Wednesday, 30 September 2009
My favourite stories: Number three: I learn about the fate of the earth, without fully understanding astronomical timescales
I was given a fat book of science knowledge when I was about five. It explained atoms, and why nails were hard and water wasn't; and how life came out of the oceans; and how homo sapiens evolved from a monkey bush that also grew gorillas and chimps.
One day I came across a sequence of pictures describing the life of a star, in particular, the Sun. It showed how billions of years in the future, the sun would turn into a red giant and expand to swallow up the inner planets (most importantly, Earth), before winking out into a tiny frozen ball.
"But luckily," said the final caption with breezy confidence, "This won't happen for billions of years."
Later that night, my father came up to check on us all. I was still awake, eyes wide in the dark. "What's the matter?"
"This book says that in billions of years, the sun's going to turn into a red giant and the seas are going to boil away into space, and we're all going to burn up."
"So I've heard."
"How long ago did they write this book?"
He took the tome from my hands and looked at the printing data. "1977."
"Is that billions of years ago?"
"No. It's the year you were born."
"Is that nearly billions of years ago?"
"No. It just bloody feels that way. Now go to sleep."
Monday, 28 September 2009
Friday, 25 September 2009
The staff at the hostel in Cape Town didn’t like guests going out for the evening: they went so far as to suggest that if we went out, we would probably be stabbed. “We’re having a 70s night in the bar: you don’t want to miss that, do you? Half price shots.”
But our group leaders had heard about a free jazz festival in town, and we were determined to go.
The other thing the hostel staff warned us about were the minibus taxis: they shuttle around set routes, and are a popular alternative to public transport. The hostel staff said the drivers were lunatics. And that we’d probably be stabbed.
Our group leaders told us they were fine and about a third the price of a taxi. This made them hugely attractive, as we were coming to the end of a ten-week tour round Africa so funds were a bit low.
So the ten of us hailed a minibus from the street outside the hostel, paid our fares to the driver’s mate and bundled in. The driver beetled us all the way to city centre (not driving much like a lunatic) and we hunted down the festival… when my little sister let out a cry of woe. “My purse. I think I dropped it in the minibus.”
“Oh Rosey, was there much in it?”
She hadn’t had much cash on her, but there was a card, which was a bit more worrying. We went into a large hotel and asked to use the phone. The concierge was sympathetic: “Need me to look up the number for you?”
The 24-hour emergency number for the bank led us into automated message hell: “What is the number of the card you are reporting lost?”
“I don’t know, I’ve lost it.”
“I didn’t understand that.”
We resigned ourselves to a damage limitation exercise in the morning.
“It’ll be all right,” I told her. “They haven’t got your PIN, and I’ll buy you supper.”
“I feel so stupid. And I was really looking forward to buying presents for everyone tomorrow. ”
We enjoyed the music as well as we could: but Rosey’s heart really wasn’t in it; and I felt bad for her. She’s normally the careful, sensible one who never loses anything, so she was taking it particularly badly. The group split up because some of us wanted supper while others wanted to stay and listen in the square.
We ended up picking at snacks in a lively bar. Rosey was thinking about going back to the hostel, and I supposed I ought to go with her, when the other half of our group appeared. “Rosey, you’ll never guess what!”
“The minibus guys heard us talking about the jazz festival. The driver’s mate came and walked around until they found us.”
The money was still there. “He wouldn’t take a reward,” they told us.
And best of all, not one of us got stabbed.
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
It was show and tell night at Tunbridge Wells Fortean Society.
Fossils, blurry photographs and things in jars lay on the table among the pint glasses. Articles from Bob's collection dominated: he was an engineer who had lived all round the world and had plenty of curiosities.
A battered pair of glasses caught my eye. They looked as if they'd spent some time buried. I put them on, and observed the members through the almost opaque lenses.
"What on earth are those?" asked someone.
Bob put down his pint, wiped his moustache and said: "They're Mr Ishigawa's spectacles. I found them while I was dredging a canal in the Solomon Islands."
He explained that the islands are still littered with wreckage from the war.
"But how do you know they belonged to Mr Ishigawa?" I squinted at Bob over the rusted frames.
"Well he might not have been called Mr Ishigawa, but they were still attached to his skull."
He smirked as I swiftly removed the glasses and put them at arm's length on the other side of the table.
Picture of glasses from Stock.xchng
Monday, 21 September 2009
- Mr Badcock's "Now boys, bring the brains to bear."
- The smell of preserved creatures in jars in the biology lab.
- Mr Gunn telling me off during A Level biology for staring out of the window... messing around with Nick Robinson... weaving with strips of paper when I should have been cutting and gluing.
- Always being cold in winter because we weren't allowed to wear t-shirts under our school blouses, and no-one in their right mind would ever sink to wearing a vest.
- Runching our grey school socks down - because who the hell wears their socks pulled up?
- Feeling as if games lessons were specifically designed to humiliate: the boys standing at the sports hall window to watch us getting into the swimming pool; being forced to do a dance routine to some stupid Madonna song; aerobics; mixed volleyball.
- The nailpolish smell of esters in chemistry.
- Doing a rubbish physics practical called 'The Great Heat Race' - each team was given a substance to heat until it boiled. We had washing-up liquid. Clearly not going to win.
- I must have wasted literally years of my life waiting for mother to come and pick me up at the end of school.
- Looking around the Queen's Hall during assembly and wondering how many of us would get out alive if there was a fire because there were 200 more people in the room than was permitted by fire regulations.
