Sunday, 12 January 2014

Universal Truths. How looking at the stars put me in my place.

Despite knowing that Patrick Moore wasn’t just the guy from Gamesmaster I’ve never actually done any real star gazing. Sure I’ve drunkenly looked up on a walk home and said “Wow” but actual telescope/ binoculars/doing it on purpose? Nope.  So, even though the most amazing comet I would ever get to see melted before it got here, 2014 was the year for  me to look up and mean it.

24 hours after my first experience and I’m still giggling about how beautiful, exciting and easy it was.  With a clear sky and a fairly normal pair of binoculars I can, like Dave Bowman, declare that “it’s full of stars”. The fabulously named Red Giant Betelgeuse really is red and the M42 Orion Nebula is…well a smudgy bit that I thought was a mark on the lens…but it’s a real life nebula…like in Star Trek!
Jupiter on the left, Orion between the trees.

 Most impressive was how simple it was to see the Galilean Moons of Jupiter.  There they were…the first, best evidence for a heliocentric view of the cosmos, right there. All I needed was a back garden, a pair of Binoculars and whiskey aided steady hands.

Through a telescope Jupiter was transformed from a big star to a striped humbug with 4 points of orbiting light all in a row.  My mind was boggled that light had travelled 500 Million kilometres all the way from Jupiter to my friend’s garden, down a telescope and into my eye…just to make me giggle. It was awe-inspiring and made me realise just how BIG space is and just how small I am. 

I didn't take this pic

All this and I was expecting it.  Imagine the effect it must have had on Galileo the first time he pointed this new-fangled looking glass to the heavens. What did he expect to see? The Cogs of an Orrery? Angels? God?

As I day dreamed about Galileo it suddenly dawned on me how frustrating (and dangerous) the Church of his day’s reaction to his discovery must have been. ”But look” he must have wanted to scream “just look for yourself…it’s all there, it’s all true!” Sadly they didn’t have ears to listen and didn’t look upon a wonderful and natural truth.

Which all makes me wonder why even today, science is considered unnatural, when compared to religion or magic it is entirely natural?  There is simply no room for the supernatural or anything that we can’t look around and see and measure.  The simple method of “Have an idea…compare it to nature…does your idea fit with what you see?” couldn’t be more dependent on nature and “real“ life if it tried. But still the popular image of science being man-made and alien chemicals being created in labs persists.

Scientific research can use specific language and some pretty esoteric concepts…but so do the Arts, Darts and Pilates. I find it difficult to comprehend that scientific language can be criticised as obscurant while post modernism still exists.

Thankfully, there has never been a better time for science communicators trying to connect and describe how fantastically amazing the universe is to ordinary people.  Which is lucky for me, as otherwise it might well have slipped by, camouflaged as the most boring thing in the world by a succession of science teachers at school.

However, is the same true of other areas of peculiar expertise?  Could there even be a philosopher who can strip away the pretence of Foucault and illuminate the powerful truths hidden by the seeming gibberish?

That's no Moon, it's wait it IS a Moon.

Endlessly curious I once shared a drunken idea.  Have you ever wondered what would happen if someone actually followed up on that silly idea that came to them after a couple of pints? Wonder no more and come to a Pubhd meeting where at each event, 3 PhD/EngD/EdD students, and post-docs, from any academic discipline, will explain their work to an audience of laypeople in exchange for a pint or two.  It might work, it might be chaos but it will be fun and some-one will learn something.
What a wonderful modern age we live in. Now when people have a new idea, instead of imprisoning them or torturing them to recant, we buy them a pint to tell us about it. Now, THAT is enlightened progress ladies and gentlemen.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Bath and its OK to be Angry if you care.

I went to Bath for a couple of nights and had a very lovely time. I couldn’t help it, I went with my girl and Bath is…well very lovely. So lovely that the gent’s toilets in all of the pubs I went into were actually OK …they had White Company Soap and towels and everything (by everything I mean that you could actually wash your hands without fear of them being dirtier than if you had peed on them).

