Melvyn's newsletter - The Cool Universe - 06/05/2010

The Universe

Hello,

I was going to write about elephants. I may still have space and time but what was said after the programme was fascinating.

By the way, a gaseous cloud nine and a half million million kilometres across puts Iceland in its place.

There was much talk about a book by Piazzi Smyth. Italian-English? Emphatically! He became the Astronomer Royal of Scotland. He wrote a book, 'An Astronomer's Experiment: A Journey to Teneriffe' (those were his two 'f's and not mine) which was hugely praised by Paul Murdin especially. It is now a collector's item and almost impossible to obtain. He spoke of the stereoscopic photographs and of the general observations on the landscape and the people, as well as the basic business of going up a mountain to do astronomy. He was the first person to demonstrate that observations ought to be on the top of mountains, and following on (some time later) his expedition to Tenerife in the middle of the last century, mountain top observatories became the norm - most spectacularly in the United States of America.

But back to Piazzi. It seems that he was in a casual conversation at the Royal Society, talking about his notion that he wanted to explore a mountain top to test his theory of astronomical observations. He had read about this in Newton who wrote that one of the fundamental limitations of telescopes was that they were subject to the tremors of the atmosphere, and therefore if you went up mountains you might be able to mitigate that. About 200 years later, Piazzi Smyth set off for Tenerife to mitigate, because in that conversation at the Royal Society his enthusiasm had infected a fellow member who said ''I've got a yacht. I'm sailing down to the Canaries in a week or two. Why don't you come with me?''. Smyth accepted, even though this was his honeymoon, and took his new wife with him who spent her time on the top of rocky places cooking difficult meals. Why Tenerife and not the Alps? Partly because the weather in the Alps is unreliable and unsatisfactory and Tenerife has a very tall volcano and, of course, there was the man with the yacht.

Curiously enough, Paul Murdin has spent some of his working life on the neighbouring island of Palma as director of the astronomical laboratory there.

All sorts of circles really, I suppose. I was at Wadham College at the same time as Paul in the late Fifties and the Royal Society is often called ''Wadham's gift to the world'' because Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and John Wilkins began their observations and experiments in the Fellows' Garden there, as we described in the quartet of programmes on the Royal Society a few months ago.

But back to the elephants. I noticed them first on the Embankment. Jumbo-sized. Painted in loud, sometimes even rather garish colours. Mostly sitting on a plinth. Then I saw a long procession in Green Park as I was stomping round that pleasant little central lung of the West End and took a closer look. They're steadily advancing on Buckingham Palace. All they need is a Hannibal. They are diminutive versions of Asian elephants and they're there for charity. Then you start seeing them everywhere. Elephants here, elephants there ... A few years ago it was cows. You may remember. Cows were in many cities all around the world and they came in herds into London. Life-sized. They were a good way to give money to charity and I bought one. This cow was transported to my house on the back of a small truck, roped in rather precariously. It was delivered by an ex-military officer of impeccable manners. He praised the coffee I offered him as if it had been the rarest single malt whisky.

The big decision was where to put the cow. I had been able to request my own painting on it (these were all hand-painted cows) and I'd chosen the central scene from the Sistine Chapel ceiling, God giving life to Adam. It was beautifully executed on both flanks. So the cow somehow struggles into the garden and my wife would prefer it to be at the bottom of the garden (or frankly over the wall), but the ex-military officer demurred and pointed out, straight-faced, that the cow would be lonely at the bottom of the garden.

You have to agree with that. So she came much closer and there she stands today, much bespattered with this and that coming down from the atmosphere, not soot and sand, which seems to be the basis on which we are all made, but other things that can come down from the atmosphere. She needs a good wash and a new varnish. But she grows on you. She is called Moochelangelo.

And that's it, on a day when this country in an extraordinary, quiet, mature, decent and measured way exercises its democracy.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: Apologies for the worst joke I have ever made at the end of the programme.

PPS: Boris Johnson has now made the West End and much of London more or less a traffic-free zone. Great for pedestrians like me. Great for the grumpy old, and young. But what strikes me about the replacement of the sewers etc is that I am watching people doing the real work of our society, making this city work in ways which few of the rest of us do, and getting precious little thanks for it. Go and look closely in one of the ditches that have been dug and see the men putting together technology which will keep seven or eight million people disease-free and healthy for decades to come. Talk about the unsung ...

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