Tag Archives: astronomy

Things can only get better…

If you’d asked me I’d have said it felt like things were ending and not beginning. They were difficult, uncertain times. I was spending my days distracted, worrying about Trump and whether the Korean Peninsula was going to ignite. Or watching Davis and Bernier butt heads in Brussels; as mismatched as Mayweather and McGregor but with even more money at stake. Trucks on Las Ramblas, crossbow bolts on cricket pitches, Neo Nazis marching in small town America. Stuff I couldn’t do much about beyond post disapproving links to my own personal echo chamber on social media. I think everyone switched off from those sort of posts after the referendum anyway. Some kind of political fatigue. I imagine if the English Civil War had played out on Facebook then Charles may well have kept his head and his crown; all that simmering New Model Army agitation dissipating, threads about Leveller demands for suffrage lost in a sea of cat videos and personality quizzes. Burford might have trended on Twitter for a couple of hours. Hashtag Thompson, Perkins and Church. Everyone left to get back to checking out the Daily Mail’s pap shots of a bikini clad Henrietta Maria on the beach in France with England’s exiled monarch. I know, I know. There were no long lenses in the seventeenth century. Or cameras. Or bikinis. But you get the idea: nobody’s changing anyone’s mind on social.

Driving home that day I took the detour I’d been taking all summer, the one that passed the fields blanketed in sunflowers. Their heads were bowed slightly now as Autumn approached. There was something strangely somber, dignified, in their quiet genuflection. It was only poignant, I guess, if you’d seen them in the weeks before, rows upon rows of bright beaming faces raised in praise of the sun. Who am I kidding? We see reflected back what’s already inside us. Maybe you’d have just seen a field of nice flowers without all the attendant pathos. I saw some metaphorical expression of my state of mind. Wilting. Still straining for the sun but wilting nonetheless. I make it sound more melodramatic than it merited but I think I was in my Poundshop Shelley phase. Or CostCo Keats. Pick the discount retailer and romantic poet combination that works best for you. Woolworth’s Wordsworth. I wandered through the pick n’ mix lonely as a cloud. The important part, looking back, is that I was still straining for the sun. It’s not like I’d passed by a field of rotten, broken stalks, dead headed beyond recognition, and thought: hey, that’s me. By my standards it was a pretty optimistic outlook but, as I say, if you’d asked it didn’t feel like the beginning of anything.

It was round about the twentieth anniversary of Diana’s death. I mention it only as it seems relevant as a kind of cultural sign post, everyone looking back at how we all reacted then and what it said about us all. Apparently it was the event that broke the great British reserve and prefaced our now seemingly endless embrace of public displays of grief. All magnified on social but let’s not go there again (I’m betting if Charles had been beheaded in our alternatively imagined Civil War then the outpouring of dislikes and crying emoji’s would have brought down the Facebook servers). I say ‘apparently’ because that’s not how I remember it. I woke up with a hangover that day that probably just about makes my Greatest Hangover Hits (middle of side 1: not a real face melter that you’d start the album with or one of the really brutal slow burners that you’d stick on the end of side 2) but it was twenty years ago – back when you’d shake that shit off before the first coffee and half a bacon sandwich was done. Not like now when drinking punishes you for days, a crime that always delivers a custodial sentence instead of the slap-on-the-wrist community service order you used to enjoy. To blow away the cobwebs I’d wandered down to the local newsagents to pick up the Sunday rags and had made it all the way back to the flat before noticing the front page: I used to read the sports first. Things had evidently been in the balance at whatever point the papers went to print over night as the headlines described the crash and her condition as precarious. I was staying with a couple of friends who didn’t have a TV so we flicked on the radio. Yes, we were that bohemian (well, I wasn’t, I had a 32 inch monstrosity that took up half of my living room but they were always a little more sophisticated than me). All stations were playing quiet classical music and so we knew long before a very BBC Home Counties voice gently intoned that “out of respect” all regular programming had been suspended. It’s the voice they will roll out in the event of nuclear armageddon: regretfully we are all about to be annihilated in a fiery radioactive inferno so we have suspended Pete Tong and bring you, instead, this piece by Vivaldi. The Archers will continue as usual. So we knew that she’d died. And you know what? I don’t mean to sound callous about it but it meant literally nothing to us: nothing then and, looking back, it means even less to me now. To paraphrase Morrissey: she said nothing to us about our life. I think someone cracked an entirely inappropriate, coal black gag and we got on with the day. It was only in the weeks that followed as I tiptoed through the bizarre and extraordinary public grief that it felt like it mattered to me at all – and it only mattered in that it was maybe the first time that I felt completely out of step with the public mood. Then again I never was good at picking sides. I voted remain. I had a job interview the day of her funeral, driving past abandoned flowers on the M1.

