Tuesday, 9 January 2018

137 years of space and time.

I took my first pint of the year (a Red Stripe) at a surprisingly packed (for January) London Skeptics event last night and if the pint went down well the talk went down even better. These short grey days can get a bit depressing and I always find that  Skeptics events shake me up, give my brain a good workout, and provide me with something to think about on my tube journey home and beyond. It's intellectual nourishment when it's most needed.

This time I even got a bit of an eighties pop revival session to go with my education as, for some reason, the pub owners had kept the music on quietly in the background. The speakers were above my head so my evening was soundtracked by Roxette, Terence Trent D'Arby, U2, The Cars, Culture Club, Simply Red, Chaka Khan, Chicago, and Tom Petty. I enjoy a music quiz as much as, probably a bit more than, the next man but it was a touch distracting at times.

Luckily, not too much. Colin Stuart's 'Thirteen Journeys Through Space and Time' seemed a fairly interesting premise although I was concerned that if things got a little too scientific I'd be baffled beyond belief. The premise was that Colin had been approached, in 2015, by the Royal Institute with a proposal that he write a book about the history of their annual Christmas lectures - specifically the ones relating to those stalwarts of science fiction, space and time.

As a popular science communicator, he's spoken to over a quarter of a million people about the universe and the science of it over the course of his career, Colin was very much the right guy both for the book and the talk. The fact that he reminded me of my friend Gareth only warmed me further to him but also his enthusiasm for the subject and the easy way in which he made it understandable to us laymen. It made an hour and a half in his company an absolute delight so it's no surprise his books have sold more then 100,000 copies around the world and that he's been commissioned to write over 150 popular science articles for publications ranging from The New Scientist to The Guardian.

It'd be fair to say some of that style has been inspired by the very Christmas Lectures he was in The Monarch to talk about. They've been held every year since 1825 excluding a brief hiatus between 1939 and 1942 (I love the fact that halfway through the war they started them back up again anyway) in the Faraday lecture theatre. Michael Faraday still holds the record for most lectures given with nineteen.

The lectures are designed, primarily, for children but such is their popularity that the audience is normally around 50% kids, 50% adults. The maxim "Never talk about science. Show it to them" has been one of the cornerstones of the series' great success and Colin, when he could, incorporated video footage and photography to back up his research and the anecdotes he'd picked up whilst carrying out said research.

The first lecture about 'space' was way back in 1881. Robert Ball, the Irish astronomer, in his "The Sun, The Moon, and The Planets" (most of the talks have a snappy title) claimed boldly that no human explorer would ever reach the moon, it was simply too far away, it was not possible. It wasn't the only thing he was wrong about it. When he announced that Jupiter had four moons that was two more than many accepted but nowadays Jupiter is known to have at least 69 moons. He spoke too of the 'canals' of Mars, now known to be an optical illusion.


The handwritten notebooks of Scottish chemist and inventor of the vacuum flask James Dewar from 1885 held a rather surprising secret when Colin came across them. Dewar had attempted to recreate the sound of a tumbling meteorite but in the course of his experimentation he'd rendered his journals radioactive. Colin had to sign a radioactivity waiver and sit next to a Geiger counter to read them.


If knowledge of the moon, Mars, and even radioactivity were still in their infancy in the late 19c this isn't to be sneered at. It's only through the scientific process that we can learn how things work and it's inevitable that, along the way, there'll be mistakes. Herbert Hall Turner delivered the lecture "A Voyage In Space" in 1913 in which the seismologist and astronomer talked about how methane and ammonia can freeze in space and in which he posited that sunspots were bruises inflicted by comets crashing into the face of the sun. They weren't. They're just cooler regions of the sun's surface.



In 1933 Sir James Jeans, a man who'd previously dismissed dinosaurs as 'misfits' adapted Hall Turner's title to "A Voyage Through Space" and if this seemed a little cheeky or even a touch unoriginal he made up for it with the sheer playfulness of his words, the way he described difficult concepts to people. To describe the extraordinary vastness and emptiness of the universe he asked his audience to imagine stars shrunk down to the size of wasps and put in a box. This box, representing the universe, would be 1000 miles long on each and every side - and have just six wasps in it. That's how empty space is - but to give a true reflection of what it's like you'd need to slow each wasp down to a thousandth of the speed of a snail.

Jeans also asked his audience to imagine the history of the planet Earth up until the present day to be represented by one cycle of a clock's rotation. Humans would not appear until one second before midnight he claimed. Though as he felt humans had only been around for about 6,000 years it's possible that that figure can now be revised upwards. Very few scientists would claim that humans showed up any earlier than 2358hrs though.

