Wednesday 22 August 2012

Star spotting and Emma's book club

A lesson in science

By Jared Tennant (Perseid meteor shower) [CC-BY-2.0 ( or CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Jared Tennant via  Wikimedia Commons 

Sitting in the middle of the green outside my house armed with a hoodie, fold-out chair and a glass of wine is one of the more unusual ways I’ve spent a Saturday night. And it was well worth it.

The challenge I picked out of the Hat on August 10 for the following week was to create and name my own cocktail. But the next evening, while I was sat in with my boyfriend and a bottle of wine, my ‘I want to be an astrophysicist’ youngest brother told us that there was going to be a show in the sky at around 1am.

A quick update from Brian Cox on Twitter (thank you technology) confirmed that a meteor shower was due to pass over the country that night (not that I ever doubted George was right). I’m not sure whether it was the alcohol or the geek in me that got me so excited but I decided that I would be staying up to watch the meteor shower and that my first for the week was actually going to be stargazing, and not the indulgence of more alcohol.

I found it extra exhilarating that I could share my experience with people around the world via Twitter (whether the world wanted to know about it or not) and that I could use other people’s tweets to work out where we would stand the best chances of seeing some shooting stars.

And I learnt a lot in the hour or so leading up to midnight, when the streetlights are turned off in our area, and most of it came from the Meteorwatch site. So, FYI, the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year through July and August, reaching a peak at around the August 12 – 13. During their peak time, the rate can be up to 100 per hour. The Perseid shower is brighter than most and, because it happens during the warmer nights of August, it make them a good starting point for the budding astronomer. The Perseid meteors are tiny particles of debris which fall from the tail of the comet 109P/Swift Tuttle (I know you are impressed). When they collide with the Earth’s atmosphere they burn causing the streaks and flashes in the sky known as shooting stars (therefore shooting stars are actually not stars at all).

However, my own smart-sounding tweets about #ISS and #perseid were slightly undermined by my visit to and my failing to learn to recognise a single constellation. Oh well, thanks to Men in Black, I’ll always know Orion’s Belt. I can live with that.

By NASA (Great Images in NASA Description) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We also got to see the ISS pass overhead

But, after all the build up, 45 minutes of sitting out, we had seen nothing.  Nothing but an orange glow of streetlights coming from the town centre (in the direction I’d been expecting to see the shower).

And then George piped up with a “oh, I think I just saw one.” Then boyfriend Glenn did too. Then it was me sat there, the only one not to see a shooting star, while these two tried to explain it to me as proof that they weren’t just trying to wind me up.

And then nothing again for ages. Just me sat there, the girl 20/20 vision next to two spectacled guys and I was the only one yet to see anything. As the girl who really wanted to wear glasses as a teenager, only to be told that she had perfect vision and could go years without revisiting the optician, I didn’t think it was fair that they got to have the cool glasses and the chance to see the meteors first.

Add to this the creepy noises coming from the bushes, and talks about how centrifugal forces are ficticious (apparently it’s centripetal. Yeah, it went a bit over my head too) I was just about ready to give in. I’d seen a few stars and I could just make a cocktail. It would be fine.

Then an unmistakable bright flare fell down the left side of the line of houses in front of us, looking a little bit like the falling embers of a firework.

We all gasped in unison and I felt like cheering. If that were all we got to see it would still be worth it. But that wasn’t it. In the next three quarters of an hour we saw around four or five bright white trails burning into the sky. None were quite as brilliant as that first meteor but I still managed to whoop or squeal with excitement each time a meteor flew over our heads (much to the annoyance of George and Glenn).

It was far better than any man-made firework display and sitting among the houses and cars and built up areas looking up at the sky and seeing a sight so magnificent really gives you a sense of something wider than your own tiny life. It’s not very often I take the time to sit and look up at the stars and it’s even rarer that I get to see a meteor shower.

Emma's Book Club

 Ok, so onto the book that was my challenge for week … I threw this into the hat thinking it would be an easier challenge. How wrong was I.

My indecisiveness was the first stumbling block. I really should have been more specific when I wrote it out. I had initially meant to read one of those authors that you always intend to read; Franz Kafka or Ernest Hemingway or even H G Wells or Stephen King.

I decided to consult the people of Facebook and others via text to see if they had any suggestions but the flaw in that plan did not take long to show itself. Asking people to pick for you when you are trying to choose a book to read by ‘an author I’ve always meant to read but never had the chance’ completely relies on the people you are asking on knowing a) what authors you have heard of/have always wanted to read and b) what authors you have already read.

While it didn’t really help me with my decision I did manage to pick up a few suggestions of authors I had never heard of as well as having some interesting discussions about books I’d already read. I really should start my own book club. 

