Monday, March 3, 2008

BANGON DUNIYA. Where are we in the Cosmos?

I was re-reading one of my favourite Science books; COSMOS by Astronomer Carl Sagan, when I came a cross a section that reminded me of my search for God as a small boy. In this book, Sagan was narrating how he developed interest in Astronomy telling us “I would look at them (the stars), twinkling and remote, and wonder what they were. I would ask older children and adults who would only reply ‘they’re lights in the sky kid’ I could see they were lights in the sky. But what were they? As soon as I was old enough, parents gave me my first library card… I asked the librarian for something on stars… she smiled and found another book---the right kind of book. I open it breathlessly and read until I found it. The book said something astonishing, a very big thought. It said that the stars were Suns, only very far away. The Sun was a star, but close up... So I decided that I would be an astronomer”.

So, I told my younger brothers about it and narrate to them how I also develop interests in Astronomy but without deciding to ‘become an Astronomer’. Just then, one of them asked me about Bangon Duniya (the wall of the world?) Trying to argue that he was told that when you pass the Great Wall of China, you have reached the end of the world and that you would just disappear. I wonder the source of that strange idea. They encouraged me to share the very little I know of the planet Earth and the universe with more people. I feel the idea is just right so I set to compose this article, (the last time I published an English article on the stars was in the defunct newspaper Democrat, 1989) which I hope would make more people aware of our place in the Cosmos.

This article is going to begin with some personal narrative. Therefore, this time around, we are leaving literature and history to make a short trip to Astronomy. Lately I went to greet my mother when my young son Abdulrashid asked her about the moon. While replying she said ‘like father like son. When your father was a kid he will always insist that I lift him up to touch the moon or get him one of the stars”. I then realised that my interest with the skiy has been a very long and intimate one.

Now to my journey. Like any other Muslim child in Hausaland, northern Nigeria, my first school was the Makarantar Allo later I joined Islamiyya School to be taught the Qur’an, Hadith, Seera, Fiqhu, Arabic and so on. Two incidences happened, the first, while I was in Qur’anic school and on holidays with my grandma ma in Tsafe (then North Western State, now Zamfara State). Whenever it was time to prayer, she insist that I pray, but like any other child, sometimes I rather continue with my wasan kasa or something else. She would admonish me saying “if you are not praying, Allah would burn you in the hell fire in the hereafter” and I would reply innocently “Allah would not find me, for I would run away to Maiduguri and hide”. The reason for saying Maiduguri was that I heard that it is a town very far, far away and I thought God might not be able to find me.

When I start attending Islamiyya School I came to learn more about the attributes of Allah, some of which I began to learn with a Malam in Kankia (Katsina State) when I visit my maternal grand parents. Thus, I learn that Allah has no beginning nor will He ever had an end, He created time and everything and that He knew everything. The lines to justify that Allah has no beginning are still fresh in my memory and they read:
“Domin kuwa lokaci halitta ce ta Allah
To yaya za a yi halittar Allah ta riga Allah
Saboda haka, ashe Allah bas hi da farko, kuma ba shi da karshe”
Because time itself is a creature of Allah
How then can Allah’s creation comes before Allah
Therefore Allah has no beginning and has no end”

Thanks to my teachers, may Allah reward them abundantly with the best of rewards. From then on, the idea of running to Maiduguri seem untenable, therefore abandon. The next great challenge was with an idea of paradise taught to us by our Yasayyadis. I learnt that Paradise is the opposite of hellfire and that it is a beautiful place that we never could imagine. Whatever good or beautiful thing we thought of is abundant in paradise. We were told what to do to be admitted in the paradise and what to do or not do to be in hellfire (God forbid).

All these are conceivable to a small child of my age. What was not conceivable or acceptable or even comprehensible was the idea that this paradise is consisting of very big and mighty houses/palaces. Their sizes are the bone of contention between my imagination and the Yasayyadi’s pronouncements that the poorest inhabitant of paradise would be given a house that is seventy thousand times bigger than the world. This is a very difficult idea for me. I reasoned that we were living in Kano, I have travelled as far as Katsina and Sokoto and have seen how vast the land mass was and I know that places like Makkah and Madina and even Ingila (England) were very far way. So how could only one person (the poorest for that matter) get a house 70,000 times bigger than the whole Earth? Where would the space be found? Yes the key question was where would the space be found?

I see the sun rise every morning and sets every evening. We see the crescent moon grow to be full only to wane back again. Of course I see the stars in the night, but it never occurred to me that they have any link with the problem at hand. That ‘powerful doubt’ kept confusing me. The only consolation was the belief that Allah is able to do all things. That being the case, the material world could not answer or clear my doubt.

