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World(s) of water…

Here in Cumbria it seems to have been raining since the day after the Big Bang. Everything is sodden. You don’t walk anywhere, you squelch, and splash and trudge. Every day, every single day, it rains at some point – and not just ‘rain’, but great deluges of icy, sleety rain thundering down from a charcoal black sky. Just horrendous. Umbrella sales are up, moods and eyes are down. Normally I love stormy, wet weather, as many of you know; it reminds me of my Scottish island travels… how I miss Orkney, the Hebrides and Shetland… but this is just like living on a wet sponge being held under a shower nozzle. 

Nature seems to have declared war on Cumbria, and isn’t taking any prisoners. 

I’ve been very busy this past week or so doing a lot of Outreach, and estimate that in the past 8 days I talked to, and met, well over 500 people to “spread the word” about astronomy and space exploration. That’s not a lot compared to the pros, of course, but for me that’s not bad! I gave a talk to a Council Planning Committee group at Penrith last week, the purpose of which was to raise awareness of (and hopefully some up with some solutions to) the problem of  light pollution. It had been planned for several months, and the idea was to fill an afternoon with guest speakers (myself and two others) and then, after seeing a show in an inflatable planetarium, and having a meal, we’d all pile onto a coach then go on a Magical Mystery Tour, visiting different locations and viewing the night sky from places where light pollution was very bad, not too bad, and almost-not-a-problem. Threlkeld and Keswick were the places I’d chosen for the last two. 

Unfortunately, the event coincided with the day of the now infamous Great Flood, and by mid-afternoon, after almost 24 hours of non-stop rain, Cumbria was beginning to drown. Radio reports, phone calls and text messages all suggested that Keswick was virtually underwater, so our bus tour clearly wasn’t going to happen, and in fact many of the people signed up for the day didn’t make it there because of flooded roads and dangerous driving conditions. So after the talks, and a very enjoyable planetarium show and lovely meal of lasagne and cheesecake, we cut the day short and headed out into the rain, for home. 

Driving back we were assaulted and battered by rain, as we passed one flooded garage, road junction and dip in the road after another. Taking a breather in a service station car park we turned on the news on the radio, and it was good to hear that Kendal was safe, although the river Kent had come *this* close to bursting its banks.  

But it soon became clear that Cockermouth, my beautiful, old home town, hadn’t been so lucky. 

As we splashed our way towards Kendal I started receiving texts from friends and family up in Cockermouth, and I could hardly believe what I read: the Main Street was, literally, underwater… RAF helicopters were hovering over the town, rescuing people… the rivers had burst their banks… It didn’t seem real, didn’t seem possible. But back inside my flat, shucking off my coat – which had got absolutely drenched in just the 2 minute walk from the car, the rain was so hard – I watched the rolling TV news channel’s coverage of the floods, and I was absolutely horrified. It felt, like Nature itself had declared a “Shock and Awe” war on our beautiful county, and on Cockermouth in particular. 

It’s bad enough watching pictures of flooding in a place that you don’t know – you can’t help but feel moved and shocked by pictures of people’s cars and homes flooded – but to sit in front of my own TV, here, in my own home, and see The New Bookshop, Mills, Cockermouth Travel and all the other shops on Main Street vanishing under that coffee-coloured rage of filthy, churning water was horrible, just horrible. 

(images courtesy Tracey Atkinson)

Ironically, my contribution to the aforementioned light pollution “awareness day” event in Penrith had been my popular “Tour of the Universe” talk, a major section of which celebrates the fact that Earth is a “waterworld”. So, unknown to me, while I was happily showing colourful slides of gurgling streams, thundering waterfalls and surging ocean waves, celebrating the fact that it is Earth’s very wetness makes it so lush with life, Cockermouth and much of Cumbria was drowning. As I explained how amazing it is that Earth is a curious and blessed planet because water actually falls from the sky (as the rain was battering the windows like grapeshot – a nice dramatic effect, which reinforced my point) I had no idea that back in Cockermouth, birthplace of William Wordsworth, Fletcher Christian and Fearon Fallows, canary yellow helicopters were thwup-thwupping over the town, winching people out of danger, and rescuers were wading through the raging torrents to rescue people from shops, flats and houses. I actually felt sick when I found out what had been happening up there. 

Thankfully, everyone I know in Cockermouth was fine, living well away from the flooded areas as they do, but the beautiful town centre, with its wide Main Street and collection of great shops, is a mess, and will take many months to recover. 

Why am I writing about this on my astronomy blog? Because it struck me, looking at those pictures of flooded Cockermouth, taken by my sister, just how much power water has. I don’t mean the physical power of water – the power that can thrust heavy tree trunks through the wrought iron railings of road bridges, spin cars around like toys or bring a road bridge crashing down in a shower of tumbling chunks of masonry and stone – but the power it has to influence our lives, just by being there. Specifically “Out There”, in space.

 As 2009 draws to a close, the buzzword astronomers are using most about 2010 is “life”. The potential for life seems to be everywhere “out there” at the moment, and 2010 could be the year we finally answer the most important question in science: “Are we alone?” 

Cutting thrugh all the science gobbledygook, searching for life “out there” basically means either a) listening for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilisations beyond our solar system, or b) looking for water in our solar system, because, as we understand it, life pretty much needs water to get started  and keep going. And now, having found water in quite a few places in our neighbourhood, it’s possible that primitive life might actually be on more than one world in our solar system, just waiting to be found. It might be thriving in the murky, slush-puppy ocean that seems likely to exist beneath the icy crust of Jupiter’s moon, Europa. It might conceivably be spewing out of the water geysers that gush out of the great fissures at the south pole of Saturn’s moon, Enceladus. It could be living inside droplets of water suspended in the less hellish layers of venus’ atmosphere…

But the spotlight of the alien hunters has swung back towards Mars, a world we once thought was drier than a baked bone but now know has vast deposits of ice beneath its dusty, cratered surface. New studies of a once-drenched-in-water rock blasted off Mars 16 million years ago, that then fell to Earth as a meteorite 13,000 years ago, seem to support eye-popping claims made in 1996 that it contains the fossilised remains of martian lifeforms.

Nothing very advanced – teeny tiny bacteria, stuff less advanced than the gloop you sneeze into a hankie when you have a cold – but life, nonetheless. If that’s true – and there’s a NASA press conference scheduled for early next week which should tell us more – then we might be one small step closer to finding out that Mars once had life. We might be just days away from knowing if there ever was Life On Mars…

So, as 2009 draws to a drenched, dripping end, it’s fascinating – and for me, slightly comforting – to think that once the godawful rain stops, and the silt-thick flood waters recede, because of the presence of water “out there” we might be part of a living solar system.

I can’t wait to find out…!