So, in the end, in a desperate attempt to just make a bloody decision I went for my mum’s suggestion of Bill Bryson. The reasons for this were:
  • After some of the heavier and darker books I’ve been reading recently, I fancied a little bit of comic relief (anybody who spoke to me while I was reading The Wasp Factory or Slave Girl you know what I am talking about)
  • I love a bit of travel writing to inspire me and to make me feel like I’m exploring somewhere new without the effort of packing and flying.
  • We had a few books of his on the bookshelf in the house (it’s surprising how much weight I gave to this reason considering I now have a Kindle and can now have my choice of thousands of books at the touch of a button. But sometimes I just like a proper book).
So I picked up The Lost Continent (simply because I fancied a ‘trip’ to the States). But the difficultly of the challenge didn’t stop there. Then I had to actually read the damn thing. It should have been a pleasure. And in general it is a well written, humorous book that has helped to fill my mind with such fascinating trivia titbits as how tall the Mount Rushmore figures would be if they had to-scale bodies (465 feet) and how many suppositories Ronald Regan’s doctor prescribed for him in 1986 (1,472).

You can get your own copy of Bill Bryson's
The Lost Continent here
One of my favourite parts of the book was the description of Bryson’s family driving to their holiday destination when he was younger. Something about seemed vaguely familiar. Bryson and his siblings have just spotted a roadside sign telling them to “Visit Spook Caverns! Oklahoma’s Great Family Attraction” and are trying to convince their Dad to stop:
Over the next sixty miles my father’s position on the matter would proceed through a series of well-worn phrases, beginning with a flat refusal on the grounds that it was bound to be expensive and anyway our behaviour since breakfast had been so disgraceful that it didn’t warrant any special treats, to studiously ignoring our pleas (this phase would last up to eleven minutes), to asking my mother privately in a low voice what she thought about the idea and receiving an equivocal answer, to ignoring us again in the evident hope that we would forget about it and stop nagging (one minute, twelve seconds), to saying we might go if we started to behave and kept on behaving more or less forever, to saying that we definitely would not go because, just look at us, we were already squabbling again and we hadn’t even gotten there, to finally announcing – sometimes in an exasperated bellow, sometimes in a death-bed whisper – that all right, we would go.
 And yes, that is all one sentence. Needless to say that Spook Caverns turns out to be less than promised and Bryson goes on to say: “The only possible way of assuaging our disappointment, we would discover, would be if Dad bought us each a rubber Bowie knife and a bag of plastic dinosaurs in the adjoining gift shop.”

There is also a hilarious incident where Bryson, for no other reason than not having anything better to do at the time, is trying to find out what the trademarked name is for the dimples in a certain brand of sanitary towels before making a speedy exit from the supermarket after fearing the three members of staff watching him could report him for some kind of sexual perversion.

This is just one example where, what at first seems like a funny but trivial story actually touches upon some of the wider issues in the country, in this case the “doggedly unenlightened” attitude towards sex and sexuality in some states.  Other issues that are highlighted include the healthcare system, education, race relations, and the links between capitalism and greed.  

So I cannot really fault the book. The problem was I had given myself a time limit of a week to read it. And all of a sudden I felt the dread, which I had first developed while studying at English literature at university, that made reading feel like a chore. At times I felt like I was actually on the long winding road through all the back towns of the States with Bryson – a trip that felt like it would never end and where every pit stop looked and felt the same as the last place.

This was through no fault of Bryson’s. He has written an intelligent and funny book. In fact, if you want to blame somebody, blame George Elliott. It was her Middlemarch that first made me realise that having to read hundreds of pages within a short time period can make a book mind-numbingly boring. I have no real idea if Middlemarch actually was so dull because all I remember about the book was having to trawl through pages and pages each day and failing to reach my target and being utterly defeated by the book-wedge of a novel that, by the time it came to the seminar, I had already decided to erase it from my memory and write my essay on something different.

I also think The Lost Continent is a book that is more suited to the bedside table. It’s the kind of thing you can just dip into for a few dozen pages, feel as though you’re listening to a fascinating story told by one of those people who have a knack for entertaining small groups at parties, and then put back down again until the next night. I just felt unable to get lost in it for hours. At least when I finally finished the book (a little bit outside of my deadline of the week, I will admit) it did feel like a proper achievement.

So, this week I should be making and naming a cocktail. But I’m not going to. I have so much stuff planned for the next seven days (Shakespeare in the forest, visiting Holland, going behind the scenes of the Harry Potter films) that I really do not need to throw another first into the mix. The cocktail shaker will have to stay in the cupboard for another couple of weeks.

PS. Another interesting fact for you that I thought I would share courtesy of Bill Bryson: When the book was written more than 20 years ago, Philadelphia spent more money on public art than any other city in the States but it had an illiteracy rate of 40 per cent. And the Philadelphia Museum of Art was the city’s top tourist attraction – but only because the front steps outside are the famous steps that Rocky Balboa runs up in his training montage. I wonder if any of this has changed?

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