One day at the primary school, I begin to learn that the Earth (world) is a planet in the solar system and that there are other planets beside the Earth. By the time I was in form three, my first lesson in Geography was about the Solar System. From then on I realised that some of the planet out there are bigger than our planet and that those tiny lamps in the sky that we call stars are mighty bodies of gas. For the first time, I came to learn about galaxies. From then on I began to understand that the spaces to be allocated to ‘yan aljanna are actually available.

I set out to understand the mystery of the night sky I see every night. Every book that talks about the sky or the universe became my good friend and Geography my twin brother. We had a library at the senior secondary school I attended (Science Secondary School, Zuru, now Kebbi State) and I made it a point to read all the books that talk about Astronomy. At the university, the Usmanu Danfodiyo University Library provided me with all the basic books that I needed to learn about the universe. It was through Astronomy that I personally discovered God and had a conviction about His existence and His powers of creation and love for mankind. This was my personal discovery and not something I have been taught by my Malams. It is in astronomy that one would hear Astronomers declaring their weakness in knowledge and simply saying ‘we do not know’. My further studies into Islam and Science through books notably by Maurice Baucille and others strengthen my belief in Allah, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.

Now let us go straight to our topic by starting to discuss briefly the planet Earth. The simple thing we are going to do here is to describe it and provide some facts and figures about it after which I would lead you into a journey across the Solar system.

The Planet Earth

The Earth is a planet, one of the nine planets orbiting the Sun. Scientist have told us that it is about 4.5 billion years old. The mean distance of the Earth from the Sun is 149,503,000 km (92,897,000 mi). Like all other planets, it orbit round the Sun. the length of its orbit round the Sun is approximated at 938,900,000 km (583,400,000 mi). This is the distance we all travel each year as the Earth revolves round the Sun. The more interesting thing about this long journey is the speed at which we travel which is 106,000 kilometres per hour which means, we travels at a speed of 260,805.5 kilometres every second. The Earth is spherical in shape as shown on the accompanying photograph. Its diameter is about 12756 km (7926 mi) at the equator and about 12713 km (7899 mi) — 43 km (27 mi) at the poles. Water covers most of the Earth about 71 percent.

This means that countries are located at different locations. To make it easier for us to know our world, Geographers use some imaginary lines to divide the world. They are called longitude and latitude. Longitudes move from North to South, the upper part always been the North. We use them to know time. Since the Earth rotates on its axis (East to West), it means that while one area is facing the Sun, the other is backing it. This is why we have variations in terms of day and night. Some areas particular those in the East see the Sun before those in the West. The other imaginary line is called Longitude and this one runs East-West, right hand being the East. This helps us know our location, i.e. where we are on the planet Earth.

Geographers use this line to divide the world into two, the line called equator divides the world into two equal halves, north and south. We also have areas tagged as Tropical regions; these are the areas lying immediately north and south of equator. We also have Temperate areas as well as the Polar region. We do not have to bother ourselves with their exact degrees here. What we are particularly interested in all this is the issue of the amount of solar radiation each section receives. Because the Earth is tilted, the angle in which Sun’s rays hit the Earth varies from region to region. Whereas in the Tropics, the Sun is almost overhead, they receive a lot of solar radiation and that is why it is hot. As you move up north/south the angle’s slant increases thus the temperate latitudes receive less amount of solar radiation compared to the tropics. That is why countries in those areas are always cold.

At the poles, the Earth are relatively flat, the story is interesting. But before then, let us examine and see if the poles may be considered as Bangon Duniya, because literarily, it is the end of the world. Although I personally did not know much about Hausa pre-Islamic cosmology, the idea of the world having a wall (bango) among the Hausas might be an old belief. It is obvious that the idea is associated with the belief that the Earth is flat. Hausa people’s culture of making city walls might have helped in this idea. It also means that when you reach the walls of the world and dig through it, you may fall down (to God knows where). However, the Islamic belief in Yajuju wa majuju (Gog and Maggog) might have strengthened this belief of Bangon Duniya. Now we know better that the Earth is not flat but spherical. What we may consider as Bangon Duniya should be the Poles, north and south poles that are within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.

The most interesting thing about the Polar region is the fact that, at the poles, there is only one day and one night. That means they have six months of continuous daylight and continuous night. Their seasons are opposite, when it is summer in the Arctic (north pole), it is winter in the Antarctic (south pole). The area is extremely cold and is covered with ice and snow. There are rivers not of water but of ice, there are hills and mountains of ice. In fact, the people that live in the polar region use ice to build their houses, which they called igloo. The picture below shows two Inuit people building an igloo (house).

Now, we have said something about our planet, although we did not say much, the very little we have said, I hope, would help those of us that are not Geographers like me. The next thing to do now is for me to lead you. We are making a trek within the solar system. Hope you are ready.

