Very Extremely Very

An artist’s impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope, to be built high up in the Andes – placed next to the London Eye, for some perspective…

Well, I’ve oscillated back from animals (Whales, T-Rexes) to SPACE again: so here’s something comic about telescopes. Earlier, I read this story on the UK’s financial commitment to the European Extremely Large Telescope (from the Guardian) – and was reminded how funny I always find the naming of telescopes. I’m pretty sure the last one was called the European Very Large Telescope. So it also begs the question of where they’ll go after ‘Extremely’…?

So that’s the starting point for this – the act of naming telescopes (and, perhaps, the difficult act of naming in something like astronomy) – and it takes the form of a conversation between two (antagonistic) astronomer-colleagues, perhaps in another telescope. The main thing is: it’s hopefully a bit of (if not Very, or Extremely) fun:


Very Extremely Very,

A Gazillibazoolian-Squillion


“BREATHTAKINGLY!” he gasped, before even a greeting, crashing the door against the wall. “That’s got to be it.”

“It’s hardly very objective,” the reply sighed. “We’re scientists, Dave – not advertisers. And good morning to you, too.”

“But that’s what I mean. ‘Extremely’, compared to what? Compared to the things we’re going to be looking at it’s not ‘extremely’ large at all.”

“We’re not comparing it to the things we’re looking at, Dave – we’re comparing it to the other telescopes. Compared to them, this one is extremely large.

A silence as both men make notes, turn dials, type furiously –   front for figuring out their next line of attack.

“By your rationale,” Simon quickly established a new angle, “each measuring instrument would then be relative to that which it measures. What would have become of the Large Hadron Collider then? The Super-Massive Underground Mega-Hoop Measurer of Ultra-Tiny But Super-Important Things?”

“Actually, that’s not a bad –

“ – oh for Heaven’s Sake.”

An impasse – the almost-daily ritual.

“I just think that ‘Extremely Large’ doesn’t do it justice. Although I guess it makes sense as part of a kind or product range, or something.” He assumes a sales-voice in the vein of QVC or similar: “If you enjoyed the features of the ‘Very Large Telescope’, you’ll just love the new features of the ‘Extremely Large Telescope’: now able to blend the distribution of dark matter and finely slice the evolution of black-holes and galaxies!”

From the other desk, he can almost hear Simon’s smile being suppressed:

“I’m not sure anyone’s going to call in and pay for it: the cost would barely fit on a TV screen.”

There is a pleasant spaciousness, both enjoying a rare intersection of humours.

“Well today,” Dave takes back up his hyperbolic cudgel, “I’m backing ‘Breathtaking’ – what else could it be described as? It’s as big as all the other ones put together. If you did that with a cake, people would be impressed. And cakes can’t see into the origins of Time itself, not that I know of.”

“That might depend on the cake. And anyway: isn’t that a compound word, ‘Breath-taking’? You’re like a kid, making up numbers to win a competition.” He assumes the manner of an eight-year-old Dave: “A squillion, a gazillibazoolian-squillion!”

A brief silence as Dave decides whether to be offended, or flattered, at the impression. Then:

“How many zeros would that have?”

“A bloobazoolian zeros, OK?”

“I see.”

The tapping of keyboards. This had become the tacit sign now that they had wasted enough time and should get on with some proper work – nebulae were on the menu today, as they had been for the last four years.

“I just think we’re not going to give the public a real sense of the scale of this thing unless the name truly reflects it. It just sounds so mid-range – like a family car: ‘extremely spacious’. We may as well call it the ‘Pretty Gosh Darn Big Telescope’”.

Now the silence of someone studiedly ignoring someone else. Then, the final barrage, the day’s last attempt:

“The Almighty Telescope?”

“Oh the Churches will love that.”

“The Strikingly Large Telescope?”

“We don’t want it striking anything or anyone except light, Dave…”


“Dave: get off – NOW.”

774 or, Darkling Child

"Two vortices their nuptials swore..."

“Two vortices their nuptials swore…”


I’ve been continuing to read Paul Matthews’ excellent book on writing, Sing Me The Creation. One of his various suggestions on how to extend the imagination through writing practice (particularly working together, as a group), is to have a go at rewriting a style of repeated-simile poem, like this famous one:

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.


It’s strangely compelling and vortex-like, I thought – drawing you into the images, then on to the next, then on to the next. A kind of chain reaction in verse and simile, ending in doooooooooooom.

