Colin wanted to meet me in Aldsworth. I’d never heard of it but it was only about five miles away, between where I got married and where the reception was. Colin was the guy behind the British Mars shot a few years back — Colin Pillinger, the man who, given half a chance, could do for science what Damien Hirst has done for art: popularise, subvert and sophisticate at a stroke. You may remember his spacecraft Beagle 2 crash-landed on Mars on Christmas Day 2003.
Space science is the great adventure of the 21st century. The first man on Mars has been born, no doubt about it. Colin knows that. I think he also knows that there is, or has been, life on the planet already. ‘Did you know they’ve just found water?’ he said, as we were ordering lunch. Then his phone rang. It was the science correspondent from the Sun. Colin had to calm him down. ‘Life on Mars is the story they all want,’ he whispered to us. ‘Look,’ he went on, in his unmistakeable West Country accent, ‘Phoenix can’t tell us if there’s any biology going on. That was what was special about Beagle. Beagle could have done that.’ The conversation ran on, all of it rather far-fetched for a rainy Friday lunchtime in Gloucestershire, but that’s what’s irresistible about rocket scientists. They’re preoccupied with out-of-this-world phenomena. ‘Well, we’re going to have to bring samples back to earth to test them to be sure, but then you risk contaminating this planet with an alien life form…’ he continued on the phone. Then to the waiter, ‘I’ll have the fish and chips.’ I ordered a steak and kidney pie. Judith, Colin’s wife, had the goat cheese.