Maybe it was Brian Cox that sparked the beginning. My own personal, if unlikely, Higgs Bosun. Maybe he kicked it all off. When I made it home I’d eaten dinner with my daughter and we’d turned to chatting about astronomy. She wanted to know whether there were any famous astronomers and, mistakenly figuring she wouldn’t know the difference, I offered up the former D: Ream keyboard wizard and booted up a lecture he’d delivered on Youtube. Straight away she called me out on the fact that he was a physicist and not an astronomer. She’s nine. I took comfort that she’d spotted it and more comfort that when I explained that there weren’t really any famous astronomers she thought that was another good reason to pursue it as potential career. She also offered up Edwin Hubble as an example of a famous astronomer which gave me a reassuring insight into her frame of reference for what should constitute fame. We didn’t make it that far through Cox’s lecture if I’m honest. I’m not going to pretend that me and the pre-tween were scribbling out e=mc squared and back solving calculus on the kitchen blackboard long into the evening. She returned to watching Sam & Kat on Netflix and I opened a bottle of wine. But we did make it far enough to hear him describe the number of galaxies in the universe that they’d observed through Hubble in a patch of sky that you could cover with a five pence piece if you held it twenty metres away from your eye. Ten thousand.

Ten thousand galaxies under a five pence piece. I think that was when I felt a tingle of wonder return. Felt the possibilities. I think that was maybe the beginning.

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Careering: Saturday

It was late by the time Rob and Sarah arrived back at the house with Maria. She’d stayed at the hospital for twenty four hours, reluctantly agreeing that she might need the rest but impatient to be away from the array of medical equipment and drugs and professionals that could do nothing for her. She’d joked with the nurses that she was like a diabetic with a sweet tooth in a candy store. You got nothing I can have but I want it all. Sarah had insisted on organising a taxi, worried about the hustle and bustle of the tube on Saturday evening. Maria had agreed on condition that  she paid, they use a black cab, and that they make the driver cross the Thames via Tower Bridge. She told Sarah that it’d be another landmark she could sketch for her game, another little source of dopamine for people playing, another marker to help them navigate. Sarah thought there was more of the tourist in Maria than she cared to admit and that she probably just wanted to see the strange castle on the river.

They crossed the Thames as the sun was going down, its towers short and squat against the skyline in comparison to the jagged thrust of the Shard which dominated the view to the west. London was a city of silhouettes in the dusk, the fading light leaving just familiar shapes, the impression of places. Rob pointed out the sights as they appeared, sometimes just a momentary glimpse between office blocks and flats, and then a broader sweep of buildings as they crossed the bridge. A jumble of shapes and styles from the past and from the future. St Paul’s. The Gherkin. The Tower of London. City Hall. Traffic was unusually light and they didn’t get stuck in their crossing. Rob had hoped that perhaps they would so Maria would have more time to admire the view but she had to absorb it in less than a minute before they plunged into Whitechapel and everything closed in around them again.

When they stopped outside their house it was dark. The streetlight hadn’t been fixed and all of the lights inside were off. Rob let them in and called for Alex. There was no reply but it was then that they heard the shouts from outside.

……

Alex hadn’t gone back to the hospital. The others knew he blamed himself for what had happened but didn’t realise how hard it had hit him. He’d said he wanted a bit of time on his own and they’d respected that. In the time they’d lived together it was something they’d gotten used to. Rob teased him for being grumpy and they knew he’d never really settled into corporate life but neither of them thought there was more to it than that. If he was honest with himself he knew that the way he felt had a name. Depression. He should have been more clinical about it, more scientific, but he found it hard to apply his usual, objective mode of thinking to his own internal emotional landscape. He knew it had been getting worse and could trace some of it to the small sets of decisions that had taken him further and further from the things that he’d thought of as making up who he was. He remembered the genuine disappointment that Prof Miller had expressed when he’d told him that he was giving it up. He hadn’t been angry and he’d even understood it – noone’s getting rich mapping the universe – but there was almost a resignation to it. A sense that another bright talent was about to be eclipsed by the need to make the rent. There had been occasional rational moments when he realised that he could just jack it all in, walk away from the office and start again. Lately those moments had come less often. The sane and reasonable voice in his head drowned out by a choir of anxiety and regret and sadness.