- The teachers sweeping on to the stage in their gowns. They looked the teacher in the Bash Street Kids.
- PaulV walking me and Katie through the churchyard and carrying our bags.
- Telling my tutor I wasn't happy, then feeling betrayed when she told my parents.
- Being afraid to use a school labcoat in case someone had put something disgusting in the pocket.
- The PCs in the computer room were 286s (the monitors had red, blue, black and white). If you were really lucky, you'd get to use a 386.
- Mrs Kerten was guaranteed to break the computer room. There was a printer that brought the entire network down if you switched it off.
- The cheese and bacon whirls at lunch still are one of the nicest things I've ever eaten. Also, the treacle sponge. I still miss them.
- Afew times a term our house was on duty. When we were in the fourth year, this meant replenishing the salad bar in the dining room. There never was anything to replenish because they put it all out at the start of lunch. But we still had to go and do the duty - we got in trouble if we didn't.
- Making a chocolate cake with yoghurt icing in home ec. Katie, Miri and I ate mine because the lunch queue was so badly behaved that the prefects sent us all away.
- Being scared to queue up for lunch because some of the boys were so rough -- they used to run at the queue so that you were crushed against the wall.
- We had a French teacher who thought that Alex Lightstone was actually called Alex Lighthouse. "Aaaalex, chewing goom, poot it away, dans la pourbelle." She told my parents that we were the loudest, rudest, nosiest, cleverest class she had ever taught. She was a very good teacher, too.
- During a year nine experiement to measure the amount of carbon dioxide exhaled by maggots, one of our class' maggots managed to crawl into a capillary tube. GROSS.
- A girl in our class sitting, head bowed so her straight blonde hair fell like a tent over a biology text book, while the rest of us dissected ox lungs.
- During the dissection of the ox lungs, we were told to use a tube to blow into them to see them inflate. One boy inhaled by accident.
- My brother putting his hand through a window during a fight while waiting for the bus.
- The monsterous unfairness of us having to wait three quarters of an hour after the end of school because our bus was used by another school first. I can't believe that no-one tried to negotiated a better service for us. Or, indeed that it never occurred to one of us to make a fuss about it.
- Mr Gunn said that today he was going to give us some notes on coitus. Nick Robinson whispered "What's that?" and I said: "Bonking." Mr Gunn heard and said "...coitus, or indeed bonking as Clare rather earthily puts it."
- Dying bits of cloth bright yellow in chemistry.
- Discovering during art that nothing awful happened when I used a sewing machine. I had a lot fun embellishing with silver thread a batik design inspired by tomatoes, oranges and peppers.
- Wednesday afternoon activities: rambling was an excuse to get out into the countryside and walk very quickly back to school.
- Swimming sports caused all the girls to get their periods simultaneously.
- The tuckshop lady said: "Don't worry about that now. Your figure will come through when you go to university." And she was right.
- I really liked a girl called Celia because she had thick round glasses that were forever falling down her nose; and because she carried her pencils in a round shortbread tin. I don't thinks she was very happy boarding, though.
- Marvelling in year nine woodwork when, following the teachers simple instructions, a pencil box appeared under my hands.
- The overwhelming urge to yell "Fire" in a crowded between lessons corridor.
- In year nine, the labs in the west wing were brand new and really beautiful. I loved the bright cleaness of it, and the generously sized rooms and corridors: the rest of the school sometimes felt as if it had been made for pixie people who were afraid of daylight. I liked being told to be CAREFUL of the lab benches in the west wing: they were made from single 15m slabs of wood.
- Feeling secretly jealous of the guys in the CCF because they got to go on camp and mess around in a hovercraft. I never joined because I thought I'd be rubbish at parade (I still can't tell left from right).
- The endless, endless poetry -- both taught in English and written by me. Endless.
- A teachers told me I was let down by my Godawful handwriting.
- I was mocked by my classmates for suggesting that in the future school children would all carry small computers round with them.
- The boy who sat next to be in geography pushed his homework over to me the day I forgot mine.
- Mr Hartley leaving the classroom through one door and returning through another. He used to tell us stories of the things he used to be allowed to do to pupils (mostly throwing board rubbers and chalk at them). He boasted that he could leave his classes alone for long periods because they never knew when or from where he would return.
- Sitting in the lecture theatre on a rainy day - I thought that it must be a bit like that bit in Catcher in Rye where he talks about going into the museum.
- Discovering that with computers, you could do things that you'd been able to do since you were about ten, and people would think it was wonderful. For my GCSE project I built a little point-and-click adventure using Visual Basic, and illustrated it with my own pictures done in Paint.
- Trying to add rude books to the library catalogue in the name of a teacher I didn't like.
- The lobby in the library would always be crowded at break with small boys: there was a copy of Encarta, with a general knowledge game on it.
- Seeing a crowd of boys filling the pavement and a smart-looking lady trying to edge past. One of the boys accidentally spilt his can of drink on her. She looked appalled and told him watch it. One of his friends shouted after her: "His name's David."
- Spending Friday lunch times at choir practice because we'd been told it was important to have interests outside schoolwork.
- We were each given an element - we had to produce an A4 sized poster about it to be stuck on a giant periodic table. I got iron, but swapped it with another girl for one of the rare elements because it sounded more interesting. But what the fuck do you say about a metal so radioactive it can't exist for more than a few moments. I still wish I'd kept iron.
- The crunch of a mercury thermometer breaking, and Dr Lewis sending to the prep room for some flowers of sulphur. "Don't use it as a stirrer!"