To add further colour to his lecture Jeans had a woman dress up as an alien so the audience could see what the world would be like in 100 years time (only fifteen left now, hurry up aliens). He covered her in fluorescent paint so it appeared her head was floating in the darkened room. It doesn't sound as scientifically rigorous as it perhaps could've been but it sounds like fun.

In 1977 there was a rare, and highly exalted, visitor from overseas. Carl Sagan (a regular name at these Skeptics events, click on both his names to find out more) came over from New York, with demands for five star hotels and pay packets way beyond that of most other speakers, to talk about "The Planets". He looked back one hundred years to the discovery of the two moons of Mars and the wonderful story behind that discovery.


Asaph Hall, an astronomer from Connecticut, had been inspired to search for these moons by a passage in Jonathan Swift's 1726 satire Gulliver's Travels that claimed Mars had two moons. If this was a guess by Swift (later picked up by Voltaire) it was a bloody good one. Or a bloody lucky one. It's not as if they'd be easy to see. Mars is 54,000,000 kilometres from Earth and the largest of the two moons Phobos is smaller than London. Both Phobos, and its baby brother Deimos, are named after Greek mythological figures representing, sequentially, the personifications of fear and dread, but after seeing stunning film footage of a sunset from the dark red surface of Mars (why had I not seen that before?) perhaps Aphrodite would've been more fitting.



Sixteen years later it was the turn of particle physicist Frank Close to deliver the lecture. He chose "The Cosmic Onion" as his title so as to reflect the layering of life and explained how we were made of atoms, how atoms were made of protons and neutrons, and how neutrons were made of quarks. He showed that the journey into the make up of ourselves is as epic as the journey into the outer reaches of the cosmos and still contain areas of mystery. Science wasn't finished then and it's not finished now.

Monica Grady's 2003 talk "A Voyage In Space And Time" (some of these titles do get a bit samey) was all set up to coincide with the Beagle II landing on Mars but unfortunately that mission failed - which at least saved anyone having to listen to the song that Alex James from Blur had written to celebrate the occasion. Grady was much happier in 2014 when a video of her, in Darmstadt, celebrating Philae's successful landing on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko ten years and eight months after departing Earth pretty much went viral.



Equally popular, in recent years, were the adventures of Tim Peake in space. In 2015 Kevin Fong's "How to Survive in Space" lecture was scheduled to tie in with Peake's mission and even included an interview with Peake where he talked about the "chicken legs and puppy fat" that result from prolonged exposure to zero gravity as all the stuff in your body is no longer subject to the forces that keep it where it should be!

Colin (a man who's had an asteroid named after him and damned well deserved it too) signed off with an endearing anecdote about meeting one of his heroes, Helen Sharman, and giving two answers to the questions that 'bad skeptics' sometimes ask him - why do we bother going into space when we could spend the money on hospitals and schools?

First a riff on Carl Sagan's view that we do it because it's what we do, it's who we are, we're natural explorers, we're inherently curious, it's at the very core of what being a human is all about. Secondly, however, Colin gave his own response. Sometimes in experimenting in one field we find out things that are useful in other fields. Huge advances in osteoporosis and oncology have both come from discoveries made during space travel. When you think you're learning about one thing you may also be learning about something else.

Colin's talk, much like the RI Christmas lectures that inspired it, seemed to have built up from fairly humble beginnings into something very impressive indeed. If we look at the knowledge we've gained in the last 137 years then what will we learn in the next 137? What knowledge will we have in 2155?

Only 500 people have travelled into space so far but the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others are starting to make the technology available and affordable so that more can, and will, do in the future. So far it costs about $200,000 to travel into space (about the same as a studio flat in an undesirable outskirt of London) but that will go down and it will go down fast. Companies are already tendering for patents and other companies are looking into the grey area that is mining asteroids for resources (and you thought the furore over fracking was tedious).

On top of that there's been talk of a ninth planet existing in our solar system that's yet to be discovered. They're not talking about upgrading Pluto again (you had your chance Pluto, you blew it) but about a planet way way beyond Uranus and Neptune. It's mind boggling to think we've discovered planets in galaxies far far away but there may be an imposter within our mist that's been hiding in plain sight all along.

It's unlikely any of us will be packing our intergalactic buckets and spades and firing ourselves from Cape Canaveral for a holiday on Planet Nine anytime soon but space travel is drawing nearer and nearer and with it the chance for us to find out more and more about this mystifying and fascinating universe we all live in. Here's to many more lectures about it.

Thanks to Carmen, Tessa, and everyone else who makes these Skeptical events one of the real joys of living in London.


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