Measuring Distances in the Universe

This journey we are going to make was influenced by my personal experience in the London Planetarium. In November 1998, I was in London on an Academic Exchange programme with the University of Sussex at Brighton. A friend of mine, who now abandon me in the classroom and “start working” Malam Bala Muhammad (formally of Mass Communications Department, Bayero University, Kano), took me to the London Planetarium. There, we experienced a journey across the Solar system and beyond. It was that experience that influenced this one. The only difference in this case is that you would only be reading the article without experiencing the journey (no visual effects). In any case, I think, it would be exiting. Most often I think about things like Planetarium becoming available in Nigeria. A planetarium would not cost us as much as we spent extravagantly on hosting Commonwealth whatever or the COJA extravaganza. But as you all know, what is important is always not a priority in Nigeria.

A Planetarium

Although we are not travelling any far away, we must note that distances in the sky (space) are enormous that the use of kilometres or miles may be meaningless. Instead we use the speed of light to measure distance. For example light travels 300,000 kilometres ever second. How long does it travel in a year? It travels an enormous distance of Ten Trillion Kilometres (10,000,000,000,000 km). Those when we say One light year what we actually mean is 10,000,000,000,000 km. In astronomical sense we do not say the distance between the Sun and the Earth is 150,000,000 kilometres rather 8.5 light minutes. At greater distances that remotely into the ream of the known universe we use even higher measures like kilo per sec to Mega per sec. These units are far greater than per sec or common light year. Nearby galaxies like The Andromeda galaxy 1,063,072,000,000,000 kilometres (One Septillion, Sixty three Trillion, Seventy two billion Kilometres) and is in the local group. The ream of the known universe detected by radio telescopes is about Forty Billion Light Years away. Think of that colossal distance in miles or kilometres.

NASA/Liaison Agency
Galaxy M100
The spiral galaxy M100 is located between 35 million and 80 million light-years from Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope captured this image of the core of M100 after repairs were made to the telescope in December 1993.

Time may not permit us to travel outside the Solar System to go to the galaxies. But for those of us who do not know, a galaxy is a star system, which constitute of thousands of billions of stars. Just as we have cities on the planet Earth, galaxies are like cities of stars in the universe. The Milky Way galaxy is our home galaxy, i.e. where the solar system belongs. Its diameter is 100,000 light years across and its thickness is about 20,000 light years. It completes a single revolution in every 225,000,000 years. The Milky Way Galaxy is just one of the uncountable galaxies that litter the universe. We live at the backwaters of the Milky Way (on the arms)

A trek through the solar system

Let us now make an attempt to travel just around the neighbourhood. I said neighbourhood because comparing the vast distances in space a traveller in the Solar System is a non-starter. Our travel must be aided by our imagination and accumulative knowledge gained through reading and watching educational documentaries. Just imagine yourself as a member of a space travel team. You are already in your astronaut’s suite and are fully aware that we are going to travel at the speed of light, thus it will take us roughly 50,000 years at the speed of light, this indicates that time will stop working on us as we approach the speed of light. Fasten your seat belt and let move on a spaceship of imagination. As your captain I shall be informing you of where we are whenever we arrive.

Our first point of call is the moon. It is about 375,284 kilometres from Earth and thus will take us roughly 1 minute to reach it and we have. We are now on the moon, as you can see from the window it is very quite and lifeless. You could see rocks and soil boulders and a number of craters. Its gravity is too small that we can lift 300 kg worth of material without feeling it. If you look up, you could see the planet Earth. How beautiful it looks plotting in space. For the remaining planets we will just hove around and view it from above. This is because their atmospheres and surfaces are not friendly to our technology.

It took us just two minutes to our next point of call, the planet Venus. It is over 40 million kilometres from the moon. It is a very hot planet because of its nearness to the Sun with up to 450OC. It is about the size of the Earth as you can see. It takes just 225 days to complete one revolution. Thus a person that is 10 years old on Venus will be just Six years three month (6.3) old on Earth.

Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun (just some 55,000,000 km away) is even hotter as you can feel despite attempts to protect yourself. It took us three minutes and we could not stay more than some second, we have to move further. I know you are still trying to spot it, it is hard to spot because of the dense lightening of the Sun. Anyway, and it takes about 88 days to complete its revolution.

Now you have to put on the dark curtains on your windows we are approaching the Sun. This is the powerhouse, the energy source of the Solar system. The Sun is a medium star. It is over 300,000 times bigger than our Earth with a surface temperature of 6000 o C (water boils at 100 o C, this means the heat on the surface of the Sun is just like the heat of boiled water times 60) and an internal temperature of 15,000,000 o C. Its diameter is about 1.5 billion kilometre. We must leave now towards the planet Mars.