My favourite aspect of Bath was they actually talk like they're supposed to – you know  - like yokels. After having a wander for an hour we popped into a pub and within 15 minutes I’d been asked if I “was olright my luvvley?” and over heard some-one talking about having problems with poachers. Also, every 4th piece of clothing sold in bath appears to be waxed or vulcanised.  It was like stepping off the plane in Glasgow and everyone wearing kilts and seeing you jimmy. Bathians (?) simply had no fear of their own stereotype…it was very refreshing and will be spoilt when they discover irony sometime in the 2050’s.
Typical Bath Housing Estate
Bath has a reputation for being Britain’s prettiest town and it certainly is, if you’re the heir to the throne.  As a Georgian new town every single building was regulation Neo Classical and this regularity appears to be policed with rigour… I longed for something ugly or interesting just to put the Royal Crescent into some sort of context.

The Prince of Wales famously complained about monstrous carbuncles obfuscating a Wren church or two and has personally intervened in planning applications. The Prince of Wales is also wrong. As an example of what a town would look like if built solely and never endingly in one man’s taste, Bath admirably demonstrates this.  I probably yawned past some timeless examples of late 18th Century architecture because here’s another one…and another one…and another one.  Without something to refresh the eyes and imagination it all got a bit bland. A Bloody massive 1960’s Post Office would have fixed that. When I’m king I’m building a brutalist shopping centre right next to the station!

Bath is also the whitest place I have ever been.  My sister used to live in Ripley and the bus there took an hour and went through a number of old mining towns. I liked to amuse myself by playing “spot the not white face” and would award a notional pound for each not white face we I saw. I travelled on that bus at least 10 times and awarded the grand total of 50p as I think I once saw a black guy driving away as fast as he could.  That bus journey was still more diverse than Bath.  It’s not just that the town is white (many rural centres are) but most of its visitors were as well. I didn’t notice any guards at the station with a dulux colour chart set to “Magnolia or less”…but then I wasn’t really looking.

Something else I also noticed throughout the journey is that everyone is really angry and cross. All of the time. Each of the 6 trains I caught had some angry on it, waiting for it or just angry at having to work out if it was going to where they were going. CHELTENHAM!!! IS THIS THE TRAIN FOR CHELTENHAM!!! CHELTENHAM!!!  Angry people shouted in the street at 1 in the morning outside my window. 2 Angry Welshman were angry about vegetarians for reasons that had nothing to do with the shin of beef they were freely enjoying. The sad and lonely contributors to the nets premier Peterborough United forum were angry at a nil-nil draw. Anger at having to pay cash in a Starbucks because THE MACHINE WAS BROKEN. Angry angry angry…

Angry statue
There’s nothing wrong with being angry…but at least be angry about something worthwhile. Be angry that the education of the next generation that we will in our dotage rely on to do stuff for us is being lead by a donkey.  Be angry that 20 years of “don’t build those nasty new homes near me/ do you know what my house is worth” have left a generation with no chance of buying their own. Be angry that this leaves you stuck between smug buy-to-let wannabes and the pointless drip of agent’s fees. Be Angry about the ruining of something good or the loss of something irreplaceable. Be angry that you are so reliant on a piece of technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago that you can’t catch a train or pay for coffee without it. Don’t be angry just because you've been midly inconvenienced and now have to speak to another human being.

I guess that the point of what was supposed to be a bit of a travelogue but turned into a rant is that life has never been easier.  Which is generally a good thing – we no longer have to break our backs in health destroying labour, our homes are heated and things that would have killed us 100 years ago now give us a bit of cough.  But the easiness is also making us bland, like Bath we’re all enjoying how nice and easy everything is. We can own a Mumford’s album without leaving the house or even liking music. We can have our groceries without going to the shops and we can get angry when this doesn’t happen. Its almost as if we have to construct frustration and irritance just to feel human.

But unless there is something to provide us with a real reaction it all seems pointless.  Without modern architecture how can you realise that you like the old stuff? Without thinking about the big bad things in the world how can you know that not having phone signal is worth getting cross about?

So Bath, like a utopian society where we all have our shiny things and are all universally happy, is a great place to visit. But I wouldn’t want to live there. The fact is there are plenty of important things to get angry about so lets get angry about those and leave the card machine out of this.