Psychoastronomy – a morning of awe with Brian Cox

Even with “One, two, three, four, five, senses working overtime”, it is possible to spend seven days or more without a sense of awe occuring. With so much stimulation at every angle, billboards worthy of Blade Runner, Twitter spats and CGI apocalypses, the majestic, the daunting and the fantastic can go unmentioned and unobserved. Sometimes, it is inescapable. Despite my presumed grumpy or Eeyore-ish demeanour, I try to scrutinise the things passing me by to find delight. No effort was required last week as I stood in the dish of the Lovell telescope. Let me fail to put how magical it was into words. I know magical may be the wrong choice when pondering on scientific and technological achievements, but at times, the strides of the twentieth century, our ability to investigate our universe really do leave you punch-drunk and goggle-eyed.

Our alibi for climbing up into the dish of Lovell is a documentary about general relativity.
I had never seen the telescope in the flesh and steel before. Sure, I remember Tom Baker falling of it, and I’ve seen it plenty of times as set dressing during Stargazing as Dara O Briain has said, “sadly, there is quite a lot of cloud cover tonight, but behind the water vapour we imagine it all looks splendid. Over to Buzz Aldrin who is in the car park using a piece of lunar rock to repeatedly punch a moon hoax fanatic.”

As the telescope came into view, I experienced a sense of tongue tied awe that I don’t remember ever experiencing before when seeing a human made structure for the first time. Perhaps if the Las Vegas revolving restaurant I had read about in Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing… had been working on the day I came to town, then I would have had this stomach butterfly hatchery before, but the mechanism was broken that day. The nearest equivalent sensation I can remember was the moment of turning a corner and seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. This may sound overly grandiose, but I can’t think of any other equivalent in my life.

Once in the control room, it became more remarkable. To see the engineering at work, the precision of the wheels and mechanism to turn the telescope by a fraction of a degree. It moves so silently. Walking up to the first steps to the dish, you see a metal plate to remind you of the steel manufacturers who were part of the process of interrogating pulsars and galaxies (a steel manufactuer which, 58 years later, is under threat of closure).

The lift took us to the walkway under the dish, a few of our party pulled out, their amygdala becoming overactive at the sight of rust patches. I have a little neophobia at times, but my primitive fears of steel walkways wouldn’t keep me from the top. Crossing to the final ladder, the previous dish, now decaying, surrounds you. This was where the first glimmers of psychogeography sparked. What information had this defunct dish, now shielded from the sky by the dish above it, collected in the previous century?

Once up the ladder, I was grateful that my fears had not kept me from this curved white circular expanse. Brian had been up there before, including once for the shooting of a d:ream pop promo, but his trademark delight is not reserved for the TV cameras alone.
Our smiles are beatific. We climb a little up the side of the dish, the curvature creates an illusion that conceals the increasing steepness. The sky almost matches the colour of the dish. We look up and think of the data collected in this bowl. An arctic white steel structure in the middle of meadows should feel cold, but it doesn’t.

Here is the gatherer of radio waves emitted by astronomical objects. Here is the place that picked up signals of the metal nosed Tycho Brahe’s supernova. This is the place that tracked Lunar 2 to the Moon. This is where quasars were defined and pulsars observed.
This is not psychogeography, this is psychoastronomy. Carl Sagan stated that astronomy was a humbling occupation, and never have I felt that more fiercely than in the near silence of the Lovell telescope. Like some psychosomatic sense of feeling all those neutrinos passing through you, your imagination fabricates a sense of feeling signals coming from beyond our galaxy.

Back to the walkway, you are struck by the variety of life around you. There is a fecundity before you. Looking at the variety of life around you, and thinking of the distances scanned by the telescope, your thoughts turn to the possibility of life beyond us and the fortune of being on a planet with such a variety of it before us.

Another word wrongly used, but it is a fabulous place, one where fables become facts through methodical enquiry, and new fables are created, and one day they may be dismissed or gain certainty.

Human imagination can be venal and brutal and punishing and cruel, and it can lead to structures such as this. As Richard Feynman was told by a monk, “the keys to heaven also open the gates to hell”.

It was a good day.

Brian Cox and I will be hosting two shows at Hammersmith Apollo with a herd of surprise musicians, speakers and comedians, Friday pretty much sold out, some tickets available for Thursday

Josie Long and I are returning to podcasting soon

and she’ll be also be joining Michael Legge and I, plus some mystery bands, for a couple of live Christmas Vitriola shows

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2 Responses to Psychoastronomy – a morning of awe with Brian Cox

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #16 | Whewell's Ghost

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