The Astronomical Patch

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet with ape-descended life forms one of whom writes a blog about his piece of countryside which he calls 'the patch'.
Apologies to Douglas Adams & Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Sun and Moon are visible from my small plot of south Lancashire as, of course, is the whole of the night sky, but what has astronomy got to do with the patch? The answer is flippin’ well everything!

1) The patch is part of the universe  ...self-evidently

2) Everything comes from stars. The ‘stuff’ of the patch, along with our bodies and everything else on Earth, was formed inside stars billions of years ago. When Joni Mitchell sang ‘we are stardust’ she wasn’t just coming over all hippy (and indeed dippy) ...she was right.

A briefest of brief  histories of the universe
Some time after the Big Bang hydrogen and helium were formed. Young stars were then formed, as gas clouds coalesced due to the force of gravity. As they became denser, they became hotter and at their core hydrogen and helium fused to form the heavier elements….and everything we see around us.

Yes, we are made of stars.

3) Energy comes from the Sun.
All life requires energy, and all that energy comes from the Sun1. Green plants trap the Sun’s energy by photosynthesis allowing living things to rearrange atoms into living structures. This energy can be traced right back to the big bang (see the video below).

4)  The Sun influences everything.
The amount of light and warmth that the Earth receives at various times and locations is variable. More of the Sun’s energy hits tropical regions of the Earth than polar regions (because they are nearer to the Sun). Biodiversity – species richness (broadly) declines from the tropics to the poles.

Sunrise on the patch - the Sun - the great life giver -  is returning
The patch, being in a temperate region of Earth, is located somewhere between these two extremes and so the number of species (and number of individual organisms) – is between the almost none at the poles, to the teaming multitudes in the tropics.

The way the solar system is ‘laid out’ has a massive influence on the earth

5) The tilt of the Earth – determines seasons.
The Earth is tilted 23.5 degrees (relative to the plane of its orbit around the Sun) and this is why summers are warm and winters are cool. Europe leans towards the Sun in summer and away from the Sun in winter. In between these, spring and autumn occur.

This fact has an enormous baring on the Earth’s flora and fauna - at least in temperate regions.

A year in the life of the patch (I took a photograph from the same spot at monthly intervals throughout the year). In spring this oak tree produces sunlight harnessing structures (called leaves) to take advantage of the summer maximum of solar radiation. It sheds them during the period of minimum solar radiation (winter).

Because the amount of solar radiation varies during the year:
  • Most plants have a growing season, i.e. summer when the amount of radiation from the sun is at its height.
  • Equally they have a dormant season i.e. winter.
  • From this follows the fact that there is a season for reproducing and one for propagation.
  • Insects and other invertebrates will tend to be more active in the warm months, when there is a greater availability of food (originating from plants) and energy for metabolic processes (heat from the Sun)
  • Similar effects will cascade up the food chain to birds and mammals.
  • Some highly mobile organisms – some birds and insects – migrate...
The tilt of the Earth and the Swallow's migration
Location of warblers on the patch. In summer
a huge amount of avian biomass arrives from
the south to exploit the summer maximum of
solar radiation which results in an
abundance of insect prey
 ...for example, Swallows arrive on the patch in spring. They take advantage of the summer abundance of insects – which is a consequence of the increased solar radiation. In autumn they vacate the patch, returning to Africa which in our winter has more warmth...and insects.

The Swallow’s mobility allows it to exploit areas of high solar radiation. To put it another way the Swallow’s ability to migrate gives it a competitive advantage over other birds in adapting to life on a tilted planet – a planet with seasons.

Morning, day, evening, night - could be seen as analogous to the yearly seasons - spring, summer, autumn, night
with their variations in levels of solar radiation
6. The rotation of the Earth – determines daily activity.
Our whole planet is subject a daily cycle – everywhere on earth periodically faces the sun then faces away from the sun. Day and night could almost be viewed as daily ‘seasons’ along with the transitional times of evening and morning.

As with yearly seasons the differing amount of solar radiation has a profound effect on the activity of plants and animals.
  • Light energy is harnessed by plants and is responsible for the whole of the food chain
  • Light energy allows organisms with vision to see what the heck they're doing.
  • Heat energy allows metabolism (converting food into energy) to occur by allowing chemical reactions to take place.
There are daily effects on the plants and animals which parallel the yearly ones and a whole range of what called be called 'daily ecological niches'.

Moth are responsible for a whole
night-time 'moth economy'
Take moths for example. They make use of the resources that plants produce during the high-energy daytime period – however they do so at night.

Most moths are active at night to avoid bird predators. This has resulted in a whole night-time ‘moth economy’. Some plants release their fragrance at night to attract their moth pollinators and bats have evolved as night-time moth predators.

7. The Moon
The Moon's effect on the Earth and its living things are of two main types.
1. The gravitational pull of this massive ‘chunk of rock’ rotating around the earth.
2. Light from the Sun being reflected to the Earth by the Moon - As the Moon circles the  Earth, the amount of the lit side we see changes (i.e. phases of the moon).

The lunar effects on the patch aren’t as obvious as the Sun's yearly and daily cycles, nor are they as pronounced as the effects of the Moon on tidal regions (the tides being cause by the gravitational pull of the Moon on the sea).

One example of a lunar effect is the level of some hormones in animals being is linked to a monthly cycle. Another example is the effect on nocturnal creature activity of  illumination coming from the Moon.

Back to the question of where all the energy comes from...

...I heard a Wren singing on the patch the other day and thought 'that's the sound of the Big Bang'.

Before you dismiss this as the idiot-musings of a drug addled simpleton, please take a couple of minutes out of your busy schedule to watch this no-expenses-spent clip.


Energy is the ability to move or change matter.  All living things require it – to organise, grow and reproduce. On a more fundamental level they require energy to ‘prevent chaos’.

You just have to think about the state of your bedroom if you don’t expend energy tidying it - it becomes chaotic. Living things are like the tidy bedroom – they need constant energy to maintain order.


The universe is running down – it’s going from an ordered state to a disordered one, from hot to cold. The amount of disorder is called entropy and it’s continually increasing. The 'universal bed room' is getting more and more untidy.

In the history of the universe there was brief period where life was possible – this is called the present. Life can be seen as a process of bucking the trend - an anomaly where the sun’s energy is available to our planet to decrease entropy. We are islands of negative entropy.

James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, was tasked with looking for life on Mars. When asked what he’d search for he said, ‘I’d look for an entropy reduction, since this must be a general characteristic of life’.

So the Wren, as well as singing a kind of echo of the Big Bang, could be seen as an avian Dylan Thomas. The Wren and indeed...

..all life  - is raging ‘against the dying of the light.’

The patch - an island of anti-entropy. Although it might seem 'messy' and 'chaotic',  it is anything but. The patch - and everything  on earth, is an island of order in an ocean of disorder.

In the history of the universe there was brief period where life was possible – this is called the present. Life can be seen as a process of bucking the trend - an anomaly where the sun’s energy is available to our planet to decrease entropy. We are islands of negative entropy.




1 A very small part of the energy used in biological system is non-solar in origin. In the ocean there are volcanic vent communities whose energy derives from Geothermal energy - heat left over from the formation of the planet (although a case could be make for the Sun's role in that as well).

2 There are several theories as to the ultimate fate of the universe, Heat Death is just one of them


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Comments

  1. Very enjoyable, Phil. Nice use of imagination and connectedness.

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  2. Love the sunrise images Phil and also the time-lapse of the patch - great to see the changes through the year put together like that. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Jan, yes it was quite arduous making that video, as I had to stand in the same spot for a whole year (admittedly with toilet breaks)

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