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Seeing the Light

Jim Dye

FOR A FEW minutes on Wednesday morning all work in my office stopped. In a scene that was repeated across the country, people crowded round hastily made pinhole projectors or risked a fleeting glance at the sun as it disappeared in the solar eclipse. For a time, nature was seen as something very intimate, and very real.

But more than that, it was an experience that was essentially collective. Forget the media hype, there was something special in those few moments when the sunlight was blocked by the moon. Some years ago my favourite science writer, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote about similar experiences during an eclipse in New York ("Happy Thoughts on a Sunny Day in New York City", contained in the collection Dinosaur in a Haystack, 1997). He described the unifying delight he witnessed that cut across racial and social distinctions, where people happily shared their newly created and improvised scientific tools. Such a fleeting show of united humanity cuts across the argument that people can be only be brought together by disaster, if at all.

Such immense interest in nature generated at times like this also gives the lie to the constantly heard refrain that people have no interest in the world around them. Take people away from the drudge of everyday living for a few moments and it is clear that the curiosity in nature is still there, and in a collective form. Science has been taken away from us in the same manner as other knowledge and ideology, and turned into an alienated concept that stands outside of our social being, but at times like this people begin to take it back.

It is important to remember that until this century there was a long working class tradition of scientific enquiry that was intertwined with political movements. The botanical and scientific groups and societies of workers such as the Spitalfields silk loom weavers at the turn of the last century, or the scientific associations of workers connected to the co-operative and Chartist movements, are all examples of this. We should also remember that it was among the working class socialists that Darwin’s revolutionary ideas first gained popular appreciation for their immeasurable value in explaining nature in a genuinely historical fashion that (unintentionally on the Christian Darwin’s part) also began to seriously undermine religion.

So perhaps the most significant thing about this eclipse was the almost complete absence of religious fervour attached to it, despite attempts by the various churches and new age sects to generate it. Instead what we witnessed were people who, while aware of the simple, and far from miraculous, celestial mechanics that can make an eclipse possible, were still absorbed by the event. Nature is wonderful, and as socialists we should not forget that by destroying capitalism and class society we will also begin the process that will remove it as an alienated category, distant from us except on occasions like these.

From What Next? No.14 1999