Aurora Hunting with ESA

•February 14, 2019 • Leave a Comment

The lovely people of the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Norwegian Space Centre (NOSA or Norsk Romsenter) have invited me to Tromsø in the Arctic Circle to learn more about the aurora and go on nightly expeditions to see the northern lights. I feel very privileged and fortunate. I’m joining 29 others from around the world who ESA have termed the Aurora Hunters.

Here’s an ESA video of the view from the International Space Station.

Of course I’d love to see the aurora from there, but you do have to pay your travel costs to go on this expedition, and that probably makes it prohibitive. I have been to Iceland aurora hunting before, but only caught the faintest glimpse, but then was woken on a translatlantic flight (always book the polar-facing window seat) for a dancing green light show, but I’m sure that’s as nothing compared with what awaits in a couple of weeks. The idea of the expedition is to learn more and then spread the wonder, beauty and understanding of this glorious natural light show wider.

Northern Lights dedicatonI couldn’t help think of Philip Pullman’s first book in the His Dark Materials series which was called Northern Lights in the UK before being rebranded The Golden Compass for the American market and then the movie. Lord Asriel and ultimately Lyra discover that the aurora is a bridge to other parallel worlds, and then bravely venture across. Of course Lyra is helped by an armoured bear – I’ll have to check before I head off whether I’m likely to encounter any polar bears too (with or without extra protection forged from meteorite iron).

On a more serious scientific front, the aurora is an indication of Earth’s magnetic field protecting us from the bombardment of solar storms, funnelling charged particles towards both poles (in the southern hemisphere they’re known as the aurora Australis). The colour is an indication of the chemicals involved with the most common green colouring (visible in the banner on this website) indicative of mainly oxygen.

The Sun which lives for billions of years has a heartbeat of 11 years, during which sunspot activity waxes and wanes. Sunspot activity correlates with aurora, and we’re coming towards the end of the latest recorded maxima (the 25th) meaning there should still be a decent chance of seeing this wonder of the natural world in amazing circumstances.

I’ll post more about it, especially on Twitter, but if you want to know more Stuart Clark’s excellent book The Sun Kings is a terrific read.

Slipped through a wormhole from 2267

•March 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Curiously, after yesterday’s events in Florida, a message seemingly from the far future slipped through a wormhole in the space-time continuum and just happened to appear in the ether here at Mansfield Towers. Other than trying to convert it into present-day English, I have left it untouched.

From: First Citizen Michelle (human)

To: All humans & interested AIs

Location: Proxima B, Antigone Moonbase

Date: March 30, 2267 (Mars Standard Calendar)

Fellow citizens

Five years ago we reached our new home. Proxima Centauri and the worlds around this dwarf star is the first permanent outpost for humanity beyond the Sol system. The journey was long and hard. The loss of Tomasz and Antigone hurt us almost more than we could bear, but here we are celebrating this small milestone. We are 50,000 new minds, many organic, some not, in a new star system.

While we await the return signal from our home planet of Mars, we have been busy. This magical system has been extensively explored and the Dyson sphere nearly completed to power this staging post from which we expect to soon be able to take another step even further out. While there are many wonders, as expected (though we still hoped otherwise), there was no life here, just as none was to be found on any of the worlds (large and small) of the Sol system. This reinforces us, strengthens our determination, to spread the wonder that life brings, whether organic, machine-based or some mixture of the two, throughout our Galaxy and beyond. Each step we take teaches us more about how precious life and intelligence are.

It is worth noting that this voyage of exploration and discovery, the way we are now wading out into the waters of the cosmic ocean, would not have been possible without an event that happened 250 years ago today, according to the Standard Calendar. And it occurred not on our homeworld, but on (and above) Earth, the original cradle of humanity – before runaway climate change and the subsequent nuclear conflicts made the third planet uninhabitable.

Many think of Elon Musk as the original First Citizen of Mars, and it is true that he was pivotal in engineering the systems later humans and AIs came to rely on, but Musk originated on Earth when it was still viable and, in fact, at a time before humanity had begun to spread across the system. It is hard to believe now, but although humans had visited Earth’s satellite, Luna, almost 50 standard years before, they had not returned and the few rockets they launched were only ever used once, incredibly being left to fall back to the planet to be destroyed after completing their initial mission.

