Alex James: The Great Escape

Life, the universe, and football
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I've been playing football with rocket scientists. There is a propulsion expert called Sarah on the other team - she is their best player - while we have a noteworthy right-winger who floats balls right into the six-yard box. He knows all about trajectories: he's an orbital-debris specialist.

They invited me to the inaugural Appleton Space Conference on Thursday at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford. It's set to be an annual review of everything that's happening in the wider universe. There is no news like space news. It's the story of really massive events a very long way away, and it always makes me feel warm and safe.

I was slightly piqued to notice as I arrived that they have built a particle accelerator in less time than it's taken to do my new kitchen. The first lecture was an overview of the year's astronomical discoveries by the eminent professor Martin Ward. He had all the latest on what's happening at the edge of the universe. Gamma-ray bursts are the most violent events ever detected, brief explosions equivalent to a star dumping all its mass into energy in just a few seconds. Because they are so bright and powerful, they are the most distant things we've ever seen. The current record-holder is so far away it's hard to even grasp.

There were projections, pie charts, bar graphs and blob schemes. Things moved swiftly. When the Hubble Space Telescope dies in 2008, its gyroscopes finally toppling, there will by then be a whole fleet of new space-based observatories to take its place. These new orbiting telescopes will include Herschel, which will observe "the cool universe"; Darwin, searching for Earth-like planets; and Xeus, which will be studying galaxy formation.

Next, and rather shocking, was dark matter, and the idea that the observable cosmos is only eight per cent of the whole thing. It's 70 per cent dark matter and 22 per cent dark energy out there, and no one knows what's happening on the dark side of the universe. It's a wonder these people have time for football.

This was all in the first of 11 lectures. We moved on to planetary science. Mars Express, the mother-ship of Beagle Two, continues to send back stunning images of Mars, and there are plans to build a Venus Express with all the leftovers from the construction of the Mars orbiter.

The Sun is being monitored closely and apparently behaving itself. Space weather is this year's fashionable topic and there were reports and outlooks before we got down to some nitty-gritty fundamental physics. Physics is the big daddy of the sciences. The physics boys are starting to think that space is a kind of foam. They've built some new caesium clocks to check it's true. They're still trying to find gravity waves, which are ripples on the surface of space-time. Lisa, a combination of three spacecraft in an equilateral triangle, should be able to detect them if they exist. Physicists need to find gravity waves, because at the moment, relativity and quantum mechanics disagree with each other about gravity.

I started to feel giddy again and only came around when faced with slides of ice melting in Antarctica. These were taken by Envisat, a satellite about the size of a Routemaster bus. In fact, orbit would be a good place to put those old buses.