Seeing Maria in the hospital had shattered what was left of the fragile peace in his head. It wasn’t just the guilt, on some level he knew that it wasn’t his fault, but the stark confrontation with mortality that had shaken him. There seemed to him to be a pointlessness to it. He’d always valued order and structure, causality and consequences, and whilst he could understand the facts of her disease he couldn’t explain why it was happening anymore than he could explain his own illness.

He put on his suit, straightened his tie, and headed up to the terrace.

……

Up on the roof Alex had his back to them. There was a small wall that ran round the sides of the terrace at knee height, there as a gentle reminder if someone got too close to the edge. You could perch on it and dangle your legs over the side of the house if you didn’t mind the guttering. None of them had ever thought of it as particularly dangerous. Early on the landlord had offered to put up a taller set of railings but they thought it would obstruct the view and had told him not to bother. Alex was standing on the wall, seemingly oblivious to the shouts from people in the flats in the adjacent street telling him to get down.

“What are you doing, Alex ?” Rob spoke quietly, holding his arms out, palms down, trying to signal a sense of calm that he didn’t feel to Sarah and Maria.

“Alex, please,” said Sarah. “Just step down and let’s talk.”

Alex didn’t reply and didn’t move. It had been a cloudless day and the temperature was dropping now that the sun had gone, the air was still. Alex didn’t feel the cold through his suit. Pure wool. He vaguely remembered that fact had been important at work, they’d all been given pointers on personal presentation in the first year on the graduate scheme. A couple of the partners, knowing his background, had joked that he’d have to leave the cords and the elbow patches behind now that he was a professional. There’d been no malice in it. He hadn’t been offended. It wasn’t until later that he’d begun to reflect on his decision and wonder whether he’d got it badly wrong. It was Maria that broke the impasse.

“Where are you Alex ?” He didn’t turn but this time he did reply.

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

“Latitude. Start with that. Tell me our latitude,” nudged Maria.

“I don’t know,” said Alex. “How would I know that ?”

“We’re not so far from Greenwich. I bet it’s roughly 51 degrees north and a touch over zero degrees west. How would you know if I hadn’t told you ? You taught me this Alex.”

“A fixed reference point. You need a fixed reference point and then you can work it out.”

Across Islington the lights went out. Later it was reported as a power cut, some problem with a sudden surge on the National Grid causing fail safes to kick in and the electricity to switch off. Around them the shining rectangular frames, the windows of the surrounding flats and houses, winked out. The streetlights snapped off. Shakespeare Street went dark. As their eyes adjusted to the absence of light Maria walked across the terrace, reached up, and took Alex’s hand.

“Tell me what you see,” she said.

“You can never see much here,” he replied. “Usually just Venus and some of the brighter stars. The moon obviously, when it’s out.”

Rob and Sarah cautiously crossed the terrace and stood on Alex’s other side from Maria. Sarah took his other hand.

“I saw Mars at the planetarium,” said Maria. “It’s the last thing I remember before I fainted. Where would it be if we could see it now ?”

Alex described its position relative to Venus and slowly began to tell them what he could remember about the positions of the distant objects they could see and the ones that they couldn’t. He was a little rusty but none of them would have known if he got anything wrong. He showed them Orion’s Belt, the three stars in a line that they could usually see above them, bright enough without London being dimmed, and then he noticed that the slightly skewed rectangle of Ursa Major. It was just visible now that the glare from the ground had been subdued and, just a slight turn of the head on from that, if he followed an imagined line from its two pointer stars, then he could make out Polaris. The North Star. He described it to the others.

“So you know where you are now,” said Maria squeezing his hand.

“It’s a start,” said Alex. “I could work out latitude but you know longitude is always trickier than that.”

“Because we’re always spinning, always moving,” said Maria.

“Yes. Yes, we are. I just wanted to make it stop.”

“You can’t make it stop Alex,” she answered. “Not like this. It’ll stop for you, sure, but everything else keeps on spinning. You’ve got your fixed point up there,” she gestured at the sky,  “and maybe you just need to pick your own fixed point down here. Your own Greenwich.”