I am grateful to the AI, No Compromise, No Surrender, for discovering some incredible footage of a youthful pre-Neuralinked Musk. It is captioned “CEO & Lead Designer, SpaceX”, roughly analogous, I believe, to First Worker. Until this time the cost of reaching space from such a deep gravity well was almost prohibitive, making it the province of nation states (Earth never achieved a planetary-wide government) rather than corporations or individuals. But then Musk founded the cooperative called SpaceX, which succeeded against incredible odds to build the initial colonial fleet that reached Mars in 2036. But those early Mars voyages were long after the fifteen-year struggle to create reusable orbital rockets that would eventually reduce the cost of access to space to a fraction of what it had been before.


So it was that on March 30th, 2017, the very first used orbital class rocket (called a Falcon 9 because of its 9 primitive chemical engines) successfully relaunched, carrying with it a communications satellite destined for geostationary orbit, before landing on a floating platform named Of Course I Still Love You which had been positioned in one of Earth’s oceans. While the very idea of chemical rockets has long since been consigned to history, the name of the platform brings a smile to my face. Just as we organic humans have tried to build a Culture-style civilization in collaboration with the mighty AI Minds of our ships and cities, the literature of the great Iain Banks inspired Musk and his followers in the distant past.


The mission on that fateful day, apparently named SES10 after the satellite launched, would pave the way for a transformation of human fortunes. For a Standard Calendar century, Earthlings had flown around their planet in vessels that were seemingly reused thousands of times, without being discarded. Yet they were so very slow to attempt this same principle to go beyond the planet. Only when SpaceX made reusable rockets the norm, could the Mars colonization project eventually be realized.

It was not long before turnaround times dropped to a Standard Calendar day people switched to preferring launches on flight-proven rockets rather than than untried new builds. In this era of mighty fusion engines powering hollowed out asteroids to the stars at relativistic speeds, controlled by Minds that are far beyond human comprehension (albeit in welcome cooperation), it would be a mistake to belittle the achievements of a small group of engineers who created a chemical rocket that would fly reliably multiple times.

Without them, our ancestors would not have left Earth in time. Without them, life would not now be spreading through the cosmos. The recovered footage is only a two-dimensional low-resolution projection, but all of us should take a moment to witness it and remember the pioneers who have made this wonderful future possible. We owe them a great deal.

First Citizen Michelle (human) out.

Ulysses for National Poetry Day

•October 6, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Today, 6th October, is apparently National Poetry Day in the UK.

When young and a keen writer, of course I penned poetry, but I was also a poetic soul. So it was that when I graduated from university I embarked upon a wonderful railway journey for a month across Europe, before arriving at Istanbul in Turkey. And then I spent another month, hitchhiking around Turkey, going far east into Kurdistan but also seeking out some of the great cities of the ancient world.

It was my intention to visit Hisarlik, south of the Dardanelles Strait and close to Pergamon, and now known to be home to the once-mythical city of Troy. For on my travels I had taken with my a copy of Tennyson’s great poem Ulysses that I memmorized during the journey so that I could declaim it across the Trojan battlefield:


[By User: Bgabel at wikivoyage shared, CC BY-SA 3.0,

My tribute to the romantic world of the ancients and a time when men consorted with gods.

Today I find poetry is like the song lyrics I picked up in my youth. Neither can be unlearnt. My memory may sometimes appear too full to learn new things, yet these old treasures remain. Which is appropriate because Ulysses is of course a poem about aging, and also about wanting to strive to continue the great things that before had come so easily to us. The lines:

Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.

connect me to my previous post about Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, wondering if that will be an epic journey I may make in my lifetime. And if I do I imagine it will be the last great journey (though how I want to visit Saturn too!).

To test myself and the power of memory, I just recorded the poem. I hope you enjoy this national poety day treat. Click the link at the top of the post or listen to it here.


Elon Musk & SpaceX’s plans for a city on Mars

•September 26, 2016 • 1 Comment

Later today, at the International Aeronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, something incredible will happen. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX (and Tesla) is giving a keynote talk entitled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species”. I like to see it as the dawning of a new era for our species.

The talk is going to be streamed live so for those of us not fortunate enough to be in the hall we can watch it at:

The timing will be:

  • Local (Mexican) time: 13.30-14.30
  • British Summer Time: 19.30-20.30
  • Eastern Daylight Time: 14.30-15.30
  • And so on…

It will sound like science fiction, but it is not. Those who think the future of space exploration still belongs to countries and national space agencies may expect NASA to reach one of Mars’ moons (as that’s so much easier) around 2040. Elon Musk is aiming to send the first humans in the middle of the next decade.

