Claire Black: Northern Lights offer light relief

THE first time I heard the words aurora borealis, Ella Fitzgerald was singing them. They were in Johnny Burke and Erroll Garner’s song Midnight Sun and my dad was a fan.
The aurora borealis captured over Thurso in Caithness. Picture: HemediaThe aurora borealis captured over Thurso in Caithness. Picture: Hemedia
The aurora borealis captured over Thurso in Caithness. Picture: Hemedia

She also mentioned that the clouds were “like an alabaster palace” – a simile that fair blew my 12-year-old word-obsessed mind.

The first time I saw the aurora borealis, I was in northern Iceland. Seconds before, in the rush to get outside to see the sky, I’d slipped on a puddle of water on the tile floor, deposited by me as I’d stropped in from the hot tub not a minute before (no shame) on the presumption that there was no way that the Northern Lights were going to make an appearance on my last night before I flew home when they hadn’t bothered to show up for the six previous nights. Eejit.

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If I’m lucky enough to ever see them again – and happily, on the evidence of recent nights, it’s getting more likely – I’m guessing that as well as all that wonder and awe I’ll probably also still feel the twinge in the bottom of my back that came from saving myself from going head-first through the glass door as I slid, losing my towel and my dignity, and the flush of relief as I stood gazing upwards that not only had I avoided missing those delicious dancing green lights, but I had also managed to avoid sailing straight through the glass door to land unceremoniously in the snow in my shredded swimming cossie.

It may be simple to explain how it happens (electrically charged particles are thrown out from the sun and interact with gas atoms in our atmosphere, causing them to glow), but that comes nowhere near to explaining the magic that is green and pink light dancing in front of your eyes like the biggest sprinkling of fairy dust imaginable.

It is a truly jaw-dropping sight. So how wonderful that the Northern Lights have decided to shift a bit further south than usual. We’re not the only lucky ones: from County Antrim to South Wales to Jersey, clear skies are the perfect window through which to see green glows, fans of pink and beams of red. My Twitter feed is full of amazing photies taken at Portobello and Gullane, with retweets which are, I guess, social media gasps of amazement.

I haven’t found an explanation as to why so many of us are being treated to this joyous sight, but to be honest I don’t really care. This may sound a little kooky, but I am choosing to understand the appearance of the aurora borealis as the universe’s mea culpa for the 60ft-high waves, the relentless flooding, the trees strewn across suburbia, the sink holes gaping in neat-lawned cul-de-sacs.

Seriously, all we’ve had so far this year has been vicious, violent nature: smashing and grabbing, reminding us how puny we are and how much damage all of our carbon dioxide pumping, rainforest slaughtering, oil drilling, gas guzzling ways have wreaked. But with these glorious light shows we’re seeing the other side of nature in all its benevolent, benign beauty. What a welcome relief.

Big Brother’s naked eye

YOU know that saying “Dance like there’s no-one watching”? Well, it turns out there’s a good chance there’s always someone watching, especially if you use Yahoo and a webcam. According to more documents liberated by the newly elected rector of Glasgow University, Edward Snowden, the webcam images of millions of internet users not suspected of any wrongdoing (crimes against the choreography of Beyoncé do not count) have been intercepted and stored by GCHQ (assisted by the NSA, naturally). Millions of them. For years.

I’m guessing that all those who blithely dismissed the news of gargantuan quantities of emails being accessed and squirrelled away with a roll of the eyes and a mumbled “metadata schmetadata” feel a little less sanguine now. They might feel even less blasé when they discover that up to 11 per cent of the imagery collected contains “undesirable nudity”. It’s enough to make me blush. GCHQ insists that all of its activities, including operation Optical Nerve (no joke), are “necessary, proportionate and in accordance with UK law”. Yahoo said the activity was “a whole new level of violation of our users’ privacy that is completely unacceptable”. You might say.

A teenage inspiration

I’M STARTING to think that if you want something done then ask a teenage girl. Fahma Mohamed, 17, is campaigning to end Female Genital Mutilation and she’s doing an amazing job.

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Last week she met Michael Gove to present a petition of nearly 250,000 signatures asking the Education Secretary to write to all schools in England about the practice, reminding them of their duty to protect schoolgirls. He agreed. The Scottish Government followed suit, committing to write to every teacher in Scotland. Malala Yousafzai said Mohamed was her “sister” and Ban Ki-moon called the campaign “deeply inspiring”. I’m telling you: awesome.