Tom Sutcliffe: A poor use of space on issues of astronomy

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The Independent Online

We've all grown used to the spiralling inflation of the press release but even so I was a little startled when I encountered in concrete fact a new exhibition at the Science Museum which the institution's press release had described on paper as "major".

"Big, great, superlative, absolute" are the words that the OED uses to paraphrase this adjectival intensifier – and while there's no question that those words apply to the subject of the exhibition, which is nothing less than the cosmos and our relationship to it, I'm not convinced they really appropriate to just three large display cases, marooned in one of those oddly vacant spaces that the Science Museum has on its upper floors. Indeed, I'd almost walked out of Cosmos and Culture: How Astronomy Has Shaped Our World before I realised that I'd arrived.

Small needn't mean nugatory – and it's true that there are some fascinating objects in those cases, even if the fascination sometimes lodges in the discrepancy between means and ends. One case, for example, contains what looks like the remnants of an allotment fruit trellis – three creosoted bits of timber with a dangling wire, which turn out to be a remnant of the radio telescope with which Jocelyn Bell discovered pulsars in 1967. There's room there for a child's mind to expand – in the gap between this Heath Robinson bit of kit and the mysteries of the universe. And there are numerous other treasures too – along with rather mysterious pieces of tat, such as a plastic model of an alien from Tim Burton's film Mars Attacks, and objects whose connection with astronomy is merely a kind of higher gossip (Stephen Hawking's voice synthesiser). What there isn't, though, is any coherent explanation of why these particular objects matter and how – in terms of historical grammar – they fit together.

There are no labels in the cases, for one thing – further information being supplied only by ring-bound booklets (in short supply on the day I went) or two interactive computer screens, which, even when they work faultlessly, consign everyone except those using them to frustrating ignorance. And I couldn't help but see in this evidence of a loss of nerve in a great institution – as if what was being avoided were the elephant traps of cultural comparison (Western science mustn't be seen as "better" than Oriental) and teleological narrative (in which one discovery leads to another and the gradient, crudely speaking, leads uphill). There was another loss of nerve, too – an anxiety that people would no longer read small print or submit to an authoritative lecture.

Most maddening of all, the device that was supposed to be an improvement on the archaic technology of the printed label was – in almost every respect – worse. It forced you to step away from the object altogether and spend far too much time going backwards and forwards through its pre-set menus. And without them, the display cases become little more than high-minded bric-a-brac cupboards – leaping skittishly from century to century and idea to idea – as if terrified that any thematic rationale might come across as ponderously educational. It's a display that understands the glamour of the original object but doesn't seem to know how to use that as a lever to larger comprehension.

Were Burton's alien asked to characterise the user implied by this space – it would conclude, I think, that earthlings were butterfly-minded, obsessed with illusions of personal choice and strangely incurious about the fine detail of the universe they inhabited. Cosmos and Culture doesn't even begin to answer the question posed in its subtitle. But it is quite instructive about How Our World Has Shaped the Modern Museum.

Politicians' holiday reading lists and other stories

David Cameron, we are informed, is going to start his holiday in France with a "really trashy novel". The Tory leader didn't share the title with Andy Marr, but the suggestion is that it's going to be the latest Patricia Cornwell, who may well be less than thrilled by this particular celebrity endorsement.

The Prime Minister recently told a Commons defence committee that he would be reading non-fiction on his summer break, though he didn't specify what – perhaps because nobody could get him to commit to a particular title before it had been focus group-tested for its possible impact on marginal voters. That's presumably was what "really trashy novel" was partly about – a little example of Dave's common touch.

I found myself hankering after an unabashedly high-brow holiday reading list and wondering whether it is time for someone here to follow the example of Yann Martel – the Booker Prize-winning novelist who, since 2007, has been sending the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper a novel every two weeks, along with a letter explaining why his world view might be helpfully expanded by this particular text.

He started with Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illyich – and has since sent him the Bhagavad Gita, Kafka's Metamorphosis and Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters – among other books. (You can see the entire list by Googling "What is Stephen Harper Reading".) No evidence yet that the Canadian PM has found time to read even a single one of these books – but is it too much to dream of politicians who would enlarge their mind with great literature, rather than emptying it with trash?

Noble – or simply unlucky?

"The noblest of all generations has left us," Prince Charles is reported to have said in response to the death of Harry Patch, the last living First World War veteran. I found myself wondering whether the Prince really meant this, and what it would mean if he did?

Of course I understand that he was just paying tribute – but even so. Can any generation lay claim to particular nobility of spirit, or does it actually depend on the accidents of history? And what does such a remark say about those who fought and died in the Second World War – surely not obviously less noble than their predecessors – let alone those who are now fighting in Afghanistan? Have Britons really steadily decayed in moral worth from 1918 onwards or might it be that only recently have most men had the luxury of not being obliged to display their powers of endurance and comradeship?

I caught a whisper of "dulce et decorum" in the word "noblest" – ironically the very thing that Harry Patch himself was at pains to squash in all his later interviews. Some of his comrades behaved nobly, some didn't – as would be likely in any time and with any cohort of ordinary people. I think "unluckiest of all generations" might have been closer to the truth.