Friday, 9 April 2010

An alien world on our planet

“Beeping’s never good.” Professor Brian Cox is sitting inside a rather tatty submarine called Alvin, and is descending into what he calls the “deepest depths of the ocean”. It is the only time I’ve seen Brian worried.

I can’t quite get used to young Brian being a prof. He looks more an M-Nought, big brother to our M1, M2 and M3. I have to check to see if he is wearing long trousers.

Still, once he gets onto his Wonders of the Solar System, Professor Brian Cox is unstoppable. One moment he stands inches from the edge of the Grand Canyon, hands in pockets. The next, he's flying us through rocks of ice that make up the rings of Saturn, or he’s driving a Rover across Mars. And we all thought Rover had gone bust.

It’s all a bit like No 72 on a Thursday evening. Here am I, innocently trying to write my column, when asteroids start slamming around the kitchen. M1’s iPod is bust. He’s convinced it’s M2’s fault, so he’s just taken it out on a toasted sandwich that just happened to be M3’s, not M2’s.

My phone beeps. It’s Mrs M. How did we manage to communicate before Mrs M could send me 50 texts a day? “Micro wave smoking” the text reads. I am tempted to reply “too young”, but it’s usually better to draw a few deep breaths, and wait for the next text or two to announce their arrival. Then I can safely anwer "OK" or "yes" without either of us knowing which text I am replying to.

Then the electricity conks out. I make my way downstairs, which is in darkness apart from a beep which sounds as though it is coming from one of the piles of shoes and sports kit. The tomb of the unknown beeper.

As Brian says, beeping’s never good.

M3 is our expert at re-setting the circuit-breaker thingey. The answering machine is the first to break into life: my mother re-reminds me that we haven’t spoken for Some Time. Then it’s the dishwasher, and the digital radio that always starts up at full volume after a power cut. Finally, the microwave buzzes into life – its fan roars – it gives two beeps – and the lights go out all over again.

On board Das Boot

One kilometre down inside the Puerto Rico trench, Professor Brian Cox has overcome his nerves and is admiring tube worms and fish, all quite unconcerned that they are living in an atmospheric pressure a hundred times that at sea level.

From upstairs, the faint bleep of an uninterruptible computer power supply turns into a continuous wail, then dies, along, I fear, with my script. I sit in the dark, illuminated only by the phone of M2 who is holding its glowing screen in the direction of the fuse box.

Stop engines. 1000 metres beneath the surface of the River Goyt, I listen to the plates of my submarine creak, feel the water dripping off overhead pipes onto my neck. The propellor of the plucky Royal Navy corvette above is silent. Its Asdic pings off my hull.

I wait for the next depth charge from my dear family.

“This has got to be the closest thing on earth to going into space,” says Brian. I suppose he's right.

Next week’s column will be coming from further afield than usual, contract permitting. The column – or, come to think of it, the contract – may be late, but I’m sure both will be worth waiting for. I’ll keep you posted.

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