The only physics lesson I recall in detail involved watching the teacher spread a metal Slinky across the huge wooden desk and explaining how sound moves in waves of compression and rarefaction. The idea of sound travelling, the speed of sound, the trajectories of light and distance were all briefly dazzlingly incomprehensible as sun swept through the high windows that looked down onto the valley, the canal basin, the flour mill. The mill whose owners funded this school which, when it opened at the start of the century, promised to teach science to girls. We took those sunlit lessons for granted of course, never imagining their radical premise or questioning the desire to escape inspired by abject boredom. We longed to leave at fourteen, just as our grandmothers had, for the grown-up world of work. There was no logic to the sense of sound travelling through a Slinky, that stretched out spiral of metal, just as there was no sense of the doors that had closed repeatedly upon the notion of girls, women even, arriving at this moment of understanding an intuitive fact as mechanical effect.
Physics was on Monday morning and coincided with a year in which I felt increasingly reluctant to force myself to go to school. Sunday evening in Brighouse in 1984, it seemed to me, was the most desolate time and place on the planet. While my father polished political speeches and prepared for his weekly trip to London, my mother broadcast to the rest of the family an increasingly urgent sense of panic about the likely onset of a nuclear war. Dad, she was convinced, would be safe in a well-organised bunker, while she would be left alone to protect and survive. On Monday morning I lingered at home with ailments, real and imagined, creating an equation of time and space balancing so imperfectly that my understanding of physics was knocked entirely off its orbit.
Not wanting to understand physics in a valley filled with factories powered by streams and the sage application of physical laws to the desire for profit was an act of wilful obstinacy. What did it mean for the inhabitants of this Victorian building with its high windows and views over the valleys that gave birth to Luddism, a dual carriageway twinned with Ludenscheid, a cooperative that still issued green stamps and a once profitable flour mill? At the time half my life was lived not in that so-called world, but in books. I didn’t know then, but that strange stubbornness meant that I would never be a scientist. There is a pragmatism that I learned from the school and from the town I grew up in that there are things you can’t understand no matter how endless your curiosity.
Why, twenty years later, did I become haunted by this need to understand my place in the world, when I thought I had settled it in that sunny classroom? Bizarrely, it was watching a documentary about the wives of the Apollo astronauts, rather than the astronauts themselves, that inspired a deep longing to travel into space, specifically to go to the moon. There was a sense of loneliness experienced by both the astronauts and their wives that resonated for me as a new mother, struggling with isolation and a sense of disjointedness from the world. All the familiar rituals of sleep, sociability and the escape into books and writing had been suddenly wrenched away. It was more than longing, it was a compulsion that took hold so fiercely that I was taken aback by the flood of data and information that the urgent desire to be in space unlocks. The first thing you learn when you want to know about space is that everything is based on physics. The Apollo astronauts all had degrees in physics, astrophysics, aeronautics. They understood implicitly the science behind the parabolas of flight which they also enacted. Selected from the elite pilots of the army, navy and airforce, American astronauts were chosen both to understand the technical requirements of the proposed flight to the moon and to accept unquestioningly the orders they were given.
Astronauts were not trained to describe the momentous onslaught of being launched into space, neither were they readied to help others relive the experience of walking on the moon. Ready for all the technical requirements of the mission, these star sailors were not prepared for the knowledge brought by looking towards the earth from thousands of miles away. When you look back at the contemporary
interviews, they were rarely asked about the physics of space travel, of the impossible odds of launching out of the gravitational pull of the earth and its orbit and leaving the atmosphere at its silvery thin limit. What thrust, what fuel, what trajectory or speed was involved in the mechanical wrenching of person from earth and into space. Or rather, what was involved in the dislodging of man from earth to take his small steps on the moon. The question the astronauts were asked repeatedly throughout every public appearance and interview and personal exchange with whoever they met for the rest of their lives was what it felt like to walk on the moon.
