But before that, I should like to introduce you to my friend Rachael Livermore, who is a Ph. D. student in Astrophysics at Durham University. Rachael has put together this video, entitled Seven Minute Universe: What Is A Galaxy? which I urge you to see, comment upon, share and generally extol. Now, we are all familiar with pop-science narratives about the enormiferous size of space, the script full of brain-frying comparatives and superlatives. What Is A Galaxy? can’t avoid this – after all, the
mind-boggling stupefying scale of space is the subject of the video. However, Livermore uses a couple of well-chosen metaphors to drive the point home. First, that there are more stars in the Galaxy than there are grains of sand on a beach, but space is so empty that if you were to put just one grain of sand inside Durham Cathedral, then that cathedral would be more full of sand than space is of stars. Livermore’s presentation helps – plain-spoken, matter-of-fact, with none of the patronizing air that so often afflicts such things, something sent up by a former colleague as follows (ahem, clears, throat, puts on barmy boffin voice)
this is the sound of a flea sneezing, magnified three billion times!!
So what has this to do with Tolkien?
Many years ago when the world was young (around 2006), I was the after-dinner speaker at the AGM of the Tolkien Society. I had been invited by virtue of my book – yes, you guessed it - The Science of Middle-earth, which had just come out in dead-tree format (did you see what I did there?)
Sitting next to me at the top table was the Treasurer of the Tolkien Society, and we got talking. She told me that she got the job of treasurer, as she was by trade an accountant; but found accountancy so crashingly dull that she wanted instead to be a
lion tamer astrophysicist. She was as good as her word, getting a degree in London, a Master’s in Sussex and is now … well, hey, you’re way ahead of me here.