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Monday, January 10, 2011

The Realm of Gold

I had been worried about Chapman for some time.  He had been stuck up that damn mountain for weeks now and there had been no communication.   It wasn’t entriely unusual for him to be out of contact for days on end – his routine of observing all night and sleeping and processing data all day meant that every spare minute was taken up.  But sometimes in the long watches of the night when plates were being exposed he generally still managed to fire off an email or two of inconsequential banter.  Just to let us know that he was still alive.  Then I contacted his department at the University and they hadn’t heard from him either.   What’s more he hadn’t been uploading data to their mainframe for some days.  “Aren’t you worried?”  I asked of some breathless researcher.  “Oh well, you know Chapman” was all she could say and rushed off to deal with some plates that had just arrived from some other observatory in another part of the globe.  The fact is, that I did know Chapman. And I knew what she meant.  I had known him when we were students and we spent hours together in the University observatory watching some planet or other and taking minute observations of some minute oscillation in an effort to detect something or other.  I’m afraid I soon got bored but Chapman grew more and more devoted to his work whilst I would pack up early to get down into the Students Union Bar. After he graduated, Chapman’s career had taken off like a rocket and I was left footslogging round the lower reaches of teaching.  We kept in touch but as Chapman became more and more involved in his work our relatonship dwindled to the email and Facebook variety.  Chapman hadn’t exactly become a recluse or a curmudgeon, in the early days at University he had been quite garrulous at parties and had been known to dance on a table or two at end of term dos but he had become a bit...  well, intense, when it came to astronomy.  He was dedicated and single minded to the extent that he could quite easily forget a student or journalist  who called in for an interview and he’d  wander off leaving his visitor sitting staring at a cup of cold coffee whilst he was happily back at his computer quite oblivious to the bemused  figure sitting silent in his living room.
Chapman had been devoting his time to investigating what happens when galaxies collide.  There was one example of this happening that particularly interested him and he was in the process of writing a very long and detailed paper about it.  Mind you, when galaxies do collide they do it over exceeding long passages of time – so the fact that his paper was taking a decade to appear didn’t seem to bother anyone particularly, certainly not him.  Chapman’s only interest outside of his astronomy was classic literature.  I’m not sure where that came from, he had been keen on physics at school and nothing else and from the moment he first looked through a telescope at University he had become an astronomer.  But in those hours in the observatory whilst the long, long exposures were taking place and he had no immediate data to work with he would settle down with a penguin edition of some Greek text or other for light relief. It may have been a joke but he said that he related to the Greeks because their civilization was happening at just the time his galaxies were beginning their long, slow road accident.
Now he had beetled off to some observatory on a mountain top somewhere in Central America where he worked alone for months at a time.  When he left for this expedition he was tickled by my choice of reading matter that I had found for him – an old volume of a translation of Iliad by his namesake – George Chapman.   On the flyleaf I transcribed the Keats Poem about the book.  He must have read it because, in his dry bantering style, he mentioned that he called the telescope “Homer” – and not as a tribute to the Simpsons either. He referred to the mountain as “Darien” Later he mentioned that he nicknamed his colliding galaxies – “The Realm of Gold” because of their curious hazy yellow colour.  I was pleased that the dedication had obviously given him some amusement.

