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…”

“The UNCOMMONLY-”

“Dave: get off Thesarus.com – NOW.”

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Canteenosaurus-Rex or, The Numbering of Teeth

A chomping Tyrranosauridae

A chomping Tyrranosauridae

Running a little behind after being struck down with a lurgy last week, but here is my latest sci-po – no wait! It’s a story.

I won’t say too much about the news story which inspired this, apart from the classic disclaimer: any likeness to persons living or fossilised genuinely is purely coincidental! So if Dr Dave Hone should read this – the curious narrator in this story is not you, it’s just inspired by the work you do (there’s the link to Project Daspletosaurus) and where it could take someone a lot less balanced than your good self (and their diet).

It’s a piece about the feeding habits – which may have been sporadically-cannibalistic in nature – of Tyrranosauridae (those terrible lizards of ‘Jurassic Park’ fame). The research is looking at how the T Rex’s scary cousins – such as the Daspletosaurus – ate, and supposes that they ate with a great variety of bites (not just swallowings-whole, as in ‘Jurassic Park’ – the science of which may, of course, be secondary to the story – and the merchandise).

No matter what fine-diners they were, it’s one family reunion I’m glad that evolution, meteors and the like has put pay to (nothing personal, I just think I’d get stuck in their teeth).

Here’s my story:

Canteenosarus-Rex or,

The Numbering of Teeth

The bones are the hardest part. As in, the most difficult. But – like all good researchers – he knows that 3-D computer models will only take him so far. He just wants to know – to really feel – what it would be like to have one as a guest at the dinner table; to witness their repertoire, the one he is sure they had, of chomps and nibbles.

At the start of the week, it was subtle – a basic attempt to avoid that simian lateral-chewing motion. An action, he muttered, evolved for plants. And that meant missing a whole link in the food-chain: those plentiful yet elusive herbivores, the duck-bill Hadrosaurs and horned Ceratopsians. The pelvis of one such creature – a Triceratops – was situated directly opposite the Daspletorsarus skull. His prime exhibit. He sat between them, fossil-eyed; glancing back and forth from the punctured pelvis to the sharp-toothed skull.

Small arrow-shaped marks were placed at each and every one of the impacts on the pelvis, like it was the scene of some 70-million-year-old crime. This was the analogy he used at public lectures, invoking CSI television-forensics cool: he needed, he said, to establish the Daspletosauruses ‘M.O.’.

Before this week, he had something of a routine: Monday was often a salad, pricked with cherry-tomatoes; Wednesday, leftover Mexican day – long enchilada tubes, dripping in cheese; Friday tended towards something hearty – a pie, perhaps, or a lasagne, layered like rock rich to be dug into. But salad had become too, well – brontosaurus, for the venture. Redundant. Hefty. Out of date. Now, many other foods just seemed so inauthentic to him.

By mid-week, his needs had outgrown the habitat of the laboratory canteen – there was just too much chicken. He would never learn anything from chicken – too splintery, too avian. He needed something chunkier, a larger leaf-eater. Beef was OK, or perhaps…giraffe, rhinoceros? Unlikely. He had to be reasonable. Perhaps this was what happened to the Tyrranosauridae, he thinks – to make them turn. Outgrowing their food supplies; that’s when they started to become cannibals.

So the packed-lunches began. Whatever protestations he made about being a feminist, his wife wore the trousers where it came to food. So, gingerly, as he stepped from the Friday front doorstep:

‘Leave the bones in,’ he said, maintaining earnest eye-contact. ‘And cook it quite rare. Really rare.’

She scanned his face for some sign of the joke that was to follow, but it did not come.

‘But what’s the point in a lamb-chop sandwich, when you have to remove the bones anyway?’ she entreated.

‘Rare,’ he repeated. ‘Please? I’m just feeling red-blooded this week.’

‘Lamb-chop sandwiches. Rare.’ She confirms. ‘Really rare.’ A sigh.

