Observatory

A large part of the appeal of taking part in the Once Upon A Universe collaboration, for me at least, was the opportunity to spend a long weekend observing the stars at the Galloway Astronomy Centre. If you haven’t heard of it, take a look at their website  or, better still, go for a weekend. It’s a beautiful place. The main telescope stands in a purpose built observatory in the gardens, a short walk from the cottage we would be staying in, surrounded by nothing but vegetable patches, rolling fields and a wide-open sky.

There were eight of us in the collaboration – writers, scientists, story-tellers, anthropologists, performers – and our goal was to observe the universe, learn more about it, and then write about it in creative ways. I imagined spending the weekend staring through that telescope and being inspired by galaxies light years away.

When we arrived, it was cloudy. We wouldn’t be able to see anything through the telescope so we headed indoors for dinner, then sat in the big comfortable sofas in the living room/dining room/astronomy library/creativity chamber of the cottage and talked about science.

The next day, it was still cloudy. Crossing our fingers that it would clear up by the evening, we settled back into our comfy seats and the scientists among us described the origins of the universe. I was in the fortunate position of at least recognising most of the words. Having originally gone to university to do a degree in astrophysics, I knew what a quark was, and what neutrinos were, and I’d heard of (but was very suspicious of) dark matter. There was so much I’d forgotten, though, and for some of the group it was almost entirely new. We talked about how the night sky had influenced the legends of different cultures, and how the evolution of the universe could be described as an inflating balloon, the generations of a family, the stages of a journey, a spider’s web, a nightclub. Books were taken down from the shelves that lined the walls, and as the day went on the coffee tables beside us, the spare seats, even the floor filled up with astronomy.

That evening, it was still cloudy. Instead of observing the night sky I learnt, through appreciating the super-human efforts of our hosts, how to go about providing a delicious three course meal for a group of 2 carnivores, 1 vegetarian, 1 vegan, 1 person with a wheat allergy, 1 person with a nut allergy, 1 person who couldn’t eat dairy, and someone with Celiac’s.  That’s the thing about the Galloway Astronomy Centre – it’s a wonderful sort of observatory-come-B&B, and they provide meals and coffee and biscuits (edible by all!) as well as views of the universe, weather depending.

The next day, it was cloudy. It was almost certainly bound to clear up later on, though, so we happily began writing. Not individually, of course, but as a group. We set up a flip chart in the middle of the astronomy library and gathered the chairs and sofas around. There were ideas, there were laptop videos, there was a song about the universe (seriously), and there was reading and chatting and thinking. I can’t remember who it was that said, ‘Maybe we should write a story like a recipe,” but I hesitantly volunteered to give it a go later on. What I really wanted, though, was to look through a telescope for the first time in years and be transported into, and inspired by, the sky.

That night was our last, and it was cloudy. Dinner, though, was as delicious as always. As we sat around the large dining table, I realised I wasn’t going to get to look through a telescope that weekend. But I did have the beginnings of a new story – one that would eventually become The Universe Recipe.

I’m not going to lie to you. It’s kind of weird, spending an intensive weekend in one room, in bad weather, with seven complete strangers, all of us wishing we’d been able to look through that telescope. But that’s where ideas come from, I guess – the unusual places and the unexpected people, and sometimes the stuff that is different to what you’d hoped for. My interest in science, which had almost disappeared over the last few years, was back up to the levels of child-like excitement.

In the weeks after the collaboration my notebooks filled up with short stories about scientists, about physics and astronomy, and about the way that science is viewed by society. I’m putting together a collection that approaches scientific themes in unusual ways, a bit like we did as we discussed astrophysics and mythology, science and story and metaphor. That weekend led, and is still leading, to some of my favourite ideas and I think a large part of that is thanks to the Galloway Astronomy Centre; the food they cooked, the people we were with, the universe we talked about. And, of course, the clouds.

‘The Universe Recipe’ was published as part of the Once Upon A Universe collaboration in print and on-line. Some of Helen’s other short fiction inspired by astronomy can be found in Algebra and Cazart. Helen would love for you to visit her website and say hello.