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Wednesday, 20th August 2008

Space might well have been a disappointment for the average person. I consider myself pretty average and it has rather disappointed me. For years I have been fed on the diet of 'keep watching the skies'. It seems likely a crick in the neck seems the most likely outcome if this is what you do.

Where are all the alien space ships the media has been promising us for so long now. Okay I was not expecting Asmovian Foundations by now, that was set well into the future but surely we should have been seeing some of the stuff shown in Space 1999 by now, Moonbases, the odd alien invader. I am not asking for aliens to land on the front lawn with robotic 'Take me to your leader voices.' But booking a trip to the moon should have been well on the cards by now.

Part of the fascination with space is it is just that and a lot of it.

Instead of a galaxy teaming with life we have found it rather cold and dead and rather unpleasant in terms of going on holidays there.

People were discussing the idea that life existed on the moon right up until we landed on the airless lump of frozen rock. Once that was out as a possibility, we decided Mars was the place to find life, I mean we all knew there were Martians. Landing on that dusty planet rather did for that idea, although there are still those that think just over the horizon the Martians were watching. The more we look at our planets the less life we see though.

Now people are discussing the idea of huge beings floating about in the atmosphere of Venus rather like monstrous jelly-fish. What are the odds?

Space then is a bit of a disappointment. Gaze up at the night sky and it is not long before you start wondering around which point of light a planet might be turning (and that is long odds it seems) upon which another lifeform is being warmed. Then you realise the huge frozen void between you and them and despite the teeming millions all around us we feel very alone.

Whatever you do though try not to think just how tiny is the habitable zone for us humans. I ended up worrying exactly how much clouds weighed the other day and what actually keeps them up in the sky, it soon gets all very concerning. I mean most of the planet is covered in water, a considerable proportion of the land we have got is barely habitable and we have only recently started living more than six feet off the ground.

Space is disappointing on one level then but endlessly fascinating at another. There can be little doubt the greatest voyages of discovery that lay ahead of us are the stars. I have no doubts we will get there because they are there and mankind has yet to accept there are some things we cannot do. Although we know very little about the deeper regions of the sea (we know more about the surface of the moon allegedly) one day we will have examined every cubic inch of those seas and we will not have seen a fraction of one percent of the universe.

I have noted the cigarette card publisher, Wills often adopted a somewhat factual approach in its cigarette card issues. But what is this a set called, Romance of the Heavens. Why not, Objects in the night sky. Romance? Good Lord Wills has gone soft, I hear you cry. Romance is the sort of thing that has kids pulling faces and going 'Yuk' whenever it rears its ugly head. Later romance is something blokes just have to put up with for the sake of the womenfolk but eventually we all see it has a value, maybe the same sort of development occurred in the Wills offices.

The set was issued in 1928. The year started off pretty much, business as usual for Wills, Jan & Mar saw the issue of Cinema Stars series one and two. For those that bought bigger packets of cigarettes got the set Old Sundials with their cigarettes in March. May was business as usual, Cricketers 1928 which has very much the same artistic style as the Cinema issues previously, which is worthy of note because of the quite distinctive style. (Okay so I should get out more.)

From August though things went strange. This was the month Romance of the Heavens was issued, those buying the larger packets were now marvelling over Modern British Sculpture (presumably Wills was aware of the socioeconomic groupings that smoked particular brands etc) and whilst the common man was still marvelling at this, November brought them Wonders of the Sea. You might like to know, Sept 1926 saw Wonders of the Past and Sept 1927 saw Engineering Wonders. Perhaps the Christmas spirit was at work.

All right, I know, to many tangents (slingshot?)

The set kicks off with Halley's Comet. Edmund Halley gets his name on this dirty snowball because he predicted its return when he determined the comet of 1607 was the same comet of 1531 and so would be re-appearing in 1757 and he was pretty much right.

Comets have long been considered portents of doom (1066 and before that) and their image have not been enhanced by the idea that 65 million years ago a BDO (big dumb object) hammered into the earth with the sort of impact military strategists can only dream about (but I hope they are not).

Part of the excitement is the fact that these things exert a certain amount of gravitational pull upon poor old planet earth (a large part of the excietment is these ruddy great objects are going to land on your head). These shifts in gravitational pull have very little direct effect upon us humans, werewolves yes, humans no. What they do affect though are the tides. The theory was simple, it affects water and we are made of consderable quantities of water so it must have some sort of affect on us.

Card 2 shows a theory as to how the moon was formed. The idea being it was part of the Earth and during a very early stage of development whilst the planet was basically molten and spinning in some 3-5 hours. This together with the gravitational pull of the Sun first pulled the Earth into an egg shape and then tore off a lump which formed into the moon. The Pacific Ocean represents the gap left by the departing moon.

Well that is what Sir G. Darwin thought anyway. It's a common enough idea if somewhat unlikely. At least Wills did not come over romantic enough to put forward another theory, the one that goes, the Moon is much older than the rest of the solar system and is hollow. This can be explained by the fact it is a spaceship and the thing is full of aliens. It's more likely to be made of green cheese and the scientists dare not tell us for fear the green cheese market collapses due to worries of future oversupply, a bit like the gold and diamond industries.