His Red Dragon astronaut capsule is aiming to go as early as 2018 and from then on, in the launch window that occurs every 26 months, more missions will follow. Those of us following the mission have been anticipating the official announcement of the Mars Colonial Transporter, designed to take 100 people at a time to the red planet. Musk teased us last week that the vessel needs a new name as it will actually be able to go much further.

This blog post is the first “official” announcement that I am writing a book about Musk’s plans for Mars called The Real Martian explaining the rationale for accelerating the human colonization of space and SpaceX’s specific plans for making this happen.

This is no Apollo Programme doing it for the prestige – to be first. The aim is to create a self-sustaining human civilization on another world. By the end of the century the plan will be for a million people to live there. The space race is shifting from governments to private corporations. Musk’s SpaceX is joined by Jeff Bezos’ (the founder of Amazon’s) Blue Origin and also by Robert Bigelow’s aerospace company (which has a trial inflatable habitat currently attached to the International Space Station).

However, it’s important to realize that the entire purpose of SpaceX has been to create a colony on Mars. People know it for the Dragon craft that supplies the International Space Station and the incredible rockets that launch satellites and then land back down on a barge in the ocean. But they may not have grasped that the reason for vertical landing rockets with their retro thrusters is because that’s the only way to land safely on Mars.

The space shuttle used to glide back from orbit but still needed the longhest runway on Earth to land safely; Mars’ atmosphere simply isn’t thick enough to contemplate such a strategy, so new Mars-specific technologies had to be invented. We’re used to other capsules splashing down in the oceans or, Tim Peake-style, hitting the Kazakh Steppes pretty hard. The new Dragon capsule that will take astronauts to the space station next year is designed to land anywhere in the solar system, whether that’s the White House lawn or a Martian plateau.

Finally, we are living in the future. It’s becoming oh so exciting and I hope everyone, like me, wants to hang on for the ride.


Screenwriting & book adaptations

•August 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

This month over at The Prime Writers website we’re imagining who would appear in the film adaptation of our books. Today was my turn to cast the movie of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London, which in turn has got me thinking about the tricky business of adapting books into screenplays.

How many movies do you think are better than the books they were taken from? As authors and book lovers we may be biased, but most people count the number on the fingers of one hand. There are doubtless more but as I begin this piece, I can count that number on one finger. The film that springs to mind is Blade Runner, adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples from Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which comes in myriad interesting covers).


Many films have been inspired by Dick’s work, for example: Minority Report, Total Recall, The Adjustment Bureau, Paycheck, Screamers, A Scanner Darkly. It’s only the last of those that, like Blade Runner, was based on a novel. All of the others were inspired by short stories. When I first discovered Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I realized the film was almost unrecognizable from the book. It’s a while since I read it, but my recollection involves elements such as parallel universes, a pet sheep, a very strange religious cult, and a wife for Blade Runner Deckard The genius of the adapted screenplay was to cut out everything except for one thread of the story and build the film around that.

Tyrell Corporation artificial owl

Watching Blade Runner projected across the entire wall of an apartment


The depth of the book enriches the world of the film. The owl at Tyrell Corporation and the snake used by replicant dancer Zhora are both artificial because in the book there’s been a devastating nuclear war and almost all animal life on Earth has disappeared. “A new life awaits you in the Off-world colonies. A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure” for exactly the same reason, with J.F. Sebastian alone in his apartment block unable to follow his neighbours because he failed the medical.

The biggest difference between book and film is the depth of a novel that a film simply doesn’t have time for. A book can afford to meander and sometimes disappear into cul de sacs. A movie gets straight to the point. And the perceived wisdom is that it does so in three acts. If writing a film script, perhaps trying to adapt your own novel, here are some things to bear in mind.

  • 1 page of (properly formatted) script equates to 1 minute of screen time
  • If you’re a new writer hoping to break into Hollywood, your script should be 110-120 pages long (and NO LONGER). If making a European indie you can get away with 90-120 pages.
  • Act 1 covers pages 1-30 and introduces all your characters, before a key plot point pretty much exactly on p. 30 takes us into Act 2. After you’ve got to know your key characters in the first 10 minutes of the film (first 10 pages) there’s an Inciting Incident that sends them out of their comfort zone and into the meat of the movie.
  • Act 2 is all about overcoming obstacles as your characters battle through the story. On 60 minutes, 60 pages into your screenplay, is the point of no return where some sort of decision is made from which there’s no going back. The remainder of the movie is set in motion. At the end of Act 2 at around 90 minutes is another key turning point of the plot.
  • Act 3 is all climax, ratcheting the stakes up higher and higher until you finally reach your ending.