“I think I had it,” said Alex. “I think I used to have it. Maybe I just need to find my way back to it again.” He stepped down from the wall and quietly accepted Maria’s embrace. Rob and Sarah clutched at his back and the four of them stood on the roof holding him as he wept.

They stayed sat out on the terrace until the power came back on about an hour later. Sarah had made them all tea and they’d sat staring across the rooftops, hands wrapped round warm mugs, steam rising into the night air. When the lights returned the stars overhead faded but all of them swore they could still see the North Star, unwavering, the sky rotating around it.

Careering: Sunday

There was usually a window of about half an hour when the light was still just good enough for Sarah to paint and the first hint of the muted constellations above began to glow, enough to tempt Alex out to join her on the roof terrace. He would call out the stars as they appeared while Sarah and Rob, if he was back from work, would gently wind him up by picking out planes in the stack over Heathrow and asking whether it was Ursa Major. Or they’d pretend to have forgotten that the brightest point they could see, one of the few celestial bodies that could cut through the London light pollution, was Venus and not a star at all. Alex would patiently explain it to them again. The terrace was the reason they’d taken the house originally. It had been further from the tube than they’d wanted and the only pub in spitting distance was the Three Feathers, stubbornly untouched by the estate agent’s claims for gentrification, but the little roof space had woven a spell on all of them. It was just the flat roof atop a 1990s loft conversion, maybe three feet square and adorned with a battered old deck chair, a couple of stools and a plant pot, now sans plant, but it opened up a view down and across Islington and, more importantly, an unrestricted view up and out, over the the London skies.

Sarah was cleaning her brushes, watching paint leech from a tip into the water in her jam jar, a blue, swirling blur. It reminded her of a Takahiko Hayashi print she’d had in her room as a student, back when all futures seemed possible. She glanced over at Alex. He was slouched back in the deck chair, a pair of binoculars resting on his stomach.

“You know what happened last time you looked through those…” said Sarah.

“They are strictly for star gazing,” replied Alex. “That incident with the couple on Woodfall Road was not entirely my fault.”

Rob’s head appeared in the hatch at the top of the steep stairs that served as the route up to the terrace.

“The One With The Naked Neighbours And The Surprising Things You Can Do With Fruit,” he announced. “Still can’t believe they called the police.”

“It wasn’t an episode of Friends, Rob.”

“No, it was funnier,” said Rob. “Although if it was I’d be Joey, right ? The good looking one.”

“It’s not much of a choice. The funny one, the good looking one and the…the other one. What was the point of Ross anyway ?” said Alex.

“He was the nice one, wasn’t he ?” said Sarah, still idly stirring her brush in the jar, the water now a murky grey. “You’d be Ross, Alex.”

“Thanks a lot,” he replied. “So I’m the dull, wet guy who’s so lacking in discernible character that he gets given a pet monkey just to make him more interesting.”

“Well I didn’t mean it quite like that,” smiled Sarah. “Anyway, you don’t need the monkey, you’ve got that whole neighbourhood peeping tom thing going on as character quirk…”

“I was star gazing.”

The natural light was fading fast now, steadily replaced by the soft glow of the city. Sarah finished cleaning her brushes and sat down on one of the stools, accepting a quick swig of the beer that Rob had brought up with him and was offering round. He stood looking at the picture Sarah had left drying on her makeshift easel. It was an abstract series of blue and grey circles, bold and well defined in the centre and then progressively distorted and smudged towards the periphery of the page. He liked it although, if he was honest, he preferred her photography, preferred things rooted more directly in reality. Sarah caught him looking at the picture and raised a quizzical eyebrow. He smiled and nodded approvingly but knew better than to offer more; too many well intentioned observations about her painting had ended with the critiqued picture in pieces. He pulled up the other stool, took his beer back from Sarah and offered it up to Alex who was now peering up towards the sky through his binoculars.

“What are you looking for up there ?” asked Rob. “Trying to see our destinies ?”

“God, no. Nothing like that. There’s no glimpse of the future up there, just lights from the past,” replied Alex.

“That’s deep.”

“It’s just physics.” Alex adjusted the focusing ring on the binoculars, tried to get a better view of the Moon. It was only a quarter full but still one of the few things bright enough to cut through the  light sodden sky. It’s just physics. He remembered saying something similar three years ago. His justification for jacking in the PhD, walking away from all that conceptual stuff about gravity and relativity to take up a graduate place with Deloitte. Swapping Lorentz transformations for double entry bookkeeping. It paid better but it was a mental downshift and he still felt the pull of his old studies.

