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Here comes the sun!
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 04 - 2007


By Lubna Abdel-Aziz
Here comes the Sun, dancing from the East, bringing back the graceful swans,"breeding lilacs out of the dead land," spreading rapture and revelry, and a little madness of a midsummer's dream. Its gentle rays warm our bodies as we thaw out winter's weariness, and bathe in its gentle caresses. Waking our senses, stirring our hearts with blessed bliss, can we then help but bask in its golden luxury, its velvet touch, reassured that "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world!"
Those loving sunrays however, can be as cruel as they are kind. In fact, they can be quite deadly. Scientists call the sun's radiation ultraviolet in the UVA, UVB, and UVC bands, which have the potential of damaging collagen fibres in humans, thereby accelerating aging of the skin, sunburn and possibly cancer. Ultraviolet (beyond violet) irradiation present in sunlight is an environmental human carcinogen, with toxic effects that are a major concern. Incidence of skin cancer has increased worldwide especially in the southern hemisphere, like Australia, where such cases have risen to 75% in the last couple of years. On the other hand, tens of thousands of premature deaths occur annually due to insufficient UVB exposure, or vitamin D deficiency. Lack of vitamin D also produces osteomalacia (rickets) which results in bone pain, fractures, etc. Where to go -- what to do? Do we opt for no sun and suffer the consequences of vitamin D deficiency and a dark and dreary life, or do we embrace the sun and suffer health effects of the skin, eyes, immune system, and even death? The answer naturally is to take it all in moderation, using adequate protective measures.
A huge glowing ball of gases in the centre of our Solar System, with a mass more than 750 times as great as all the other planets combined, the Sun is one of a billion stars in the universe, with the earth and the other eight planets travelling around it. To us earthlings it is the most important star in the heavens, for without its heat and light, there would be no life on our planet. Four hundred time larger than the moon, and also 400 times further from earth, 150 million kilometres away, still it is nearer to us than any other star.
Man's early understanding of the sun is of a luminous disc in the heavens whose presence creates light, and whose absence brings about dark. Most ancient cultures thought the sun a god, worshipped and made offerings to. Many of the ancient monuments were constructed with the solar phenomenon in mind. Early beliefs of the sun were attempts to explain the Sun's movements from East to West. Egyptians believed the sun god Ra sailed a boat across the sky; the Greeks likewise believed Helios, the sun god drove a chariot across the sky. The sun helped man keep track of time using a variety of devices, notably the Sun Dial, as well as building complicated structures to follow its motion. The monument of Stonehenge in England was such a structure which probably tracked the motion of the sun and moon.
Born about 4.57 billion years ago, it is composed of approximately 75% hydrogen and 25% helium. At its center it has an estimated temperature of 15,000,000 degrees centigrade, and a surface temperature of 5,500 degrees C. This should be enough warning never to look directly into the sun, which can be painful and may cause temporary or permanent partial blindness. While we may not want to look at it, we still seek its golden rays as we rush off to the beaches or poolside in pursuit of that desirable suntan. Wearing a fashionable suntan is a recent, 20th century fad. In ancient times, a tanned skin was demeaning, associated with manual labour and the working classes. Women deliberately lightened their skin to signify wealth and higher status.
This concept lasted through the 19th century. Tanned skin became a sign of beauty in the 20th century when fashion icon Coco Chanel displayed a dark tan following a vacation in the Riviera in 1920. It ignited a fad among the chic Parisiennes. By the 1950s the tan's lowly position was completely reversed, and now signifies a high social status. Surfing, sailing, basking on yacht decks and exotic beaches were the occupation of the world's beautiful people, and the rest of the world followed. Tanning booths sprouted everywhere to give the appearance of leisurely luxury to all who could not afford a jaunt to Acapulco or Amalfi..
It was not long, before the hazards of over-exposure to the sun became
apparent. In the US the American Academy of Dermatology launched a public warning as 27,000 cases of new skin cancer were diagnosed in 1990 followed by 8,000 deaths. The public campaign, now worldwide, is vigorous and frightening, yet still 2/3 of women opt for the sun because "they look better and healthier with a tan." Protective sun blocks, and sunscreen creams and lotions are now plentiful and should be used religiously. Make sure they contain a Sun Protective Factor (SPF) of 15% or more, and that they block both UVA and UVB rays, containing more active ingredients. Apply thickly and re-apply every hour if sweating or swimming. Avoid sun exposure from 11 am to 3 pm when the sun rays are strongest, and wear a wide-brimmed hat, UV protective glasses, and tightly woven fabric. You are most susceptible if you are fair- skinned, red-haired, or blonde, light coloured eyes, have freckles, moles or birthmarks. If you work or play for long outdoors, or if you have a family history of skin cancer, you should examine yourself regularly, especially such parts that are repeatedly exposed to the sun, like the head, neck, face, tips of the ears, hands, forearms, shoulder, back, women's lower legs and men's chests. Any area that looks unusual should be examined immediately by a physician Moved by its magnificence, warmth, and beauty, it has inspired artists, poets, authors, and composers. We recall its bright light vividly radiating joy on Van Gogh's landscapes and Rimsky Korsakov's beautiful "Hymn to the Sun" in his opera "The Golden Cockerel."
With its mysteries still unresolved, the sun shall continue to excite and intrigue many a scientist and artist. As for the rest of us we should continue to approach it with care and moderation as we should with all life's temptations.
Make hay while the sun shines
Don Quixote
[Miguel de Cervantes] (1547-1616)


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