There are a million different ways to write and book, and for many authors the story is unplanned at the outset. Even Philip Pullman, President of the Society of Authors, told me he doesn’t plan his books but is from the school of discovering the story as he goes along. The difference in film is that every scene has to move the story on towards the ending (or it will be removed!). The ending has to be the starting point for every screenplay.

Philip Pullman Amber Spyglass

A gratuitous image of one of my Pullman dedications

If you’re ever in the fortunate position of finding yourself pitching a script to Hollywood movie moguls, they may well ask you on what page is your inciting incident and which pages introduce your protagonist and antagonist. Be ready with your answers.

In the room with Spielberg

    In a room with Spielberg but not close enough to pitch!

When I first began writing books I didn’t know much about literary structures, being a mathematical physicist by training but having stumbled into the role of book publisher at the British Film Institute. My first novel, Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London had one rule, of ending each chapter with a cliffhanger. I see now there was an inciting incident on page 2 but there’s so much going on I think any adaptation would work better as long-form TV drama than a movie.

But the novel I’m working on at the moment, a science fiction story for grownups built around parallel realities and the mysterious absence of aliens in the universe, borrows hugely from the three-act structure of the film world. Hoping it might make the transition from printed page to big screen just a little bit easier.

It was me or Tim Peake

•December 14, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Back in 2008 I wrote a piece about the European Space Agency recruiting for astronauts, including the opportunity for a UK candidate to likely go on a mission to the International Space Station. Of course I applied and for a little while there was the tantalising prospect that I jmight be that first ESA British astronaut who was going to have an out-of-this-world experience. I hadn’t reckoned on a certain Major Tim Peake:

Timothy_Peake,_official_portrait (NASA Robert Markowitz)

Seven years later, on 15 December 2016 just after 11am GMT, Tim will sit atop a 50m Russian Soyuz FG rocket containing 300 tonnes of kerosene and liquid oxygen. In an incredible rush, he will go from zero to almost 29,000 km per hour, before he can enjoy the tranquility of six months’ zero gravity in low Earth orbit.

Not long after he’d been announced I remember Tim doing a Q&A from the UK Space Centre in Leicester. My question consisted of only two words: “swap jobs?” He laughed but politely declined. If the chance came tomorrow to sneak into the capsule in his place, I’d be there in a nanosecond.

The mission is called Principia, named after Isaac Newton’s book  that helped define the discipline of mathematical physics which I studied at Newton’s very own Trinity College, Cambridge. There is no morePrincipia_mission_logo appropriate moniker for this British foray into space. Reaching low Earth orbit requires a mathematical understanding of gravity and Newton’s Principia laid those foundations, realizing that an apple falls to the Earth for the same reason that the Moon (and the ISS) orbit around it. Every space voyage has a mission patch and here’s Principia’s.


Hoping and expecting everything to go according to plan, Tim will reach the International Space Station around 19.00 GMT and this will be live on TV and the web. If I could be even more envious (in the nicest possible way) it’s because he’s not going for a short stay. The mission is scheduled to last a whopping six months.

While up there, one thing that Tim is extremely keen to do is to perform a spacewalk  or EVA (extravehicular activity). The International Space Station is pretty big. You’ll know this if you’ve ever looked for it in the night sky as it passes overhead (there are great apps that tell you when it’s going to be visible from your location and it’s well worth the watch). In fact the station is a little larger than a football pitch (both British and American). 693259main_jsc2012e219094_big

If Tim’s lucky enough to journey outside the ISS he’s effectively in his own miniature spaceship, sculpted to fit a human body. It’s as close as you can get to being alone in the cosmos (unless you wanted to try it without wearing a spacesuit, although that’s not quite as bad as you might think and is described accurately in the Johnny Mackintosh books). To try the suited version yourself, here’s a spacewalk simulation game from NASA.

Speaking of Johnny Mackintosh, while cloaked he flies past the International Space Station at the beginning of the second book, Star Blaze.

Three hundred and forty kilometres above Earth, they passed the space station windows so close that they could see the astronauts inside.

It would be funny to imagine one of those astronauts was Britain’s own Major Tim Peake. To commemorate the Principia Mission, the UK Space Agency has produced a special issue of their magazine (link opens as a pdf).

My plan for 2016 is to blog rather more (not difficult), including my thoughts on how to speed up humanity’s transition into becoming a space-faring species. Tim Peake’s flight is another small step along this giant interstellar highway to a potentially golden future for our species.

