My husband likes science. He used to be head of science in a primary school, he builds and events things endlessly and watches programmes about science and engineering with every outward sign of enjoyment. He has a simply amazing party trick with an empty lemonade bottle. Finally, Spouse works harder than anyone else I know. I therefore took it upon myself to take him on a day trip that he would really enjoy, and there was only one place to go: Greenwich. Greenwich is a really, really lovely place and has more maritime and scientific history per square inch than anywhere else I know. For the person on an unusually tight budget it is a tricky place, but it can be done. I decided to take Spouse to London’s only planetarium (they have shut the one at Madame Tussaud’s). I also took him to a comedy festival, which was more than a tenner so I won’t blog about it, but if you don’t follow the work of Adam Buxton, you should, and here’s how and why:
There are two points that the planetarium website is crystal clear about: first, you are strongly advised to book your preferred choice of planetarium in advance, and second the planetarium itself is on the top of a blooming great hill and it will take you between 20-25 minutes to get there from Greenwich station. As it happens, there were spare seats for the performance we choice that day, but there is absolutely no question about the hill. Reader, I flatter myself that I have many strengths – I’m generally well meaning, rarely actively harmful, and I have a lovely singing voice. But I am not good at getting up early on a Saturday morning, and Spouse is, if anything, worse. So you be surprised to hear that I had allowed somewhat less than 20-25 minutes recommended by the astronomers, reasoning that we were hale and hearty and so would be able to do it in less time. This was not true. The hill is steep, long and densely populated by tourists, all of whom were doing that meandering ‘hello birds, hello sky’ walk which takes up the whole path and involves travelling at one metre per hour. Sweating and peevish, I eventually reached the top, and asked for directions. The planetarium was tucked behind the Royal Observatory, it turns out, and we were about to miss the show. I gave the lady the emailed confirmation of our booking, and eventually she doled out the ticket, telling us to hurry lest we miss the show. We dashed down to the planetarium, and Spouse insisted on going to the loo, meaning the show had actually started by the time we got in, and I was on the point of committing heinous murder upon him for interfering with my carefully laid plans for his lovely day.
Happily, they let us in because the actual show hadn’t started – rather, a stand up astronomer was giving us a short talk on health and safety information before the film began. The lady was fabulously funny, and to be honest, I was both surprised and relieved. In my six years of watching science programmes with the beloved, I have found that science programming either tends to be a wee bit humourless or jarringly unfunny (‘I may have a PhD but science is really funny and cool and explodes!!!!!’ syndrome). This lady was cheeringly matter of fact about the universe: she explained the light was quietly dimming so our eyes could acclimatise to what would be an almost total absence of light, and proper astronomers also have to spend half an hour gossiping and drinking tea before they observe the night sky for exactly the same reason. She observed that we were under 4000 tonnes of bronze so we would not get any phone signal, but nevertheless we were not to try to fiddle with our phones, as in the complete dim their light would hurt our eyes when they had accustomed to the gloom. Eventually, almost without our noticing, we were in darkness and the show began, our seats tipping back so we were horizontal and gazing up at the faux night sky.
The film we saw was about comets, asteroids and such. The constellations zipped in and out like an image on an iPad. Sometimes the moon hung above us pendulously, sometimes we zipped along in the trail of a comet bombing through space. Throughout a sonorous female voice (her style owing much to the work of Professor Brian Cox, I thought), explained how the world was under constant threat of an asteroid landing and destroying the planet. She went on to intone that although there are simply loads of potentially fatal asteroids, we do keep a beady eye out for them, and it is all alright really. Apparently all the water on the planet came from asteroids, which is a bit of a mad thought. Eventually the show ended, the lights lifted, and the standup astronomer took the stage again to answer actual scientific questions. She assured us that she worried more about crossing the street than the planet being hit by a life threatening comet. Apparently, if ever we are on the point of a planet-killing asteroid landing, we won’t send up Bruce Willis and a drill to blow the thing up, we’ll zap it with solar power and melt it, should governments ever get around to investing in the technology. This was not the consolation one might have hoped.
The planetarium is comparatively expensive for what it is (£6.50 for roughly an hour’s entertainment) but I did like it. Having someone there who was sufficiently qualified to actually answer the questions was a real bonus. Some of the other shows tell you exactly what will be happening in the night sky that night so you watch it unfold above you at home. Our hostess plainly loved her subject, and gave us tips on when to look out for comets, and good places to see them from – none of which were in London, because we have so much light pollution here.
As I am fiercely price sensitive, I didn’t stump up the extra to go to the Royal Observatory, so there is no photo of me with my feet on either side of the Prime Meridian. That was a false economy. Spouse and I looked through the gate to take our photos of the Greenwich Meridian and the tourists who could afford to stand astride it. I should have invested more. But the panoramic views of London are free, and Time Out declares them the finest views of London. Doubtless they are right.
For me though, the reason you should visit the planetarium is that it has a sense of humour, and that is a rare thing indeed, especially in a museum. Nestling among the items in the unusually good gift shop was a copy of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which as Douglas Adams once said is only science fiction because once you’ve blown up the earth in the first 40 pages, you’ve got nowhere else to go. It was displayed rather more prominently than Professor Cox’s “Wonders of the Universe.” This made me smile quietly, just like I suspect it was meant to. Despite all I say, I do love a good scientist.
Details of the Peter Harrison Planetarium at Greenwich, including travel information, times and details of shows, and prices are here:http://www.nmm.ac.uk/visit/planetarium-shows/