Monday, 25 October 2010

Watching science launch like a rocket

Despite an exceptionally lazy weekend, I'm still feeling slightly breathless from a ridiculously active couple of weeks. Here's what I did for the first three days - October 11th to 13th, Monday to Wednesday.

Well, actually I'm not allowed to tell you exactly what I was doing on Monday; suffice to say that Jules, who moderates the Moon Zoo forum, and I went to Oxford to talk to Arfon and Rob about a new project. It looks terribly exciting. I think it'll work well.

I asked Rob why he calls himself Orbiting Frog, and he told me that frogs have been in orbit as well as chimps and poor Lassie. But they don't get the same sort of publicity. According to good old Wiki, the first creatures in space were fruit flies. Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana, etc. etc. In fact, Lassie is a lot better known than Albert II, a chimp who was launched into space in 1949, only to die on impact upon returning to Earth.

There's one random fact of the day, to take your mind off the tantalising mystery of what the new project is (you will probably like it, but it may come as a bit of a shock . . .). Here's another: Oxford is beautiful. It's got this sense of peace and restfulness, like a person in a comfortable home who is well looked after. Contrary to all my expectations, it's not at all snobby. I've yet to meet anyone there who hasn't been very friendly. What is clear is that an awful lot of work goes into making and keeping it so nice. That's worth doing. It probably keeps a lot of people in work, and how much better to have a city that the citizen feels they are part of, that they jointly own with everyone else - somewhere worth preserving. Jules
and I snapped quite a lot of photos. Hers will be considerably better than mine.

I'd been up all night preparing a lecture on Cassini (which is why I had to rush back to Wales on Wednesday evening!) so I ended up going to bed in the youth hostel at 6.30 and sleeping for over 12 hours! I was up and springing (unusual for me) at eightish, and went to get breakfast - it was pricey and not gourmet food, but it would do. I thought the chap behind the counter was giving me a funny look as he doled out beans, tomatoes, sausage, bacon and hash brown onto my plate (the eggs looked like crumbled polystyrene) and when I went to sit down, under the annoyingly blaring loudspeaker, an itch I'd felt on my neck for a while became intolerable. I thought my hair must be caught in my collar. I moved a hand up to rip it out and scratch it. At that point a butterfly flew off my neck and around the room. I was so surprised I couldn't stop thinking about it. Where had that butterfly come from? Had I accidentally packed it in Wales or something? Sadly I doubt it survived. I'd rubbed off half its scales (I forget what sort it was - something very pretty like an admiral or a peacock) and none of the windows were open. For some reason it flew up to sit on the vent. Maybe I'm a spontaneous butterfly generator . . .

It was generally an odd sort of morning! I hopped on a train to London and went to the British Museum - a mind-blowing place that it will take me many visits to see all of, much less take in. By the time I'd walked around enough I was hungry again, and craving fruit, which is almost as unusual for me as getting up early. I bought a ridiculously overpriced pineapple and smoothie. While eating, I noticed a funny taste in my mouth, just behind my top front teeth. I put my thumb there. It came out covered in blood. It bled for some time and was quite sore for a couple of days. Maybe that was somehow connected to the butterfly; I can feel a really freaky fantasy novel coming on now. Or maybe I'm old enough to accept coincidence for what it is - even I used to be reluctant to do that. Or maybe I should be more careful how I eat. Maybe I also shouldn't have spent such a ridiculous amount of money in the British Museum shops, but their Rosetta Stone mugs really are gorgeous. They're thin bone china, comfortable to drink from, large enough, delicate, elegant, and the hieroglyphs, cuneiform and Greek letters are painted on so you can feel them, and your hand makes a singing sort of noise as you run your finger over the symbols. No, I'm not secretly their advertising agency, just an over-enthusiastic tea and coffee drinker - and very particular about my mugs. I have far too many, and they're all lovely - especially these!

Thus loaded, I then set off on a nice walk south to the Thames. Central London is surprisingly compact; it doesn't take too long to walk, for example, from Euston to the Houses of Parliament. Only problem is, don't rely on Google Maps to get you there. I did, and I ended up outside the Treasury, where Dean and the others had been campaigning three days previously.

I, a born Londoner, didn't realise the Houses of Parliament was the same building as Big Ben is. How embarrassing is that?

Well, I found it eventually, and there were signs up all over the place telling us that tresspassing was a prosecutable offence under the dear SOCPA law and that we must have passes if we wished to enter. There was nobody I could ask who wasn't behind some kind of chain, barrier, or wall, so eventually I had to sidle up and do that. The chap who was letting people in, or not, looked like he might or might not have been a policeman, and didn't seem to know what I was talking about when I asked how I could get a pass. But when I told him I was there to lobby Parliament in Committee Room 10 at 3:30 he let me straight in.