“Contact” at the bfi

•November 15, 2014 • Leave a Comment

As part of their brilliant science fiction season, last night BFI Southbank saw a special screening of Contact, a movie based on the novel by SETI pioneer, Carl Sagan.

Contact movie posterIt’s not a short film, but no one in the packed audience minded that the Q&A preceding it, with Professor Brian Cox and Dr Adam Rutherford, took over an hour. Huge credit to my former employers, the British Film Institute, for not making it token, but giving us the chance for a meaty discussion on what many think is the most important question facing science: where is everybody?

This was the question posed to colleagues over lunch one day (in 1950) by physicist Enrico Fermi. It has become known as the “Fermi paradox”. The “everybody” in question are aliens … extraterrestrials.

Why should we care?

Many people think the fundamental moment in the history of Western science was when Copernicus said Earth orbited the Sun rather than the other way around. This wasn’t simply a convenient coordinate shift. It was saying Earth is not the centre of the Universe. We inhabit just one of many planets. We have no privileged position in the cosmos. We are ordinary. The same “laws of nature” that apply on and around Earth apply equally in the rest of the Universe. This has become known as the “Copernican principle” and it is the foundation of scientific thought.

We have a problem. Look out at night – look further through our telescopes (and we can look so very far) and the Universe is vast. There are hundreds of billions of galaxies, like our own Milky Way. Just within ours, there are maybe 400 billion stars, most with planets. Conservative estimates, as Brian Cox told the audience (these are based on Kepler findings) hold that one in ten stars will have habitable planets in orbits that allow liquid water on their surface.

Further, at 4.5 billion years, Earth and our solar system are relatively young. The Milky War is far, far older. inally, mathematical models show it’s perfectly possible to colonize the entire galaxy in a brief time – say, 10 million years. Yet when we look skywards, we see not the slightest evidence if any intelligence in the entire Universe, other than what we find here on Earth. This suggests we are very special indeed – the polar opposite to the fundamental principle of science.

The Arecibo message

The Arecibo message

Sagan pondered this question long and hard. In his early, pioneering days of SETI, they were actively trying to communicate with extraterrestrials and before the movie, Cox and Rutherford were sitting in front of a radio message intentionally broadcast to the stars.

Sagan also helped designed messages added to the Voyager deep space probes (Voyager 1 is now over 18 light hours away, carrying a gold record with sounds of Earth and a map of how to find its inhabitants). Since those heady days, we think more about “existential risk” – things that potentially threated our survival as a species. One such risk is contact with alien races, so we’ve become more circumspect.

Looking back, I think the novel, Contact, was important for me as both a writer and publisher. I loved the story. It combined so many elements that I’m passionate about and, foolishly at the time I thought I could have told it better! Of course that’s not true, but I would nowadays have been a good editor for Sagan, had he let me. It certainly made me realize I was capable of being a good storyteller, and my current work-in-progress is a novel that revisits this same territory. I find it unfathomable now that I asked Sagan to sign my copy of Cosmos, which he kindly did, but not my copy of Contact – what was I thinking?

The film’s good, but there’s so much more in the book that anyone who likes the movie would get a lot from reading the novel. It was commented that Contact is a little overlooked as a science fiction film. Very true, but with my screenwriting hat on I think that’s because there’s so much to cram in, the narrative is very linear and straightforward. And Sagan’s thoughtful climax may have been unsatistfactory for mainstream audiences used to a different style of alien encounter.

In the movie, scientist Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster and the character Cox and Rutherford said was the best depiction of a scientist on screen) detects a message from aliens, using radio telescopes. This was how Sagan and fellow SETI pioneer Frank Drake expected our first contact with extraterrestrials would go, and the film describes how things might unfold after receipt – the message is written in mathematics, the only universal language. There’s still an old-school SETI community working in this area, but increasingly scientists are thinking of alternative ways to identify evidence of aliens, often in the form of (very) large scale engineering projects such as Dyson spheres or matter-antimatter burners. We’re still looking.

If you’ve not seen the movie, you really should. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:

It’s part of the BFI’s excellent Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder season.

The Berlin Wall: A Day that Changed the World

•November 9, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Back when Quercus books was starting out (even before they were called Quercus) I wrote a piece for them as proof of concept for a planned volume called Days that changed the World (to follow on from the successful Speeches that changed the World). In the end it became a book by Hywel Williams. I really liked my sample piece, mocked up for the Frankfurt bookfair, and now, on the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I’d like other people to be able to read it.

