i have adventures (sometimes)

Saturday, 10 December 2011

200 Billion Stars and 6000 Miles from Home

I'm glad that I live in a world where science-comedy-music shows are a thing. Because I am a massive nerd, and, more specifically, a massive nerd who is becoming increasingly aware of just how gosh darn exciting science is, I decided to go to Manchester on Tuesday to see some cool people talking about cool things.*

All right, it was mainly to see Tim Minchin. But I was also interested in the science.

Despite my bleak expectations about my ability to get anywhere on the first attempt, I cycled successfully to the station, and arrived with ample time to catch my train. It was a bit of an anticlimax, actually.

Men and women may sit on the luggage rack, but children should be thrown on the floor.
Hilarity continued to fail to ensue in Manchester, where I found my way to the theatre without incident (aided by the fact that the directions were "Go out of the station. Keep walking in a straight line until you see it."). It's probably unfair to the rest of the UK that my first experience of it is always in the dark, because my impression of practically everywhere but York is that it's dark, scary and murdery. Manchester was no exception. But I work on the perfectly reasonable assumption that no one who walks briskly could possibly be murdered, and so I walked with almost Essex-level briskness**, which also helped in my side quest of not freezing to death.

What did not help in this side quest was that they opened the doors late, which meant that I got to queue in a puddle for 20 minutes, becoming more and more aware that my boots were not as waterproof as I'd hoped, and trying to wipe rain off the screen of my Kindle with increasingly soggy gloves. I'd just about reached the point of delirium, feeling pleasantly warm, and thinking I might lie down for a nice nap before dying of hypothermia, when they finally let us in.

A whole theatre soon to be filled with nerds!

It took me a while to thaw enough to enjoy the show (it's surprisingly hard to surreptitiously remove your boots and rub your feet in a crowded theatre), but once I remembered what feet were supposed to feel like long enough to pay attention, it was awesome. Robin Ince was hilarious. Simon Singh talked about codes, finding "predictions" in Moby Dick using the logic of the Bible Code. (He managed to use Moby Dick to predict that he would run over time - and he was right. OMG.) He also demonstrated a real Enigma machine, which once again reminded me how smart I'm not compared to many people.

Ben Goldacre gave a high-paced and really quite scary rant (very much based on this one) about big pharma's worrying tendency to suppress research, which was fascinating. Helen Arney sang some geeky songs on the ukelele, and her ten minute slot constituted the entire female stage time. Because, you know, women scientists don't exist. (Oh, wait.)

The first thing to bring a tear to my eye (the cold not included) was Adam Rutherford's video of every one of NASA's space shuttle missions. NASA shut down their space shuttle programme earlier this year, which is more than a little heartbreaking. If this doesn't give you goosebumps, you're watching it wrong.

Brian Cox, whom everyone in the UK except me seems to know, gave a totally awesome talk about the origins of life on Earth, which gave me a sense of wonder which is becoming more familiar since I stopped accepting the pat answers I'd always been happy with and really started thinking about the universe. Anyone who thinks science kills wonder has obviously never tried to wrap their head around the sheer awesomeness of the universe. And I mean its literal awesomeness as well as the more general kind. It makes me excited to be alive at a time when people know so much and are learning so much. And there's so much more that we still don't know, and that's even cooler. A lot of the actual science went straight over my humanities head, but it left my heart feeling like one big exclamation mark.

The miracle of being alive is that it isn't a miracle at all. It's one big, beautiful statistical improbability, and that blows my freaking mind.

So I was right at the top of the emotional rollercoaster in my little car of FEELINGS by the time Tim Minchin came onto stage. I fell even more in love with him when he talked about how uncomfortable he is with the word "wife" because he doesn't like the idea that he's acquired a woman who now belongs to him, and he sang a few funny songs (including the succinct and excellent Take My Wife) before Brian Cox came out to join him on stage, because it turns out that Brian Cox plays the piano. So Brian played the piano and Tim played the guitar and sang White Wine in the Sun, which I'd never heard before. If I had, I might have been a little more prepared for it.

Watch it because it's lovely. Or if you're the impatient type, just jump to 3:47 and watch from there to understand the rest of the post. Or 4:20 if you're really impatient.

Wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people who'll make you feel safe in this world
My sweet blue-eyed girl
And if, my baby girl
When you're twenty-one or thirty-one
And Christmas comes around
And you find yourself nine thousand miles from home
You'll know whatever comes
Your brother and sisters and me and your mum
Will be waiting for you in the sun
As we know, I'm sometimes quite good at being an adult. I'm sometimes even quite good at being English. But we all have our moments, and this was mine, because on this occasion, I burst into tears at the theatre and cried my eyes out for the entire rest of the show. It broke me. I suddenly felt small and alone and very, very far from home. The funny thing is that I'm not much prone to homesickness. Even this wasn't true homesickness. If someone offered to buy me a ticket home for Christmas - which I suspect my wonderful dad might, when he learns that his baby girl has had even a moment of less-than-total happiness - I wouldn't want to take it. I like it here. For the most part, I'm happier here than I've ever been. I have friends and family who care about me, and a place to go for Christmas. I know, logically, that I'm not all alone. But there's something about being 6000 miles from home on Christmas, in the cold and the dark, that sent my little rollercoaster car of feelings hurtling downwards so fast that I could barely hang on to it.

The show was long, and, thinking that I'd have to catch an 11.20pm train or wait until 1am***, I jumped up as soon as Tim finished and dashed for the door to take a smart-casual jog back to the station. But I hadn't finished crying, so I alternately jogged and cried all the way back (because jogging and crying at the same time would just have been silly).

But not this silly.
I cried on the train like a crazy person the whole way back to York, but then had to tough up and cycle back to campus in the rain like a motherflipping boss, so I stopped crying for a bit so that I'd be able to see. York after midnight is both eerie and comforting, because it's so little and empty that it feels unreal, like a movie set or a Christmas card. Even the drunks don't seem threatening. It calmed me down a bit, but I still got home feeling cold and wet and very alone.

It's taken me most of the week to recover, which is one of the reasons this blog post has been so long coming (also, I don't usually have two hours to sit and type words that make sense). I still cry when I listen to White Wine in the Sun, but I've stopped crying unprovoked and/or in public, which is a definite improvement.

But that's enough about my feelings (so many feelings!). Back to the good things.

I'm excited that there are people who are making nerdy cool. I hope it makes life easier for nerdy kids. I'm excited about the things we know and the things we don't know and the fact that there are people so much smarter than I am who are trying to figure out the way the world works. And, my goodness, I'm excited about life, the universe and everything. Even when that universe feels very, very big, and I feel very, very small.

*Admittedly, "cool" is a relative term.
**Briskness of walk is directly proportional to murderiness of location. 
***And obviously I checked the wrong timetable and so obviously I could have walked, but whatever.


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