There was a long metal ramp to queue on, with an additional ramp to the left, railed off, into which a chap behind me ducked to hurry through ahead of those politely waiting. I was ashamed of him, and doubly so of the people in the queue around me who encouraged him to do it. He was back in about 30 seconds, announcing that the folks seeing us through had told him "No chance". Apparently he was late for something . . .

They'd told us to try and get to Parliament by 2:45; due to my muddling around like a moron I wasn't queueing until after three, but it wasn't half past yet when I got to the front. There was a pair of footprints drawn on the floor to stand in. I was so busy looking at them that they had to explain to me to look up so that a camera could take my picture. I was given this to wear around my neck. They didn't want any ID or anything. I was quite embarrassed to be carrying my coat, rucksack and a bag of British Museum stuff, and was dreading not being allowed through since the website is pretty specific about no luggage. (I'd been to Charing Cross but they'd have charged me £8, to which my reaction was bollocks to that!!) But they were fine. What was less fine was that they also say no sharps, and for some reason there was a pair of scissors in my rucksack. What they were doing there I have no idea! That was dreadfully embarrassing, especially as I had to remove all my underwear and hold people up while I got the wretched things out. They were very nice about it, though. They just gave me a nice laminated bit of paper to carry around, and I left the scissors in a pigeonhole. Then it was out, briefly, into the open air, turn right, and into the House of Commons.

It looked like a huge entrance to a castle: great wooden doors, a vast stone hall, stained glass windows in the far distance ahead. Near the front was a tourist stand full of maps and leaflets. I asked a guide where Committee Room 10 was. She told me in great detail. People were astonishingly polite, telling me please to go this way madam, but not smarmy or sarcastic. I felt quite out of my depth, quite awed by the grandeur, and at the same time determined and proud that this was where our country had been governed for centuries and also where I, and any other ordinary citizen, could come to make our voices heard. This was our House of Commons, a common heritage, and I immediately felt that everybody ought to see it.

Committee Room 10 was upstairs on the left, at the end of a long passage - whose chequerboard-like ancient flooring seemed to be in the process of being restored - and then up a spiral staircase at which point I was met by a TV set telling us what was going on in the chambers, and one second later by Michelle Brook. Michelle is a frighteningly bright Twitterer who's done two degrees and is a core player in the Science is Vital campaign. She was quite unfazed by the grandeur while I couldn't stop gawping around! Committee Room 10 was almost full which, I gather, is not a frequent occurrence. We settled on one place to sit, then saw more people to catch up with and moved, then decided to go and sit in what to me looked like a little raised area with a rail around it and quite comfy-looking chairs but Michelle said was called "the dock". I joked about how we must be the criminals, then froze, considering where we were and how you can't seem to say anything these days without incurring suspicion. Nobody heard, though. I did attract the interest of a chap in a suit in front of me when I reached up and touched the wall to see if it really was made of crimson velvet, or whether it was just clever wallpaper. It was velvet. The fellow asked me if I was looking for air conditioning. I said no, wondering what on earth kind of air conditioning this might be.

Like the House of Commons's debating room itself, this room's centre was its lowest point, all chairs pointed towards it, so there wasn't really much of a "stage" - Imran Khan took it, though, and he and Jenny Rohn made splendid speeches about why it made no sense - economic or otherwise - to cut funding for science. But something was niggling me: what were they doing making speeches to us, the people, the lobbyists, who'd come to say this to the politicians? I'd somehow assumed that the politicians would be there, and that we'd somehow know who they were. For all I knew the room could have been full of MPs without my knowing, though; I'm not a telly watcher and would probably not recognise most of them. We were joined by Julian Huppert, who'd only just got back from Gaza, and by a fellow who was there to read out Vince Cable's reply to us, seeing as Vince Cable was at that moment busy making important announcements about tuition fees. His deputy said that he would do his best to be Vince Cable by pulling his glasses down his nose. What he said sounded fairly encouraging. Annoyingly, I can't remember any specifics - there was just too much going on.

I had further cause to be proud of our democracy - yes, we do still have one - when we were told that, if our MP was not present and had not replied to our letters, we could nip downstairs and sign a "green card" asking them to come to Committee Room 10. I did that, along with a stampede of others; I had to ask to borrow somebody's pen! My MP, Stephen Crabb, did not appear; nor has he yet replied to my letter - but that's no excuse not to do everything one can. I was there, I did my damnedest, and so should anyone who wants anything to change. I added to the numbers and I'm writing about it now.

Update: Brilliant post by Della on all the things the campaign has been doing, including a much more informed account of Tuesday than my own!

A few days later, Michelle, Della, Imran and others presented the petition to No. 10 Downing Street. As I write now, there are 36,159 signatures. 33,804 of these were in time to make it to No. 10.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday morning and afternoon I attended the launch of ESERO, a project to encourage the use of space and astronomy as part of science, maths and technology teaching in schools.

