12th september 2003
like birds, like fishes

While looking up current thinking on quasars (a bit vague, but moving towards the idea of young galaxies going through an intense period of matter being sucked into a central black hole) I thought of my brief but enlightening summer job in the University of Cambridge (UK) Dept of Astronomy.
This was in about 1982, and computers were still the size of wardrobes with two big whirly tape reels. There were rooms with dozens of them, standing like monoliths. Graphics were just starting, there was colour, and even I had a trackball.
But the best place to be was the library, in the middle of which was a huge light table: you could spread out giant metre-square transparencies of a tiny patch of sky, just a few seconds of arc across, and get to work with a jeweller's eyeglass. The transparencies were negatives: the background was see-through and the stars were black. Pick an empty quarter far from the massive blots of constellation heavyweights: stand the eyeglass on a random spot, and bend down to look, swooping into the abyss. Which always, wherever you put the magnifier, was populated: no stars maybe, but like schools of minnows, galaxies. Tiny spirals, microscopic ellipses, decreasing to specks, dust, grain, molecules on the film, who knew? But there they were, by the swarm.
Then you straightened up and there was a bit of plastic on a table and outside, blossom on the apple trees, and bad news from the Falklands.