It is relatively far as it took us 12 minutes thus nearing about 227 million kilometres. Some of us have read several fantasies about this planet fondly called the red planet. Observers from Earth view a number of landforms misunderstood as irrigation canals. This made many to believe that there is an intelligent being there who till the soil as we do. There are so many stories about the Martian invading the like and us. But as you can see from your windows Mars is as lifeless as the Moon. Indeed you could see some landforms looking like drainage systems some of which as if artificially made. Our knowledge is still inadequate to say exactly what they had been. I hope you are able to spot its two moons Phobos and Deimos. Lets move.

We are passing through the asteroid bet. This is as you are watching comprised of small rocks the largest (Ceres) about 936 km radius. This belt is what is considered as the boundary between inner and outer planets. I know some of you have spotted the biggest planet in the Solar System: Jupiter. We are heading towards it.

It will take us 41 minutes to traverse a 752 million kilometres to Jupiter’s atmosphere. We are now in its atmosphere and some of you have seen some of its 16 moons as we cross. You can see it is really big. It is 1,300 times bigger than our planet. Because of its distance from the Sun it take 12 years to complete a revolution. Therefore a one year old on Jupiter is 12 years old on Earth. The strangest thing about this planet is the fact that it has no surface like the inner planet. It is mainly gaseous. Look up, you could spot a tiny blue ball, it is our planet, some 100 million kilometre away. We have come far.

Saturn, the beautiful planet with a ring is about 42 minutes away and shall be there soon. It is 750 million kilometres away. Some of you are fast asleep, please wake up, the beautiful planet is here. We have arrived Saturn. You can see that there are six beautiful rings surrounding it. Look carefully; you will see that they are not smooth but made up of rock particles. How marvellous it looks. It has 21 moons and I know you have spotted Lapitus, Rhea, Titan and Mimas. It takes 29.5 years to complete a revolution. One year on Saturn is therefore 29.5 years on Earth.

Uranus here we come. We have spent one hour fifteen minutes to arrive Uranus’s atmosphere. It is about 15 times bigger than the Earth and has 19 thin rings. Hope you are counting. It has five moons, could you spot Ariel and Miranda? Because of it vast distance from the sun it is very cold and takes 88 years to complete a revolution. We have to move on.

Now we are going to travel in darkness. We are getting farther and farther away from the Sun. The temperature is drastically falling. In the next 84 minutes we will cover a distance of four billion, 370 million kilometres. Aha! You have sighted two celestial bodies. They are Triton and Nereid, two main Neptune’s moons. It takes 164 Earth years to complete a revolution.

Finally our journey is nearing end as we approach Pluto. After covering 950 million kilometres in one hour 41 minutes we arrived Pluto. It is a small planet that is at the extreme from the sun measuring about 5 billion 952 million kilometres from the Sun. This great distance means that its orbit is wider. It has one moon and completes a revolution in 248 Earth years. A one year old on Pluto will be 248 years on Earth, thus if any of us can be left there to spend the next three years on the planet Pluto, when we come back he will be 744 years older than we left him.

We have reached the edge of the Solar system. It is not wise for us to go beyond it. We must therefore turn back home, to our planet Earth. Well, I am also tired; I think we shall all rest here. See you another time, Insha Allah.


From this short trek we had into the Solar system, we can appreciate our position in the scheme of things at least within the Solar system. Our planet is understandably the only one that favours life form, as we know it. Being at a distance not too close (to be too hot) like Mercury, or not too far away like Pluto, (to be too cold) or even with a harsh atmosphere (like Mars) or without a surface like Jupiter, the Earth is the most suitable place in the solar system. Scientists have been searching for life in the solar system and beyond. They are yet to find any even though thy have found other planetary systems around other Suns. The feeling of loneliness is at times tempting. When Voyager was sent out to space, it went with a number of things about us, including our music, language and astronomical position in the Universe.

Are we alone in this vast universe or are there ‘others’ somewhere far away, at the realms of the known universe? This is a question that would take many years to be answered. In any case, we must use our loneliness in the universe to poster unity and love among our kind. This planet Earth is would have been a better place if had we not been making plans to destroy ourselves. Countries that have Nuclear weapons (and maintain the right to own such weapons, yet prevented others from having, for the advantage in terrorising others of their kind) are the harbingers of our destruction.

But when the Earth is weigh down by a Nuclear Winter (God forbid) none of our kind (mankind) would survive. Better we uplift the spirit of this space faring civilisation with love and unity of our kind than by amassing Weapons of Mankind’s Destruction.

1 comment:

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Kano, Kano, Nigeria
Dr. Yusuf M. Adamu is a Professor of Medical Geography at the Bayero University Kano. He is a bilingual novelist, a poet, and writes for children. He is interested in photography and run a photo blog ( All the blogs he run are largely for his hobbies and not his academic interests. Hope you enjoy the blogs.