"Every wall will fall some day"

“Every wall will fall some day”

It was 6.57 pm on Thursday 9 November 1989. In a press conference Günter Schabowski, head of the Berlin section of East Germany’s ruling party the SED (Socialist Unity Party of Germany), was trying to answer a question put by an Italian journalist.

Earlier that day at the Politburo (Cabinet) meeting, the continued hemorrhaging of East German citizens to the West, through the increasingly open borders of its communist allies, had been discussed. It was decided that a system of permits would be introduced to allow travel into West Berlin. It was Günter Schabowski’s role to answer questions at the subsequent press conference, but he had only returned from holiday towards the end of the meeting and so missed much of the discussion. The question the journalist had asked was about this very issue of travel into West Berlin, so Schabowski was handed a piece of paper to help him give an answer. It was a press release intended for publication the following day. No one meant for him to read it out loud but that’s what he did. He was then asked when this would actually happen. Unaware of the proposed timetable he mistakenly announced to the surprised group of journalists before him that ‘this is immediate, without delay’.

 ‘As far as I know, this is immediate, without delay’ Günther Schabowski, Head of Berlin SED, 6:57pm

Within minutes the news wire services AP (Associated Press) and DPA (the German Press Agency) were reporting that East Germany had opened its borders to the West. The citizens of East Berlin flocked to the crossing points in the Wall hoping to gain access. Outnumbered and unprepared the border guards didn’t know what action to take. Telephone calls to their superiors apparently said ‘we’re flooding’ as they held back the ever-increasing crowds. Finally, around 10.30 pm at Bornholmer Strasse they bowed to the inevitable and opened the crossing. After 10,315 days stretching across 28 years the antifaschistischer Schutzwall (Anti-Fascist Protection Wall), the physical symbol of the Iron Curtain across Europe, had finally fallen.

‘I won’t believe it until I’m on the other side’ unknown East Berlin woman

‘We’re flooding’ East German border police

The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall was the pivotal moment in a dramatic year across Europe. This followed in the wake of the new philosophies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring) coming from Mikhail Gorbachev in The Kremlin. The Poles with their powerful Solidarity trades union were impatient for reform and on 5 April the communist government there agreed to hold free elections. In May, Gorbachev came to West Germany to meet with Chancellor Kohl. He informed Kohl that the Brezhnev doctrine was over – that Russia was no longer prepared to use force to control the satellite states that comprised the Soviet Union. At once the government in Hungary announced its intention to begin the dismantling of the Iron Curtain along the border with Austria. The floodgates were open.

East Germans began pouring into Hungary en route to what they hoped was a new life in the West. The scale of the exodus was unprecedented. Some were allowed through into Austria while others who were turned back ended up camping in the grounds of the West German Embassy in Prague in Czechoslovakia.

A weekly peace vigil had begun on Mondays in the East German city of Leipzig. At first the numbers were small, but despite sometimes violent police action they grew. On 4 September there were a thousand demonstrators – by 16 October there were 120,000. Loudspeakers proclaimed their words of opposition throughout the city:

We, the people, demand:

  • the right to free access of information
  • the right to open political discussions
  • the freedom of thought and creativity
  • the right to maintain a plural ideology
  • the right to dissent
  • the right to travel freely
  • the right to exert influence over government authority
  • the right to re-examine our beliefs
  • the right to voice an opinion in the affairs of state

The Leipzig protests

Gorbachev had returned to Berlin as guest of honour for the 40th anniversary of the East German state on 7 October. In front of the Palace of the Republic the celebrations turned to protest as the crown cried out for Gorbachev to help them. The demonstration was broken up by the police with a thousand arrests. In a warning to the SED Gorbachev announced ‘Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben’ (whoever comes too late is punished by life). In East Germany this was seen as a tacit acknowledgement that the old order was over. Following Gorbachev’s comments and the ever-increasing demonstrations against him, East German President Eric Honecker, who as late as June had claimed the Wall would last for another ‘50 or 100 years’, resigned on 18 October.

Honecker was the original builder of the Wall. More than two and a half million East Germans had escaped to West Germany between 1949 and 1961, an unsustainable drain on the communist state’s resources. Because of this the first East German President, Walter Ulbricht, had secretly decided a wall must be built. He sought the then Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s permission to make his plan a reality. At midnight on the morning of Sunday 13 August 1961, Honecker, responsible for security on the SED Central Committee and so the overseer of the construction of the Wall, sealed the border with West Berlin while the citizens in the east slept. In preparation for the day he had stored 25 miles (40 km) of barbed wire and thousands of fence posts in barracks around the city. This was brought out and the Wall was erected behind a line of 25,000 armed police, posted every six feet along the border.