Neither were the astronauts selected for their narrative abilities, the capacity to explain what things felt like. In much the same way that I could not conceive of how sound was expressed metaphorically by the metal coil spiralling across the wooden desk, it appeared that astronauts could not convey the lived reality of sitting in a spaceship no bigger than a VW beetle car for three days and the very real possibility of never coming back. In fairness, astronauts appear to have been selected precisely for their resistance to using metaphor or any kind of ambiguous techniques of communication. Hyperbole, fantasy, speculation, uncertainty, all had to be jettisoned like the rocket fuel tank as they lifted out of the atmosphere in order to reach outer space. Several of the astronauts recounted with loathing the psychological tests they were subjected to during the recruitment process and, in particular, being asked to describe what they could see when presented with a blank white page. It was nonsense, they said. Michael Collins, who was the command module pilot on Apollo 11, wrote, somewhat defensively, that ‘I think a future flight should include a poet, a priest and a philosopher… we might get a much better idea of what we saw.’ They might have described it better, he qualified, but they wouldn’t have ever reached the moon.
I wanted to understand how it felt. I wanted to understand it so much that I began to try to understand physics after a lifetime of not caring that I didn’t comprehend how things worked or interrelated or reacted. How sound moved. It mattered very desperately that I didn’t have a grounding in physics, in the mechanics of how a person might find themselves close to the limits of the atmosphere, closer to whatever one imagined to be up beyond the seeable and hence the knowable. I began to read about the Apollo astronauts and the meticulous work of NASA in preparing astronauts and space craft to defy all the laws of physics which had held people under the thrall of gravity. I watched the earliest silent films which visualised space travel and the experience of weightlessness; a hundred years ago it was clear to these film makers that a journey into space would involve a toxic combination of science, colonisation and military strategy. Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) opens with a scene lifted straight from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon (1865) when The Baltimore Gun Club, a group dedicated to the design of weapons, creates a plan to send a rocket to the moon. The film also includes a phalanx of scantily clad girls escorting the rocket to its launch and the iconic scene in which the rocket lands on the face of the moon. In Edison’s A Trip to Mars (1910) the main character, a chemist, invents a powder with the power of reverse gravity. He dusts himself with the material and is propelled into outer space, legs kicking, to encounter a hostile Martian.
The strange thing about space travel is how crude and rudimentary the filmed footage can seem, how similar to those early films. The radio broadcast from the tiny ship is riddled with static and disruptions to the narration from the astronauts and from ‘mission control’ which just appear as ‘…’ in the NASA transcripts. It’s suggestive of all the things that were not captured, the elements of the experience that remained unsayable, inexpressible. Michael Collins was left circling the moon alone and out of radio contact each time he passed its dark side as his two companions landed on the moon’s surface. He wrote: ‘It is there, reinforced by the fact that radio contact with the Earth abruptly cuts off at the instant I disappear behind the moon, I am alone now, truly alone, and absolutely isolated from any known life.’ How did it feel? And did my failure to understand the rudimentary physical laws of the universe in that high windowed classroom in which I was bored or lost or afloat in a sea of tranquillity, crisis, cold, cleverness, serenity, mean I could never ever go into space? Did it happen in that moment of detachment as I cast aside the cautious hopes of those who built that school?
When all I seemed to do was feel. My ignorance of those lessons was just one of many moments that accumulated until my trajectory was set and earthbound: I would never go into space.
When I began an artist residency at Metal Peterborough I was thinking about travelling to the moon constantly, obsessively. I travelled to Pontefract, home of the Space Lectures, to see Apollo astronauts speak. Part of the experience of attending the lectures included having your hand shaken by an astronaut as you had your photograph taken, speaking a few words before the next person stood up in your place. I can still feel the electric thrill that went through my whole body when I made physical contact, hand gripping hand fleetingly briefly, with an Apollo astronaut. It was a form of devotion; it wouldn’t be exaggerating to describe it as pilgrimage. After a lifetime of believing that I met every event in my life with stoic implacability I met a man who had walked on the moon and blushed like a teenager.