I was very flattered to be asked along; I don't know how they heard about me - maybe just by finding this blog! They gave me a badge saying Galaxy Zoo; I chuckled to myself with some embarrassment that as I'm not an official paid member of the team, I was not permitted to describe myself as "from Galaxy Zoo" for my first formal lecture, at Intech Planetarium two years ago, and wondered what they'd say if they knew. (That is, I was requested not to, so as to avoid the hassle of them having to approve everything I said - fair enough.) It was a useful label, though. Quite a few people came up to me and asked "Galaxy Zoo? What's that?" But the teacher of one of the very enthusiastic schools who came along took one look at my badge and exclaimed, "Oh! Galaxy Zoo! I set that for homework all the time!"

The launch took place in the Institute of Physics, a modest little place within one of London's terraces. We were an interesting mix of people from various space related industries, museums, organisations, and I think five schools - eight or ten secondary school kids got to come along, some having travelled from the North of England to go. There was excellent coffee and I couldn't believe how friendly everybody was. When I stood around with a mug in my hand feeling gormless, people came up to ask me what I did. It was great to hear the buzz of space and astronomy talk all around me, to lap up the various ways it trickles into society and learning. It was both like coming home and setting out.

We then had a morning of talks, and a video from our British astronaut Tim Peakes - you can read more and see the video here. The talks were wonderfully frank and lively: space is an inspiring thing, it's what encourages people to go into science or technology, we should be teaching it - and this is what we're here to do. They were also pretty straightforward about Britain being a country of inventors and great science; it's good to hear that, when so many people around me seem to regard deriding Britain as the only respectable or politically thing to do, earning modesty points for themselves at the expense of a feeling of confidence, of progress, that you need in order to get anywhere . . . We then had a demonstration of some science experiments, such as making a comet nucleus (great mess and fun) with the same science teacher who set the zoo as homework and a couple of school pupils! All in all, it was a morning of smile generating. We got a free lunch too, and an exhibition of pupils' work.

I was emotional and gibbering. The kids were going on about spectroscopy and cosmic rays and enantiomers. They wanted to know this stuff because it was there, not to pass any exams. The teachers were showing them things for fun, for excitement, for the latest news. In other words, everything that had been forbidden to me in my PGCE, everything I was told was impossible because the kids "wouldn't understand it at their age" or that it was a waste of their revision time - it was going on. And they could do it. I felt as if something I had been the only one to believe had been proved right. Oh, if only those miserable, repressed, curriculum-driven teachers I'd worked under could have seen this!

The kids loved showing me their stuff, getting me to sniff beakers of different enantiomers (one smelled much sweeter than the other), and I told some of them freely about what my teaching year had been like. They were quite amused. Some sixth formers from one school showed me a machine they had to detect cosmic rays. I said that I thought cosmic rays were stopped by the atmosphere and they said no, there were some in the room right now. I thought - wasn't that neutrinos they were thinking of? But who was I to say I knew more than they did? I wasn't working on this stuff, unlike them.

I talked as much as I could to the teachers, and the friendly one offered me some work experience. She works in the north, but if I can get somewhere to stay I might well give it a shot! When I told her I had been thrown off my teaching course, she said, "Oh, try it again!" That day, believe me, I wanted to. But I was driven away too far from that, and am now on a different road - I'm doing too many other things. (For one thing there are so many adults who aren't getting all the opportunities that schoolchildren are to learn - yet adults are often so much more willing!) And yet, and yet - I do want to do more work in schools. I love the classroom, I love education, and I want to write about it . . . My head was buzzing!

My only disappointment was the question time. I put up my hand and got to ask the first one. I said that I'd been at the Science is Vital rally the previous day and that cuts of between 10 and 25% were expected in the science sector - would this affect projects such as ESERO and indeed British investment in the European Space Agency, and if so, what could we do about it? I fear this question rather threw them because they turned into uptight men in suits, waffling about how cuts needed to be made, but certainly not addressing any practical issues such as what we could do or what specific effects such cuts might have. Oh well. My question was asked. These fantastic kids (and doubtless many of their classmates who couldn't come) will not be too hasty in letting the next generation slide into scientific barbarity.

I picked up an awful lot of literature while I was there - now I must actually sit down and read it! To round off a perfect day, Sotira (who I'd also seen at the She is an Astronomer conference) and I found a delicious restaurant and indulged ourselves in coffee, profiteroles and chocolate fudge cake. Even though going home meant burying myself back in that Cassini lecture's Powerpoint presentation when all I wanted was to celebrate and sleep, you can imagine that after three days of different ways of bringing science to the people, things have never felt quite so . . . how can I describe it? . . . right.

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