So it struck me that it might be a suitable vehicle to write about a science story from last week – that of the’discovery’ (if that’s the right word – it happened a while ago) that during the Middle Ages (774-775, to be precise) a kind of ‘Cosmic Burst’ (or Bang – you decide) hit the Earth. And now, scientists are in more accord that it was due to two black holes or neutron stars merging in our galaxy – sending a big ol’ Gamma Ray-Fest our way (Hulk references, anyone?).

However, it seems it barely even ruffled any tunics, or whatever it was that folks were wearing at that time (which would have varied a great deal globally, of course). Instead, it deposited  some unusual radiation signatures in the ice of Antarctica and the cedar trees of Japan, only now being deciphered. And this is what has led to accord about the distant union of two black holes/neutron stars. Anyway, the link is at the bottom of the page – I shan’t mangle the science any further here.

But before that, my take on the simile-vortex verse form – using this news story as a starting point. (Perhaps black holes in verse require such a vortex/vortices, form and subject aligning?) I tried to stay true to the form as much as possible, including a ‘dreich’ and bleak repetitive ending. I hope you enjoy it…



or, Darkling Child



In seven-hundred and seventy-four,

Two vortices their nuptials swore;

As they swore, the rings did shatter,

Twas like a child of darkling matter;

When that child swam through the dark,

Twas like a silent toothless shark;

When that shark began to bite,

Twas like a breath in dead of night;

When that breath it ceased to blow,

Twas like a wilting flake of snow;

When that snow began to melt,

Twas like a kiss that was not felt;

When that kiss began to frown,

Twas like the seas turned upside-down;

When the seas began to wave,

Twas like the turning of a grave;

And when that grave it did open,

Twas over and over and over again.


And so to the original BBC Science story by Rebecca Morelle:

Pick One Fleck – Apophis

There he is! Yes, the slightly-less blurry one with the big red arrow pointing to it. That isn’t actually there, of course.

As part of the new year’s Free-range Writer Plan, I’m going to try and write at least one or two poems each week, inspired by things I’ve picked up in the news or online (or perhaps from the Fortean Times, which I was lucky enough to receive a subscription to for Christmas).

Sometimes it’s useful to choose a subject and make yourself write a poem about it – so that’s what I’ve done with Apophis. Yet another threat to the Pale Blue Dot (as Carl Sagan called Earth) is passing us at the moment – the Apophis Asteroid, which will also pass within 22,364 miles of our planet in April 2029, giving it a 2.7% chance of whacking into us. Which would be annoying.

As ever with such astronomical phenomenon, I’m not sure how scared I should be. As scared as we should be of Nibiru/Planet X, the mysterious elliptical-orbit planet that was meant to run us off the solar-highway recently, perhaps? Well, this is real – so a dial up the Fear-o-Meter a little, certainly.

Curiously, I wrote the following poem and then looked up what else is 2.7% – and found that, “The house advantage in single zero roulette is 2.7% and for the double zero game it is 5.26%”. So there we are: my roulette ball image was not so off-the-cuff.

This is largely as it popped out of my brain, with some tweaks as I typed it out. I hope you enjoy it – and May The Odds Be Ever In Earth’s Favour.


Pick One Fleck


Just one, from the hole-

punched carbon sky and wonder

at its stats, its vital ballistics. Wonder

whether cosmic winds blow it

our way; whether Newton or some other

more modern, more menacing, model

may stack odds against Earth’s favour.



The roulette ball: Apophis

freewheels the not-so-clockwork model

above my head. No, not

above our heads: around them,

spinning like cartoon concussion,

a character impacted. The Micky Mouse

Milky-Way squeeze-and-stretches

the life-expectancy of this

billions-years-young billiard ball,

awaiting its gong for supper.



So that will be the next time:

twenty twenty-nine. Visions blurred,

screens thick with dust of fear. When

Hollywood Lears hover near

cinema seats, with light-shows projected

from our eyes and bouncing back into

the dinosaur-mind. When masses

collect on mountaintops, praying

through rehashed prisms of extra-

terrestrial life-guards and super-

natural knowledge of ancient civilisations long-

since ceased and of hyper-

sensory conspiracies of governments who

govern the stars (but who can barely keep their own

noses clean of the tar of smear).


When shots are littered each second

at worlds within our own, this speck of glitter in

the eye of space could make it blink

the ground into its own reflection, infinite bits,

out of being. But how lucky we would be

to see it, to be here: when there are more dead

than living than ever before. How lucky to be

the last crater-act,

the final flaming curtain,

the ones who saw

it happen.


And in case you have never read it, here’s Carl Sagan’s piece of writing about our Pale Blue Dot – which is a wonderful reminder of both our insignificance and, perhaps, the need for perspective when dealing with other Humans.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot – viewable larger at the original site