Colin Stuart introduces his joyous new book 13 Journeys Through Space and Time – Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution – a perfect Christmas gift for curious minds.
Last December, an enthralled audience packed into the Royal Institution (RI) to hear a first hand account of Tim Peake’s adventures aboard the International Space Station as part of Kevin Fong’s 2015 Christmas Lectures. It was the latest in a long line of these annual spectacles to be dedicated to the wonders of space and time.
Over the last year I’ve been lucky enough to get unprecedented access to the RI’s treasure trove of historical artefacts in order to write a book about these striking demonstrations of the beauty and enormity of the universe. The result – 13 Journeys Through Space and Time – was a real pleasure to work on and comes with a foreword by Tim Peake himself.
For me, in a way, that was life coming full circle. On my seventh birthday my Dad took me – a space obsessed kid – to a talk given by Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut. What I heard that day inspired me to study science and I am positive Tim’s travels have had the same effect on today’s generation. Hopefully the book adds to that endeavour in some small way.
What strikes me most when I look back over the thirteen lectures is just how far we’ve come. When Robert Stawell Ball gave his lectures on The Sun, The Moon and The Planets in 1881 he told his audience that no explorer could ever reach the Moon. Yet twelve men have since left their footprints in the lunar dust and astronauts like Tim are part of a permanent human presence in space. I can’t wait to see what we’ll achieve in the decades to come.
Writing about recent lectures such as Fong’s was relatively straightforward, as the video footage is still available to view. However, working out what took place in the famous Faraday Lecture theatre more than one hundred years ago took a fair amount of sleuthing. I pored over old newspaper cuttings, barely legible handwriting in old notebooks and dug through the BBC written archives for clues. One of the most memorable moments came when I was asked to sign a waiver in order to look at Sir James Dewar’s notebook in which he had scribbled doodles of experiments for his 1885 series The Story of the Meteorite. Because of the other experiments Dewar was performing at the time it is still slightly radioactive!
It is personal touches – and the personalities – of the lecturers which really stood out to me. I found a script for Sir James Jeans’s 1933 Through Space and Time lectures on which Jeans had scrawled some handwritten annotations. On the back of one of the sheets he’d drawn a sketch of the famous star pattern known in the UK as The Plough. Clearly even towering figures of British astronomy need to remind themselves of the basics from time to time. The humour and wit of many of the lecturers also came through in the letters that pinged back and forth to the RI both before and after the lectures. Frank Close – Christmas Lecturer in 1993 – thanked Faraday’s ghost for not keeping him up night during his stay in the RI’s on-site apartment.
Perhaps the most famous and revered lecturer in the book is the enigmatic American astronomer Carl Sagan. The archive shows that preparations for his arrival from across the Atlantic in 1977 – unusual because very few past lecturers came from overseas – took a lot of organising. Interesting artefacts still exist including a telegram from Sagan asking to stay at Brown’s (the 5* hotel across the road from the RI), the receipt for his airfare and even his immigration form filed by the BBC granting him permission to work in the UK.
The years surrounding the Sagan lectures were staggering for the number of successive and rapid space achievements. The Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 was swiftly followed by the visit of Mariner probes to Mars in 1971. Then in 1976, just the year before Sagan’s lectures, Viking landers touched down on the Red Planet in search of life. Sagan was able to give his audience a first hand account of the successes and failures of these missions. On a more light-hearted note, he also revealed that a Martian rock originally dubbed Big Bertha by the Viking team had to be renamed Big Joe after a women’s liberation group wrote in to complain. That is the power of the Christmas Lectures: experts bringing cutting edge science to life with humour and demonstrations, leaving an indelible mark in the memories of those who were there or watched on TV.
Those missions of the 1960s and 1970s represented our first real forays into deep space, and it is a path we’ve continued to tread ever since. It is a path that may well take humans to Mars in the lifetimes of many of those in the audience for Fong’s 2015 lectures. Space is such an important part of our collective identity. It requires the best and the brightest minds to reach higher, think smarter and dream of travelling to the stars. Sagan said it best, of course: ‘I believe that the history of our species will never again be the same. We have committed ourselves to space, and I do not think we are about to turn back… Human beings will never again be restricted to this one planet.’
Long may the Christmas Lectures continue to reflect and communicate our amazing achievements in space.
Colin Stuart is a freelance astronomy writer and tweets as @skyponderer.
13 Journeys Through Space and Time – Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution by Colin Stuart is published by Michael O’Mara Books, £12.99 hardback