And now as the weeks swam by and rolled into months and not a word I began to get really worried even if they weren’t concerned about him at the department. From his initial emails I knew he was on his own, literally.  He operated the observatory and telescope on his own and he slept and worked in a small concrete bunkhouse next door.   There was a diesel generator for power and a satellite uplink but apart from his trips down the mountain in an old fourwheel drive every week or so for fuel and provisions he saw no-one.  There was so many possibilities for accidents, falls on the rocky landscape outside, being trapped by the big counterweighted machinery, weather mishaps, accidents in the truck or simple starvation or illness I’m surprised there didn’t seem to be any of the normal academic preoccupation with Health and Safety.
The Easter holidays were looming, I had no committments at home and I felt I owed myself a bit of an adventure – I would get on a plane to Darien or wherever the hell he was and go and rescue him.  And so I did.
I shan’t tell you about the vicissitudes of the journey starting with a tube strike, a go slow by baggage handlers at the airport, Air Traffic control problems and so on and so on.  Suffice it to say that the last straw was that the lone taxi driver from the small town at the foot of the mountain had refused to take me right to the top.  So it was dark when I finally struggled up the rocky path to the observatory.  The white dome loomed above me lit by the intense fire of the stars.  The air was bitterly cold and I regretted the fact that most of my warm clothes were in a suitcase which had probably found its way to Thailand or Fiji. 
I was already shivering and I was getting colder by the minute.  The dome was open so I took it that Chapman was at work.  Obviously there would be no lights on but I could hear no sound of the generator that should be powering the ancilliary equipment.  I felt my way round the dome until I came to the door and pushed it open.  It was stiff as if it had not been used for some time and when it finally gave a little wall of sand had collected at the bottom.  Chapman was sat at the telescope and he had clearly been sat there for a very long time.  In that cold, dry atmosphere his body had begun to mummify.  He was literally frozen stiff.    
In detective stories they talk about the faces of murder victims being frozen into a mask of fear.  At first I thought this was what I was seeing as I sat there shivering trying to decide what to do.  His eyes were wide and his lips drawn back over the teeth in a rictus.   But as I sat there I thought that this wasn’t horror I was looking at but a look of deep astonishment, surprise and, yes, wonder.  I had prepared myself for the possibility of finding Chapman dead and perhaps in a rather unpleasant way but this look ... it unnerved me completely.
Although the generator had run dry, Chapman had been well enough organised to have a few cans of diesel as a reserve and after a few minutes with a torch and a screwdriver I managed to bleed the fuel system and get it running again.  With power and light I began to gather my wits about me.   I found some warm clothes in the bunkhouse and I fired up the computers so that I could contact the Department.  Whoever I spoke to was surprisingly efficient and unfazed as if it was a regular occurrence that lone astronomers starved to death on the tops of mountains.  Perhaps it was. Anyway she was back on the line in a few minutes to say that they had notified the local police and someone would be with me in a couple of hours.
So curiosity made me want to do a little investigating.  I realised at once that murder could be ruled out. It was plain when I passed through the little town at the foot of the mountain that no outsider had been up here and the locals certainly couldn’t be bothered with the long rocky trek. It seemed to me that it was going to be a simple case of heart failure or even starvation.   I wouldn’t put it past him to get so wound up in his work that he forgot to eat. Although I had given up the star-gazing years ago I knew enough from my student days to be able to poke around and try and discover what Chapman had been engaged in and which was so gripping that he had forgotten to keep himself alive.
He had clearly been stacking images to get a better noise reduction. It’s a technique for amplifing a very distant, very faint image by taking a series of exposures over a long period and adding the resulting light images together to get a clearer picture.  But there was something about the way the images were put together that made me stop short.  Chapman had been recording minute shifts in the progress of the collision of The Realm of Gold so that when they images were stacked one on top of the other they became like grating of a cipher. As the sequence of hundreds of separate images progressed it was as though an underlying pattern was emerging.  And I realised that my old friend must have been quite mad at the end.
I don’t know how he managed to doctor the plates but somehow those distant globs of light, those stars and galaxies and fields of dust had clumped into patterns.  Not natural, not random.  They seemed to have a coherence.  It took me the whole three hours till the police arrived to register what I was seeing.   It appeared that those distant points of light were forming themselves into shapes, recognisable coherent shapes.  This whole thing was absurd.  He had gone crazy, that’s for sure.  But had he been crazy before or after those shapes appeared?  They were spelling out words.  The sort of words which, if he hadn’t made them himself, if he hadn’t created them out of his madness, must have shaken Chapman to the very core of his being and left him dumbly staring in wonder and awe.  Staring for so long that he had simply frozen to death.  They said “I’m watching you.”

Oft have I traveled in the realms of gold
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

1 comment:

norma said...

wow just discovered you peter looking forward to seeing your play at thelighthouse in poole