Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why outer space smells of raspberries

Front page news in The Guardian earlier this week: outer space smells of soft fruit.

Top boffins pointing their telescopes into intergalactic dust clouds – looking for the building blocks of life, as you do if you’re a top boffin – have discovered that lurking in the depths of Sagittarius B2 is a substance called ethyl formate, the chemical responsible for making raspberries taste like – well, whatever it is raspberries taste of. With a bit of rum thrown in.

Which is all very well if you fancy a bowl of out-of-season juiciness and you happen to have the keys to a space rocket. Those of us who live in this more prosaic world will just have to wait until Mrs D’s carefully-tended bushes come to fruition.

And even if you did happen to have the necessary means of transport, you’d have to be a bit careful: the very same protostellar nebula where the raspberries grow also harbours traces of propyl cyanide which, as you might gather from the name, isn’t particularly good for you, even in small doses.

And how did all this raspberry-flavoured space dust get up there in the first place? Could it be that the aforementioned top boffins are trying to make a name for themselves while Professor Stephen Hawking is temporarily indisposed, and are making the whole lot up?

Or perhaps it’s a publicity stunt for the new Star Trek film. (Achtung: Flashfest.)

How about this for a plot: glistening red aliens are massing in the Alpha Quadrant, slowly ripening in the glow of the theta radiation as they build up their stocks of propyl cyanide and put the finishing touches to their plans for an invasion of Earth.

But the all-pervading smell of raspberries has given them away, and even as they hide in the swirly Sagittarian dust, the crew of the Enterprise is on a mission: convert the enemy to jam. Sterilise the quantum jars and set pectin torpedoes to maximum spread. Resistance is futile, unless you get the pips stuck in your fillings.

Sorry if this gives away too much of the plot, but they’ve been repeating so many of the action sequences on the telly over the last couple of days that it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference now.

To get back to the point, though (how did we ever get off it?), these days it appears that science sells papers. What else could explain The Sun’s front page headline on the same day: “Fatties cause global warming”? Perhaps they ought to go on the raspberry diet, because that really does take the pip.

This will be my Bath Chronicle column on Thursday April 23 if the paper ever gets to press.

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