Kate Chisholm

Space odyssey

Cosmic Quest (Radio 4), Talking and Not Talking (Radio 4)

The light pollution at Chequers can’t be that bad in semi-rural Bucks, so perhaps someone should suggest to our troubled PM that next time he has a weekend off he should take a look upwards to the night sky. It might help him to realise that the petty squabbles and ambitious pretensions of his Cabinet colleagues are as nothing in the big scheme of things. Or perhaps he should tune in every weekday afternoon to Cosmic Quest, the latest long-running documentary series on Radio Four. For six weeks, Heather Couper will be leading us on a journey through the history of our knowledge of the universe, from the earliest-known attempts of the Babylonians to catalogue the stars to the most recent odyssey to Mars. It’s a fascinating exposition, and at 15 minutes each the episodes are short enough to take in during a tea break or pause between meetings. It certainly could help to clear Gordon’s mind of 10p tax nightmares and the horrors of Crewe and Nantwich.

Couper says that she believes someone will have landed on Mars before she dies. That still sounds like an incredible goal to me despite the latest probe (she’s already 59). But it’s the kind of optimism which enthused earlier generations of scientists, who tempered their reliance on facts and detailed investigation with flares of inspired imagination.

Such inspiration did for Galileo when he insisted from 1609 onwards that the earth was just one among many planets and that it moved round the sun rather than vice versa. He also declared that the sun was spotty and the moon was pocked with craters; in other words, the heavenly bodies were not perfect. It’s so difficult for us now to comprehend the total confusion such discoveries aroused in the minds of his contemporaries; to think back to a time when what went on in the celestial constellations was as important as life on earth.

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