Tuesday, 18 November 2014

My Rites Of Spring

Before I could be corrupted by booze, fags, girls and Southern Death Cult, this young man's mind was focused on stargazing.

By 14, I had a telescope, could find my way around the constellations courtesy of the 'Observer Book of the Sky at Night', and had signed up for membership of the British Astronomical Association. The pink card covers of their periodicals hid pages of head-numbing digits relating to lunar phases and the circulation of Jupiter's satellites. No pictures. Just data.

Night after night, west country weather permitting, I would peer through my little refractor at Jupiter from the patio outside my parents' house and attempt to replicate the delicate belts and spots of that planet through pencil shadings on paper templates handed out by Jim Muirden of the Exeter Astronomical Society.

This was a fun group of astronerds, of which I was pretty much the youngest member. I lapped up anything and everything they had going - pub meets, observing outings, coach journeys to places of vague tourist relevance to the heavens.

One weekend in maybe 1979 or 1980, we all schlepped down to Torquay for a meeting of our regional parent group, the Devon Astronomical Association. Eminent faces from the local astronomical scene were all there. And I have since forgotten all of their names.

One of the most eminent was sat right in front of me during the keynote speech of the seminar. Like I say, his name has slipped my mind - possibly forever. But I will never forget the visiting guest speakers or what they had to say.

Sir Fred Hoyle and Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe were co-architects of an extraordinarily volatile theory of the evolution of life - that viruses and biological compounds originated from space and were transported about the great vastness by comets. The intimation was that this is how life might have kicked off here on earth.

The eminent local astronomer seated in front of me was apoplectic over these new theories. And he wasn't alone. Outrageous claims were being made. Borderline science fiction was being peddled. And nobody wanted that. Science FACTS, if you please, mister speakers.

The eminent local astronomer let out a snort, then another. He had decided that his contempt for the subject matter would be heard. There followed a 'pah!' of disbelief. Some light laughter rippled about the hall. As the two scientists continued to expand on their extraordinary suggestions, murmurs spread around neighbouring seats as amateur astronuts took the debate off the stage and into the ears of their colleagues. It got noisy. A Q&A session which followed got a little heated. The overall mood, you could say, was 'incredulous'.

For some fortuitous reason, I had my brother's portable cassette recorder with me, as well as an external mic. I recorded the whole speech, but the tape was peppered with rough sonic explosions from the angry stargazer in front of me, such was the violence with which he threw his unbeliever arms above or behind his head at every uniquely preposterous suggestion emerging from the stage.

I hope I still have that tape in a box somewhere. Looking back, this was my "Rites of Spring" moment. Just as Stravinsky had a hard time putting his ballet out there, so Professor Wickramasinghe and Sir Fred Hoyle had a nightmare propagating their theories of panspermia (Wiki it, people) to the amateur scientific community.

Writing 11 years ago, Prof Wickramasinghe described the atmosphere quite succinctly: "In the highly polarised polemic between Darwinism and creationism, our position is unique. Although we do not align ourselves with either side, both sides treat us as opponents. Thus we are outsiders with an unusual perspective - and our suggestion for a way out of the crisis has not yet been considered".

This week, of course, the Philae probe has landed on a comet. Amazing. Oh, and did you see the news today? There are organic molecules there.

I see this as a win for science. But, even more exciting, it's a win for the mavericks who dared to think outside the box. Sir Fred Hoyle died in 2001, aged 86.

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