So this lunchtime, he sits above the white expanse of table and leers in the way he imagines his subject would: salivating at the feast to come, spreading out across the ceramic plain, the prey’s bills and horns scattering away from his mighty incisors. Nobody has sat with him for the last couple of days, but why would he mind? He is, after all, a top predator – and they hunt alone. He looks at the sandwich and considers which type of bite to deploy – something bone-shattering and bold, or something delicate and tendon-stripping.

Back in the lab, he gazes admiringly at the skull atop its plinth, numbering its teeth; as he tries to remove some lamb gristle with his tongue, he counts the incisors and molars his own skeleton sprouts. Insufficient, he thinks, as he reaches the end of the row and meets gummy nothingness.

Several tonnes, not 13 stone; over 60 razor-teeth, not his piffling set of 32 – nay, 31 after today’s lunch – blunt instruments. He wasn’t even a Daspletosaurus drumstick, barely a rump steak.

In the company of his skull and his other, he sits quietly, contemplatively, numbering his teeth – he doesn’t want to end up anywhere, you know, weird, with all this. So he imagines – just imagines – his own, as twice as numerous and twice as sharp as they really are.

Imagination, he thinks. Empathy. That’s what separates us, from the cannibals.

Spand Grectacular!

I read one of the Stitches in Time stories last night – ‘Spand Grectacular or, Pedal-Powered Pavement-Printing Velocipede!’ Featuring the fudge-obsessed and overworked printer, Imogen Clacker.

Being as one or two people said they’d enjoyed it, and may be foolish enough to Google me, then here’s the story:

Spand Gractacular! or,

Pedal-Powered Pavement-Printing Velocipede!

Within her shop

On Scansion Way,

Imogen Clacker pedals away:

She pedals all night

And most of the day

Nobody thinks

She’ll ever stop.

But in-between

The words she prints

And in-between

The treadle’s groan

Something on

The paper hints,

Something stirs

Around her bones.

The more the st-ords

Come out so w-rangely

The more the mages

Puddle themselves,

Imogen Clacker

Sees the matter

Building on her

Cast-off shelves.

There is a problem, with the machines, in Clacker’s Printworks. Some might say a bad workman – or person – blames their tools, but Imogen doesn’t stand by this. Her face is smeared and smudgy with ink, but her printing has always been as crisp as her frosty little mind.

It can’t be my fault

Her thoughts are a-clatter,

I tend these machines –

Every nut, screw and bolt –

Something else

Must be the matter.

Imogen seeks comfort in a box of confectionery by her seat. Since it arrived in the city, quite recently, she has taken up eating fudge whenever anything troubles her. As a result, her teeth are not her best feature – although, it is hard to say what is her best feature. Fudge is not good for the waistline, either. My printing machines, she thinks, are my best feature. Indeed, Imogen often has so much sugar in her system, she pedals and pedals her printing machines while at the same time eating more and more fudge, until she just can’t sleep – and works long into the night. But mistakes are creeping in, and becoming ever more common in her work. People are starting to notice. She considers her most recent misspelling of an important legal document and thinks:

How can it be that

With all of my pedd’ling,

All my hard work

And machinery-meddling

There are these constant

Printing quirks?

Perhaps my machinery

Is going berserk?

But once my new

Scheme has begun

Business will really

Start to run.

Imogen’s thoughts here refer to a very special new machine she took delivery of yesterday, all the way from Paris, which she thinks will be excellent for business. The machine will be able to print advertisements directly onto the ground – she will make special rubber tyres with letters around them and pedal along making the road’s surface itself a billboard. No other printer in the city has such a vehicle and she’s sure it will catch on. It is sitting under a piece of cloth in the corner of the shop – underneath her shelves of misspelled or faulty prints – awaiting the first customer she can unveil it to…

On the street outside, the gas lamps are being lit and occasionally one of the city’s trams – with huge decoy horse heads on the front of them – gallops by on its noisy rails, shrouding the frontage of Clacker’s Printworks in steam. Seeing them, Imogen pedals a little harder at her latest job and thinks:

Steam? Steam!

Who needs steam?!

My pedal, treadle-

Powered machines

Are more than a match

For their foggy screams.

As she glares out of the window through the steam, a man emerges suddenly from it and pushes the door with some force and grandeur.