The moment I walked into Peterborough Cathedral I was convinced that the people who had built it were trying to reach the heavens. The eye follows the lines of columns up to the vaulted ceiling as if stone could sigh out the desire for sanctuary in space. The idea of being lost but also finally finding yourself is implicit in the idea of such a journey. My residency was shared with the visual artist Bettina Furnée. Trained as a stone letter cutter, she understood the material forces at work in the engineering of this massive building. Her artistic practice also focused on the moon, but it was primarily on the effect of the moon upon earth, its orbital pathway and waxing and waning influence on tides and the environment.
Like many visitors to the cathedral, we were strangers, lost in an alien environment and a long way from home. But we were not alone in this. Many people visit the place purely because it is located next to the region’s only emergency passport office. And so, by definition, they are on a journey somewhere else. Not only this, but Peterborough is a place of migration, with one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Numberless waves of people from around the world have arrived here from distant places and stayed briefly in the shadows of this huge building.
During the artist residency, I read aloud extracts from the radio transmissions of Apollo astronauts inside the cathedral; my voice barely permeated its enormity. I then transposed the recording onto the breaks and stutters of the brittle radio transmissions sent from the Apollo space craft back to earth. I wanted my voice to sound like an astronaut’s, I wanted it to be projected far away, blasted into oblivion and distorted as a result of the journey.
The first piece of work I made with Bettina, however, was firmly rooted in the domestic. We interviewed artists about what they imagined a journey to the moon would be like. The descriptions were set to a film of Bettina’s living room light, a replica of the moon designed by Buzz Aldrin and produced by the high street interiors company, Habitat. She filmed it teetering on her armchair, creating the wobbling effect of a silent film’s vision of a spaceship steadily approaching the moon and leaving the earth behind.
The people who could actually fill the cathedral space were, of course, the choristers, the candlelit choir, singing Evensong in the centre of the dark cathedral, their voices pushing outwards, further and further. Music projecting out of the body towards the vaulted ceiling then reverberating back towards them. It was as if the chapel was an instrument, in harmony with their bodies, their lungs, diaphragms, mouths, all unified in the construction of a sound that could reach beyond the darkness. And the organ. Of course, the organ, which blasted through the building. If anything could reflect the force of a lift off, which people felt reverberating in the ground for miles and miles from the launch site, it was the organ. The organ, however, was the wrong pitch. Built in the nineteenth century, when clocks told different times across the country, before the arrival of railways and the need for coherence, this organ had a pitch which differed from other organs. Now, of course, it was expected that music around the world should be at the same pitch: where the note A above middle C vibrates 440 times a second (440 Hz). For years Peterborough pitch had been synonymous with the place; it meant that visiting musicians and singers couldn’t sing alongside the organ. Finally, the cathedral had bowed to the inevitable and fundraised for the vastly expensive work. Now every one of the 5,286 pipes was being sent away to be lengthened so that the vibrations they generated were all altered by half a semi-tone. This created an opportunity for us; when the organ was finally reconstructed, we thought, that would be a chance to make some noise.
Not everyone would agree that nearly half a million pounds is a wise use of resources for a cathedral that came close to bankruptcy during the course of the project. Nevertheless, the funds were raised for the scheme and the pipes were sent to Durham to be altered. Meanwhile, we began to plan for their return and the painstaking reconstruction of that vast machine. Bettina and I began to devise a project that might reflect the scale and intensity of the original Apollo launches and also the unspoken, unspeakable hopes and dreams and aspirations it carried with it. The euphoric experience of witnessing the first steps into space had a counter reality – the landing was a function of military propaganda. This was another reason why the personnel selected to fly the missions were so compromised in their ability to talk about the experience. At the same time as they carried the hopes of many, they were also carrying tactical knowledge, and information which formed the basis of an enduring and relentless Cold War, its tendrils still reaching into the sunlit winter morning when I stood at the wooden desk looking at a spiral of metal and wondered about the shape of sound.