Cards 3 & 4 deal with the extremes of tides which are generated by the gravitational pull of Moon and Sun. Neep tides when they counteract one another and the variation between high and low tide is smaller than normal and the Spring tides where the difference is at a maximum.

Card 5 shows a shower of Meteors (small bits of a comet the card tells us) these shooting stars are the fragments burning up in the atmosphere. Not an uncommon event and don't forget to make a wish when next you see one. Wishes coming true are a lot rarer than meteorites mind.

Meteor is derived from the Greek word meaning 'Things in the air.' Although by card 6 you realise the Greeks were better at some things than others because the Lunar Corona (the rings you often see about the moon) were also called meteors by the linen wearing philosophers. By the 19th century we had determined it was due to dust in the atmosphere, how romantic.

The set moves onto Lunar Craters, where the argument was who they got there. Some people claimed volcanic activity, others meteor impact. The card also tells us the gravity is six times less on the moon. Darn handy for people looking for instant weight loss.

Part of the fascination with space is it is just that and a lot of it. Mind-bending amounts of it and filling that space is a mind numbing quantity of things so large just trying to picture them makes you head bleed. Card 9 starts the bombardment, the average distance of the moon from the Earth is 239,000 miles. The Sun is 93 million miles away but the next star is 25 million million miles away (making it pretty cold in-between heat sources).

How romantic. Things improve by card 10, Earth-shine. When you look at the New Moon often you can see the darkened part of the moon. Wills claims this is often described as 'the old moon in the new moons arms.' Not all that often in my experience.

The set is at its most fun once the Earth and Moon have been done away with and it gets involved in the other planets of our Solar system where a bit of science is mixed with large amounts of imagination.

Card 16, Venus is described as having the most favourable conditions for supporting animal life.

What they did not know though was the atmosphere comprised of sulphuric acid and carbon dioxide with a surface temperature of 480°C/900°F and an atmospheric pressure about 90 times that of earth. Not all that close to earth-like conditions but better than some.

The outer planets get a look in on card 17. In 1781 Sir William Herschel discovered Uranus and called it Georgium Sidus in honor of his monarch George III. That is until the far less humorous name of Uranus was conjured up for every schoolboys delight.

Neptune was discovered in 1846.

Card 18, Jupiter, largest of all the planets (bigger than the rest combined) the Great Red Spot gets a mention where it is believed to be a storm which has raged for many centuries.

At the time of making the set they had not even found Pluto yet, which was to be discovered 2 years later. Now that is amazing.
In 1989 we discovered 'The Great Dark Spot' on Neptunes surface, probably another 'storm' feature it was about the size of Earth. Is your head bleeding yet?

Card 19 & 20 take a squint at Mars. Card 20 being the more fanciful of the two extolling the theories of Prof. Lowell and his water irrigation theories. The card generally pours scorn on the idea but does accept recent examination of the planet does show seasonal variations which was most likely explained by the growth of vegetation. Animal life though is unlikely.

We still get excited about the possibility of life on Mars the media getting animated about belching rocks most recently. Signs of ever increasing desperation? I am not going to be content until they at least find something we would be happy to call a pet on the evolutionary scale of things.

Card 21 has Mercury, closest to the Sun it is surprisingly small, fitting into the Atlantic Ocean quite comfortably, although if it actually happened I imagine the experience would not be all that comfortable.

The evidence of an atmosphere was proved in 1924 and the card postulates the temperature of the planet is some 7 times that of Earth. Hmm, guess again, in the day it is 400°C/752°F which would be enough to keep you indoor with the air conditioning on but at night things get a bit cold, -170°C/-274°F so don't forget to take something warm.

Quite who calculated the idea it was 7 times hotter than Earth obviously made some quite strange assumptions to get to this figure. Still we cannot be right all the time.

The next few cards rightly concentrate on Saturn and its ring system. Which the card explains are three rings made up of small particles. Something of a success there then.

Venus is interesting because one side is in perpetual darkness, very Asimov.

These are the cards I like best in the set and as I am writing this stuff that is what you are going to be reading about.

The next ten or so cards deal with the constellations, Orion, The Pleidaes with plenty of facts and figures as they were known then. Interesting, especially if you are a science-fiction fan as all your favourite star systems are there. I mean where would we be without Betelgeuse and the Antares system?

Card 38 deals with the then recent interest in Variable stars and one called Algol, which I remember as a programming language (Arabic for 'The Demon')

The remainder of the set then deals with the Suns activity and card 49 Sun spot activity is a wonder of modern art

An interesting set, which made a good effort with the facts at the time of going to press. Now it serves to demonstrate how far we have come and how very different to known Universe is to anything we could have really imagined. More beautiful but rather more deadly, which is the way things seem to be on Earth one way or another.