‘Good day, Miss Clacker!’ his booming bass voice fills the room.

‘Mr Falbust,’ Imogen stops pedalling and stands up, wiping a mixture of fudge and black ink across her nose – she was halfway through a mouthful, ‘I wasn’t expecting you just yet, the programmes won’t be ready until tomorrow.’

‘That is fine, Clacker – I wish to up my order. We will need some bill-posters for the production too – and quite a few of them.’

‘Of course, Mr Falbust – how many?’

‘One hundred, by the day after tomorrow.’

‘The day after tomorrow?’

‘Is that a problem, Clacker?’

‘Of course not, Mr Falbust – and not only that, but might I…make a suggestion?’

‘What kind of suggestion?’

‘About the production – and your advertising?’

‘Go on…’

Imogen scuttles toward the veiled machine in the corner, twitching with excitement. She takes the corner of the cloth in her hand and – like a game-show assistant gone very, very wrong – in one movement unveils it. As she does, she declares:

‘The Pedal-Powered Pavement Printing Velocipede!’

‘It’s a bit of a mouthful.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well – what is it?’

‘As the name suggests, Mr Falbust, this is a machine for printing directly on to the roads and pavements. The city itself will be your billboard! As your prospective audience are trotting along in their carriages or whizzing by on the wretched tram, they will see the advertisement spelt out before them. And you, Mr Falbust, will be the first to advertise to them in this way!’

‘The first?’

‘The first!’

‘Here, or anywhere?’

‘Well – the first here.’

And how much will it cost me?’

‘A shilling a yard for the first ten yards and a half-shilling thereafter.’

‘Expensive!’

‘Innovative!’

‘Will it work?’

‘Or your money back!’

Falbust puffs himself out to his fullest width – which is very wide – and like a great warbling red-breasted bird says:

‘Very well. Take this down: GRAND SPECTACULAR! With entirely New Scenery, New and Magnificent Dresses and Properties, Stage Band &c., &c. – Artemis Theatre, Hatchet Square.’

Frantically, Imogen runs to her machinery and takes down his words on her typewriter – a half-ball shaped device from which all the letters of the alphabet protrude – from which a piece of paper emerges.

‘And where would you like the text, Mr Falbust?’

‘This is the main shopping street, so the full length of Scansion Way. And across the Hybridge too, there’s a lot of traffic there.’

‘Of course, Mr Falbust – I’ll let you know how many yards once it’s done. By tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow it is!’

‘Splendid, Mr Falbust.’

‘You’ll be getting one of your staff to do it, I suppose?’

‘Yes, one of my staff. That’s right.’

‘Well send them my thanks – I hope to see a full house every night. Must be off, the dress rehearsal is about to begin.’

‘Break a leg, Mr Falbust?’

‘Yes! Let’s hope you don’t, with all this pedalling – eh?’ he guffaws.

‘Yes Mr Falbust, let’s hope not!’

As he leaves the shop, Imogen waves him off and thinks:

Staff? STAFF?!

He’s having a laugh,

It’s only me

Who’ll make this budge,

Who’ll spell it out

Without a smudge –

Me and my

Beloved fudge.

She opens another box and sits back down at her machinery to finish the theatre programmes. It is going to be a long night.

***

Imogen awakes with a start in her bed out the back of the shop. Last night was something of a blur, as if she’d dreamt all the pedalling to finish the programmes and the first outing of her new Pedal-Powered Pavement Printing Velocipede to advertise Kester Falbust’s new production. She must only have fallen asleep a few hours ago once she’d printing the length of the Hybridge (having had to wait for a ship to pass through) and then the full length, both directions, of Scansion Way.

She leaps from her bed and rushes to the front door, excited to see the results. Sure enough, there are the messages printed at regular spaces all along the road, past the turn off to Redolent Road and all the way up to the junction with Indolent Avenue. It’s like the street is a giant piece of paper and Imogen has written neatly all over it.