The resignation of Honecker saw him replaced by another hardliner, Egon Krenz, but the exodus from East Germany continued apace. On Tuesday 7 November the government of East Germany resigned en masse appealing to the public that ‘in this serious situation, all energies be concentrated on keeping up all functions indispensable to the people, society and the economy.’ The plan was that the ministers would remain in office until a new government could be formed. The next day the entire Politburo also resigned. However, the Central Committee of the SED unanimously re-elected Egon Krenz as leader. That afternoon party members elected a new Politburo who would meet for the first time the following day under Krenz’s leadership. The rapid changes in the administration and personnel were perhaps the reason for Günter Schabowski’s confused announcement on the fateful evening.


As night fell on 9 November a street party spread all across West Berlin that lasted several days. As each East German Trabi drove across Checkpoint Charlie its driver honked its horn and was cheered by the masses. East German border guards joined the celebrations and were presented with flowers by delighted West Berliners. East Germans were pouring into West Berlin with no money, so it was quickly announced that possession of an East German passport would entitle the bearer to free public transport and museum admission across the city.

‘Berlin was out of control. There was no more government, neither in East nor in West. The police and the army were helpless. The soldiers themselves were overwhelmed by the event. They were part of the crowd. Their uniforms meant nothing. The Wall was down.’ From a personal account by Andreas Ramos, a Dane in Berlin

‘Soon after the announcement was made, my family and I went to the wall with hammers and chisels in order to help knock it down. There were hundreds of people there already. I was surprised at just how difficult it was to break a piece of wall off: it was made of such hard material. Looking at gaps which others before me had managed to create, I could see the thick iron wires which were between the concrete layers making up the wall. One thing I did notice about the wall was that the West side was covered in graffiti and the East was perfectly clean: the East Berliners were not allowed near the wall. I had fun knocking away at the wall, and did manage to break of small chunks, which I still have today.’ From a personal account by Louise Hopper, then a 14 year old English girl living in West Berlin

Tear down the wall

The next day, Friday, saw the announcement of free elections in East Germany to take place the following year. Then, on Sunday 12 November, the Wall was opened at the historic Potsdamer Platz (Potsdam Square) by the mayors from each half of the previously divided city. Walter Momper, Mayor of West Berlin proclaimed ‘Potsdam Square is the old heart of Berlin and it will beat again as it used to.’ Six weeks later the historic Brandenburg Gate, was also reopened in front of enormous crowds.

Systematic demolition of the Wall began on 13 June the following year and Germany was finally reunited on 3 October 1990. However, a watching world that had been caught in the grip of the Cold War for so long remembers 9 November 1989 as the day it ended – the day the Berlin Wall fell.


Erected:           13 August 1961

Total Length:  96 miles (155 km)

inside Berlin:       26.8 miles (43.1 km)

between Berlin and East Germany:        70 miles (112 km)

Watch Towers:            302

Concrete Shelters:       22

Border Guards:           14,000

Successful escapees:   5,043 (incl. 574 members of armed forces)

Escapees killed:           239

Soldiers and policemen killed:            27

My Trip into Space

•October 12, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The opening of Gravity

It seems strange to be writing this from the comfort of my sofa, yet only yesterday this was my view: repairing the Hubble Space Telescope in low Earth orbit, from the next generation shuttle, Explorer. And it was breathtaking. I had front row seats for the UK premiere of Alfonso Cuorón’s Gravity at London’s Odeon Leicester Square, as part of the bfi’s London Film Festival.

Where IK catch the boltThe first dozen minutes of the movie are a single, beautiful shot of Earth from space, viewed in glorious 3D. Wow. We dive into the scene and eventually stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are unscrewing a panel on the Hubble Space Telescope, that they’re up there to repair. A bolt spins out of Bullock’s reach and I’m on hand to catch it as it flies past me. Wonderful.

Cuoron & Bullock introduce Gravity

Last year I found myself on the red carpet with George Clooney for The Ideas of March. This year, I entered with Sandra Bullock while Harry Potter producer David Heyman was being interviewed in the doorway. Having taken my seat, Cuorón, Heyman and Bullock took to the stage and introduced the movie.