“I didn’t expect it to be like this,” interrupted Sarah suddenly.

“Like what ?”

“This… This… I don’t know. This scratching out our days.” Sarah pushed her hand through her hair and frowned. “What happened to what we wanted to do ?”

“You mean you didn’t want to design towers for Ubisoft ?” It was Alex’s usual tease.

“Hey, those games need a lot of towers… and my correct title is Concept Artist as you well know.” Sarah straightened on her stool and extended her arm with a flourish. “Concept Artist responsible for initial design of player climbable structures. Should I continue to impress with my sketched portfolio of traversable in-game terrain then I have a very decent shot at being Lead Concept Artist in two to three years time”.

“It’s something to dream about.”

“Every day on the 153, believe me.”

“Maybe this is just a phase,” said Rob. He drained the last of his beer. “Maybe we need to go through this while we figure it out.”

“But we had it figured out,” protested Sarah. “When I met you… at that talk, what was it ?”

“NGO roles in provision of public services,” said Rob.

“Sounds like quite the party,” said Alex from behind the binoculars. Sarah ignored him.

“Yeah, at that. When we met you knew exactly what you wanted to do. It was the thing that struck me about you. The passion. You were absolutely going to work in the public sector, or the third sector or whatever it’s called, and you were going to help people.”

“And hopefully I still will,” said Rob. “The social media thing’s just temporary, just to get some money behind me early on. It’s not forever.” They all fell silent, slightly awkward. Sarah sighed and, after tentatively touching at the paint to see if it was dry, rolled up her picture. Alex put down his binoculars and tried to lighten the mood.

“What were you doing at that talk anyway Sarah ? Doesn’t strike me as your sort of thing.”

“What makes you think I’m not interested in social enterprise ?”

“She was in the wrong room,” said Rob.

“You promised you wouldn’t tell anyone that,” smirked Sarah. All of them laughed and Alex wagged a finger in mock admonishment. “Alright, alright. It was at the Barbican and I’d gone to see a Murakami exhibition but I was running late, got a bit lost, and ended up in a room full of earnest liberals listening to someone talk about co-operatives and sustainable funding. They all seemed so nice that I thought it’d be impolite to just walk out.”

“Just imagine the vicious tutting you could have been subjected to…” said Alex.

“We could be quite scathing in our shows of mild disapproval,” agreed Rob. “Some poor guy turned up to another talk one time with a coffee from Starbucks, it was just after the whole tax avoidance thing, and I think we briefly created a vacuum in the auditorium as everyone took a sharp intake of breath simultaneously.”

“Well it wouldn’t have technically been a vacuum…” started Alex before being drowned out under a mock chorus of tuts from his flatmates.

The early evening dusk was giving itself up to the beginnings of night now and the last of the sun’s warmth that had baked itself into the terraces was fading. Sarah rubbed her bare arms with her hands, ironed out the goose bumps, before gathering up her painting equipment.

“I think I’m going to head in,” she said. “Early start tomorrow.”

The other two didn’t move. She knew they liked to sit out for longer, eek out the weekend and delay the onset of Monday morning. Alex would usually be last to come back downstairs, pulling the hatch behind him. Sometimes he’d sit and try to wait until all of the lights across the surrounding streets winked out, hoping that the progressive darkening of the neighbourhood would allow more illumination from above. Once there’d been a power cut and he’d been able to pick out Mars, seemingly tucked away behind Venus, just a trick of their relative positions and rotational orbits. The others teased him about how scientific, how clinical, he was about it all but he saw the beauty in it too. When he told Rob he wasn’t looking for destiny up there it was true but he was maybe looking for some perspective.

“Good night,” said Rob. “Don’t forget our guest arrives tomorrow.”

“Guest ?” said Sarah pausing at the head of the stairs.

“God, Sarah, do you read anything the landlord sends us ? We talked about this last week. He’s offered up the spare room on Air BnB. We’re splitting the money, remember ? He’ll take half and then take the other half off the rent. Said we can stop it anytime we want if it doesn’t work out.”

“Vaguely,” said Sarah. “Might be nice to have someone else around anyway. And I could definitely use the cash.”

“Tell me about it,” said Rob.