Thursday, November 04, 2010

Interview with the Rampire

You’ve got to hand it to NASA. Just when you thought they’d discovered everything there was to discover about the universe, they come up with something new.

This time it’s a Gamma Ray Bubble. Details so far are a little bit sketchy, but if we combine the few facts they have so far released with a healthy dose of journalistic speculation we can draw the following conclusions.

First, it’s big. Not as big as a galaxy, maybe, but NASA don’t use words like “giant” and “enormous” lightly.

Second, it’s a long way away, in the general direction of the centre of the Milky Way. Which means that you couldn’t get anywhere near it with a Bonfire Night rocket.

Third, even if you could hit it, it wouldn’t burst. Why not? Because, that's why.

Fourth, nobody really understands what it’s there for. NASA is holding a press conference next week to explain a bit more about it, but don’t expect it to make the Ten O’Clock News.

(Update: NASA's Fermi telescope finds giant structure in our galaxy.)

Now, one of the difficulties your average columnist faces when trying to explain all this high-powered cosmological shenanigans to the lay reader is how to make it understandable on a human scale. Sometimes, though, metaphors and parables can help.

And luckily enough, right here in Bath, we have our very own metaphor for the Gamma Ray Bubble: the pavement at the junction of James Street West and Westgate Buildings otherwise known as the St James Rampire.

Like the Gamma Ray Bubble (let’s call it the GRB to save a few photons) the Rampire is more than just big: it’s both “giant” and “enormous”. Indeed, it would not be stretching a point to call it “ginormous”. Thus saving a few more photons.

Just like the GRB, it’s a long way away. Or at least, it’s as far away from the GRB as the GRB is from it, which is saying something. Not quite sure what, mind. It’s all to do with the General Theory of Relativity. Keep up at the back, there’ll be a test later.

Like the GRB, it wouldn’t burst if you hit it. In the last four months they’ve poured so much hardcore, concrete, Tarmac, paving slab, sett, cobble and other assorted road-making materials over the spot where once grew a harmless and unassuming patch of grass that it would take a head-on collision with an aircraft carrier to cause it any damage. If we had any aircraft carriers left, that is.

And like the GRB, no one really understands what the St James Rampire is for. Especially the raised lip near the bus stop, around which hover such august institutions as InjuryLawyers’R’Us, Vultures4U and WeSueAnyCouncil. Dot Com.

What is a rampire anyway? Top (dead) poet John Dryden said: “The Trojans round the place a rampire cast.” Sixteenth-century geographer Richard Hakluyt added: “Let no man thinke that culverin or demy-canon can sufficiently batter a defensible rampire.” No one born any later was prepared to comment.

There’s little more to add. Gamma Ray Bubbles and Rampires are two sides of one coin: aged, mysterious, massive, impenetrable, unknowable.

We ignore them at our peril.

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