The visual effects are extraordinary. Tim Webber and his team are surely nailed on for next year’s Oscar, having come up with all manner of new techniques for relatively low costs, to create such a realistic spectacle. Life of Pi had beautiful cinematography and 3D, but I think Gravity is even better, but of course that’s also partly down to the low Earth orbit setting. Make sure you see the film on the biggest screen you can find, and you won’t be disappointed.

Author Keith Mansfield at the Gravity premiereI have experienced being in space, while at the cinema before. When I worked at the Science Museum I was able to slip into their IMAX whenever they were showing Walking on the Moon: 3D. It really was the next best thing to being there, but that used a lot of genuine footage. There are two related jokes about Gravity, such is the realism of the film: one is that NASA is going to sue once it discovers Cuorón’s hidden cameras aboard the International Space Station (ISS); the other is that he actually considered filming it in space (listening to him, they thought about it for at most half a second).

So far so good. I don’t know if I was so blown away with the experience that I didn’t pay much attention to the actual characters, or whether their story wasn’t particularly interesting. But while I’d give the visuals 11 out of 10, the backstory of lead characters Bullock and Clooney only seemed to merit a 4 or 5.

But the premise is good, so don’t let that put you off. Many scientists are becoming increasingly worried about space junk filling the area where most satellites are placed. There is a catastrophic scenario where the collision of two satellites, or one breaking up, could lead to a chain reaction with devastating consequences, where most if not all satellites would be destroyed. The movie opens with that happening and the debris careering towards the vulnerable shuttle. And even once it’s gone by, we and the astronauts know it will return within 90 minutes and none of us still want to be there when that happens.

You will find yourself ducking out of the way of space debris and maybe even longing to feel planet Earth under your feet again. I’ve made it back safely, and can report that Gravity must be seen for the beauty and brilliance of the visuals.

ET and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year awards

•September 22, 2013 • Leave a Comment

When I was young it was my dream to meet aliens. In fact, the idea of being abducted by aliens and taken off round the galaxy was the root for the Johnny Mackintosh stories. But I also had this idea that ET would be as lovely and friendly as in the Spielberg movie of the same name. One of my favourite photographs at the Astronomy Photographer of the Year Awards earlier this week was hi hello by American Ben Canales. It’s a beautiful image that perfectly captures the longing not to be alone in the Universe – the aching to make contact.

The probability is that any aliens we encounter are likely to be vastly superior to us in every way. Even relatively tiny differences in abilities have led to the most dramatic consequences here on Earth. Look at the way the “old world” of Europe quickly dominated and devastated the cultures of the “new world” of the Americas. Or how with a relatively very small difference in brain power compared with our chimpanzee cousins, we dominate the planet while they pick fleas off each other (and we never invite them round for tea).

Of course aliens may not intentionally wish to destroy us, but just going about their business could have terrible consequences that they might not even realize, as we’d likely be so very alien to them. However, if some warlike ones came calling, I couldn’t help thinking it might look something like this submission from David Kingham:

This brilliant image of the Perseid meteor shower (combining 23 separate exposures) looks like an alien missile bombardment.

If you saw the wonderful Visions of the Universe down the hill at the National Maritime Museum, that used many photographs from the first four years of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition. “Visions” has just finished, but now you can see the brilliant new APotY exhibition (though without a glass of champagne in hand) at the Royal Observatory until 23rd February 2014.

Should we attempt to communicate with ET? Various attempts have been made over the years, from sending radio telecrope messages to specially targeted star systems and the plaque on the side of the Voyager space probes. But really these are irrelevant and the point is moot. For over a century, Earth has been lit up in the cosmic firmament, like a beacon or lighthouse, brightly beaming our radio and then television programmes into space. Are they a warning or an invitation? When aliens watch Independence Day or Star Wars, or the latest episodes of The Simpsons, what do they think? Are they eagerly awaiting the next instalment of Monty Python’s Flying Circus?

The overall winner of the competition was this Guiding Light to the Stars by Mark Gee. It’s a southern hempisphere Milky Way anchored by a lighthouse on the right-hand side, leading all the way to the Magellanic Clouds:

In the northern hemisphere we can see the Andromeda galaxy, the Milky Way’s twin, but south of the equator are these two smaller galaxies (upper left), probably satellites, possibly just hurtling by. While the distances between stars compared with their sizes are unimaginably vast, the relative distances between galaxies, certainly within our “local” group, are comparatively small.

If aliens came calling to take me I’d still go with them in a heartbeat, whether that was just around the Milky Way, or a little farther afield.