The European space centre’s GOCE probe has constructed a map of the world’s gravity. It can tell us, for example, that we might weigh a bit less if we moved somewhere else. Now that’s a thought! Apparently the data from this first survey of earth’s gravity field will be very useful to people who lay pipelines, as it will help to ensure that the next hundred kilometres really is
downhill and doesn’t just look that way when you use a spirit level. This will save a mint of money at the pumping station. It also (the map, at least) looks really pretty: a rainbow of colours to show exactly where gravity is actually a bit more or a tad less grave than the norm. It’s just another little indicator from the “life is seldom what it seems” department. It’s the sort of information that ought to make us smile, dance, write sonnets in praise of science, wear minty-green hats with giant feathers, learn the accordion, collect pebbles ... or any one of a number of whimsical things. I like this kind of stuff. It tells me I’m alive and that all systems are working about as well as can be expected in a world with dubious weights and measures.
Cat's Eye Nebula
from Hubble space telescope
source: © NASA
And while on the subject of spirit levels, I just received, for at least the nth time, one of those PowerPoint presentations of images from the Hubble space telescope. Now I’m a big fan of Hubble; always have been. Loved the new lens, the wonky one; and I loved the way “they” corrected not the lens (impossible without sending somebody up with some emery paper and a soldering iron), but the interpretive software instead. Brilliant! So of course I love the images: all those nebulae that look like slow motion explosions in a jam factory and make you feel as if your entire solar system is about as important as a tiny fleck of fungus scraped off the underside of a fruit-fly’s abdomen, which it very well may be; – “the darkness in the eye of a dead ant”. But don’t be fooled, some things really are important down here.
One of them is the recent decision of an Iranian court full of kangaroos (No kangaroos in Iran? Yes of course, but strictly for service on the bench) to sentence the Teheran Seven (not a boy band, but a group of dignified ladies and gentlemen of unimpeachable moral and social standing) to 20 years in prison for the crime of breathing. It would sound silly if it weren’t true. In over two years of typically oriental chicanery (the usual stuff: no warrant, no due process, no real access to a lawyer, no chance to read the charge sheet, no presentation of evidence ...) the court has failed to produce a single shred of anything with which one might possibly reproach these seven good citizens. Therefore I am bound to conclude that they’ve been breathing or walking or waking or occasionally laughing, singing, yawning, eating kebab, daring to have limbs and livers or something equally heinous.
Oops, sorry, at the risk of being obvious or of repeating myself, I forgot to mention that all seven just happen to be members of the Baha'i Faith, a nice enough lot who believe in the possibility of a better world, perhaps an inkling of it in their own lifetime, and maybe the chance of playing a small part in its creation. That might seem harmless enough to you and it really doesn’t sound like much on the Hubble telescope scale of things, but to a barking mad Ayatollah it suggests that the world he lives in, which means the Islamic Republic of Iran (for his mind can encompass nought else), might be somewhat less than perfect. In other words, by merely existing, these seven decent people represent an implied criticism of the state. Their long-suffering generosity of spirit is tantamount to anathema. Their political non-involvement is inflammatory. Their sheer niceness is flagrantly offensive. The patience they show in the face of ignorance is an affront to all those who have chosen fanatical obtuseness as their default position and their polite silence is deafening.
The judges (and how I hate to glorify any of these sad-sack mullahs with such a noble title) have certainly not drawn up any form of accusation that might be recognizable as such to someone who has actually studied law in a real country. I can only assume that this sordid heap of bearded bigots has nothing better to do on a slow day than to pick on people who show any sign of intellectual or spiritual honesty and bang them in jail on a charge of conspiring to respire. The logical conclusion of this would be for all other citizens of that once great nation who happen to consider respiration a normal, guileless and guiltless human function to knock on the doors of their local jail and demand to be incarcerated: these days in Iran, prison has become the natural habitat for anyone of integrity. Lock ‘em all up.
Somewhere out there, galaxies are unfolding like humungous butterflies, thousands of light-years from wing-tip to wing-tip. Somewhere out there, a vast cloud of cosmic debris, whose tiniest grain is fifty times the size of Jupiter, is hurtling towards the magnetic gate of the Cat's Eye Nebula at a speed that would make Superman wince. It will take 750 billion years to pass through. Somewhere out there a million angels balance on the point of a needle, their noble wings stretched out across the entire rainbow heavens, their serious heads bowed, their myriad eyes of yet-to-be-defined colours weeping tears of liquid light ... all because somewhere down here an imbecile in a tawdry gown with all the imagination of a slug and all the grace of a bad potato has sentenced seven of their fellows to twenty years in jail for defying gravity.
© Edwin Drood
, 20 August 2010
Top illustration: Rainbow mountain. Photo: © David John
, Wales 2005.