But then – she looks closer. Although the letters themselves are perfect and crisp, on closer inspection, the message on the road reads:

‘SPAND GRECTACULAR – With Scew Nenery, Drew and Nagnificent Messes and Boperty Prand, Stage &c &c Artemis Hatchet, Theatre Square.’

Imogen is horrified –

How can it be

That my murds

Are so wuddled?

Is my sense of spelling

So befuddled?

Truly, this a

Mectacular spess

And cannot be construed

As anything less.

She barely notices that even her thoughts are starting to get confused, too…She glances up at the clock and sees it is 6am. The sun is only just peeking up through the dawn and only the odd shopkeeper is stirring along Scansion Way. Perhaps Falbust won’t have seen it yet? Imogen resolves to rectify her mistake before he can. But she must work fast. Soon, the trams would start running and the whole city would wake up…

First, she looks at the wheels of the Velocipede, hastily removes the rubber tyres, made up of individual letters, and rearranges them so the message is now spelled out correctly. Re-attaching the wheels, she pushes the velocipede out of the front door and hops on. In order to correct her mistake, she will have to erase the first set and then print them again with the proper message. She switches the machine from ‘Print’ to ‘Brush’ mode and starts to retrace her route – to the Hybridge first then back to correct the street outside her shop.

By 7.15, she has managed to erase the messages in both directions of traffic on the Hybridge. As far as she knows, Kester Falbust would have to make his way across the bridge to get to the theatre, so now she just had to get back to Scansion Way before Falbust came to check on his posters, programmes and street printing. Imogen is frantic:

I must correct

This silly error

Or my rep

Will be in tatters

When Mr Falbust

Comes to find us

The perfect print

Is all that matters!

She pedals furiously back towards Scansion Way, her stout legs straining, and takes another mouthful of fudge to keep her going. At the end of the street, Imogen is feeling distinctly worse for wear. Her eyes are barely open and her legs feel as though they are made of lead.

At some point, everything goes dark. Imogen is suddenly aware she is tiny, riding upon a Velocipede a little like her Pavement Printing machine – only enormous. She clambers up to look at the printing wheels, and sees they are made not of rubber letters, but of fudge cut into hieroglyphs, strange symbols she cannot understand. She looks down at the pedals and realises they are powering themselves – or rather, they are being powered by a steam engine just under Imogen’s feet. And it is hot. Her feet are starting to burn – and steam from pipes stretching up either side of the Velocipede right up into the sky – she can’t even see their end. As she attempts to stop her feet catching fire, she begins to breathe heavily and panic. What is happening? Imogen becomes aware that her breathing is not her own, there is a rhythmic sound, coming from behind her. She is asleep and dreaming! Her eyes spring open and she turns to look behind her. Looming from the fog is one of the city’s trams, the horse-shaped front end is rearing up not twenty yards away, belching steam towards her!

Imogen puts her feet to the pedals and tries to push, but something is stopping her. Her heart races as the tram races toward her little velocipede and she reaches down to the pedals – feeling around them, a box of fudge is wedged beneath the right one. Wrenching it out, she presses with all her might and the velocipede lurches forward, just at the second the giant red tram roars by – clipping the edge of the wheel. She squeals as it does so – eek! – and then all is quiet as the tram clangs off on its rails.

Pushing the velocipede back to the shop, Imogen looks down the street – which she must have managed to erase the misspelled advertisements before falling asleep, which was something. The corrected street-writing would have to wait until she’d fixed the Velocipede.

Pushing through a pile of cast-off prints – she must have knocked them off in her hurry – and falling back into her chair, Imogen thinks:

I could rather do

With a day off or two –

And in fact, more than that,

Someone to point the finger at

When everything’s too much for one

And all the work has not been done.

This morning has surely

Been portentous…

As Imogen finishes this last thought, a young woman walked into her shop and says:

‘I wonder – might you need an apprentice?’

No-one had ever rhymed with her thought before, except herself. This, she thinks, is a sign.

‘Funnily enough,’ says Imogen, ‘I am. And you can start with these posters…I need to fix my velocipede.’

And so, Clacker’s Printworks became Clacker and Associate. It transpired too that her new worker had something of a dislike for fudge – and after that day, so did Imogen.