Seeing Beyond the Horizon

When I was a child living in the UK, my parents had a subscription on my behalf to the Wildlife Fact-File. As I understand this phenomenon of early-90s culture, this entitled them to weekly deliveries of glossy A4-sized sheets of paper containing photographs and detailed information about the world’s wildlife. Each sheet was dedicated to a different animal, and the entire collection came pre-holepunched for convenient filofax storage. Even today I can remember my excitement at the arrival of another page designed for the well-thumbed Mammals or Birds section, and my fear of opening the file at Chapter 5, wherein lurked the dreaded Insects and Spiders.

At the very back of the file, tucked away in Chapter 11, were the comparatively few pages on Conservation. As this sort of occasion seems to call for honesty, I will happily admit that I always considered these entries on Saving the Rainforest, Conserving Peat Bogs or Helping Wildlife in Winter to be unnecessary and, quite frankly, boring. After all, they were more about process than content. Their entries had no brightly-coloured pictures of African Mandrills or Peregrine Falcons and their dry though vital message was consequently lost on my 3 -year old self. It therefore comes as no surprise to me that as I look through the Wildlife Fact-File this morning, I see that Chapter 11 is in practically pristine condition.

Last night’s episode of Horizon on BBC2 reminded me to a certain extent of my sorely-neglected Chapter 11. The content was undeniably colourful and well-researched, but there is also clearly no denying that the programme’s content was subservient to its portrayal of a deeper overarching process.

On the face of it, Monday night’s Horizon was about the 21st Century renaissance in telescope engineering. It took us from the stratosphere over the continental United States to the sea floor off the coast of Marseilles, passing through the arid plateaux of Chile’s Atacama desert en route. It showed us plans to install a man-made telescope millions of miles from Earth, and a telescope designed to see through the Earth’s core. All in all, heady and exciting stuff.

But these disparate scientific efforts were presented as being held together by more than just a shared interest in lenses and distant sources of light. The four experiments at the focus of this week’s programme are all examples of the new way of doing science which is unlike anything that humanity has ever previously undertaken. This is the age of Collaborative Science with a big capital C, a big capital S and a whole lot of plain old capital. This is the age when researchers build a base complete with restaurants and swimming pool in the middle of the Chilean desert, and a physicists’ Olympic Village can sit on the Franco-Swiss border.

If the books on my course’s reading list are to be trusted, more scientists were active in the 1960s than had ever been active before then in the history of human endeavour. The exponential increases in the amount of funding allocated to the sciences in the past hundred years have been unrivalled by any other field. Again, according to a pared-down version of my reading list, an extrapolation of these statistics mean that global economies will bottom out in the next hundred years, and all universities will be transformed into Colleges of Science, Technology and Medicine.

Now clearly, these curves have to plateau somewhere, and in some parts of the world they are already beginning to do so. But the culture that has developed is one where science is a truly global affair. The spread of research is no longer limited to the speed of the local pony express, and the race for discovery is more often between universities or cities than it is between individual bespectacled academics.

And watching all this portrayed on TV was particularly exciting. Sure, the programme makers wanted you to know about the spectrum of ‘Frosty Leo‘, a protoplanetary nebula in the direction of its namesake constellation. They wanted to convey the niceties of neutrino charge and mass and explain the nature of cosmic rays. But they knew they couldn’t really do it all. They knew that there wouldn’t be any point in doing it all. So what they did was a lot cleverer and, if I’m laying those badly-concealed cards out on the table again, a lot more interesting.

They showed what it can be like to work in astronomy today. The exotic marmalades available at the Atacama residencia’s buffet. The strong coffee required to help you and your team get through an all-night stargazing session. The NASA planes fitted with telescopes and on which you and your colleagues get to fly. The remote-controlled submarines that need to be built and navigated for your work on the Mediterranean seabed. The fact that our most sophisticated extension ever built for the human eye is officially called the Very Large Telescope. The fact that you might need an oxygen pack to stay alive while working at the Atacama Large Millimeter Array of telescopes in Chile.

All these visual nuggets serve a far greater purpose than simply teaching people experimental results – they teach people the process behind those results, and the size and scale of the experiments needed to get them. Programmes like this hold out a hand to the new generation of scientists and offer them the chance to get involved in the most exciting adventure in human history. And if that doesn’t sound thrilling enough, wait till you try the marmalade.

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