everywhere. The simplest of experiences — the touch of a loving hand or the intricate structure of a fallen leaf — can be life changing if we simply wake up and open our eyes.
A sunrise is more than just a sunrise. A mountain is more than just a pile of stone and earth. They can be more, much more, if we see them with a well-stocked mind and, more importantly, an open heart.
May you all, gentle readers, see many sunrises before your brief visit to our planet is complete. May you all name a mountain or two before your last sunset blazes gloriously in the west.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.