Sound requires a transmitting medium to propagate in, as evidenced by the Slinky experiment. However, once in space, that medium is lost. Space is a vacuum and sound cannot travel. But radio waves can travel through a vacuum which is why the Apollo missions were able to communicate between the earth and the lunar spacecrafts. Once the astronauts were outside the ship, radio became not only the medium to communicate with earth but also the only way of speaking with each other. Science fiction has frequently suggested that for astronauts to touch their helmet against another astronaut’s helmet would permit sound to transmit through their contact and create a bridge between them. It is a conceit grounded in physics; in the absence of a conductor, the body and the helmet become the means of transmitting and registering sound from one person to another. There is an implied intimacy in such contact, one which suggests radios have been abandoned or disabled and that they want privacy when they speak to each other in space. I find it interesting that helmet-to-helmet contact becomes a metaphor for deep isolation and loneliness and the need to make contact, to hear and be heard.
We experimented with different forms before creating the final piece of work to be made for, and performed, in the cathedral. I collaborated with astronaut and poet Al Worden, the first divorced Apollo astronaut to travel to the moon, to write a piece about space travel and separation. At a reading at Gainsborough’s house in Sudbury I wrote radio transmissions from the Apollo missions onto a huge paper moon and steadily erased them as the recording of my voice modified into that of an Apollo astronaut was played. Bettina and I explored the idea that in moonlight you could not perceive colour. We flooded St. Peter’s Chapel, Cambridge, with artificial moonlight. (I had met an astronomer who told me she could fill the space with real moonlight using a reversed telescope, but we decided the chance of a clear sky was too unlikely.) In response to a call-out from the Mars Foundation inviting long-term couples to travel on a one-way mission to Mars, we interviewed friends and family about whether they could travel into space together. We then staged these conversations as part of the Menagerie Hot Bed Festival.
The project which eventually took shape brought together this intimate image of a domestic conversation with the vision of blasting everyone’s voices into the heavens. We interviewed a range of couples from across Peterborough about how they pictured a journey into space together. They were people who, like us, were never likely to make the journey except in their imaginations. Their answers were beautiful and whimsical, both highly specific and enormously abstract. What did they want to take with them? Almost always sound: recordings of the people they loved talking, a musical instrument, the ordinary sounds of birds, passers-by, traffic heard from an open window, music.
These tender thoughts, the sounds of feeling, became the material basis of a libretto that echoed the format of Evensong, that gorgeous welcome to the night and all its fearful possibilities. The framework of that evening service was to explore concepts about a journey into space with all of its associated losses and possibilities. Set to music by the composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Even You Song was then performed by the cathedral choir and local schoolchildren alongside the reconstructed organ. The concert, which took place in Peterborough Cathedral in February 2017, was a performance that blasted those words and sounds in mechanical waves towards the heavens.
The Peterborough performance took place when my daughter was in the same school year that I was when I first tried to learn about physics. Unlike me she showed no signs of loathing her lessons. For her, its formulae are a welcome way of ordering and quantifying knowledge and understanding. She is endlessly curious about the way things work, and retains that knowledge and understanding. It was she who told me about the astronauts touching helmets in order to speak to each other and explained the Slinky experiment to me. For her, the image of that metal spiral, vibrating across the desk, is one of clarity, illuminated with light coming through the windows in her science block. She understands things and she feels things. She can do both. Poetry and physics are both capable of exploring how the world works. She could see clearly how these principles might launch you outside the metaphor of sound as Slinky, out of the tall windows and into the spaces beyond.
Lucy Sheerman’s first collection, Pine Island, is forthcoming from Shearsman in 2023. Even You Song was performed most recently on Midsummer Common, Cambridge on 31 July 2022 at Our Place In Space, led by Nerve Centre as part of Unboxed Festival.
From Magma 84, Physics
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