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Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Hello darkness my old friend

You wouldn't expect Space to have a smell would you? Because there's nothing much there. That's kinda why it's called Space, isn't it? 

Well you'd be wrong. Space smells burnt. (At least it does in our neck of the woods. Elsewhere it smells of raspberries and rum, but that's another story.) 

We know about the burnt smell of Space because astronauts carry it back to the International Space Station on their spacesuits, when they've been outside. ”The best description I can come up with is metallic,” said Don Pettit. “It reminded me of pleasant, sweet-smelling welding fumes.”

To Alexander Gerst it had a combination of fragrances, “namely walnuts and the brake pads of a motorbike.” 

So what has the smell of Space to do with that photo of my younger son and myself at his Glasgow School of Art degree show, where his main exhibit was that elegant urn, painstakingly assembled from the walls of the room, which he'd pulled down and cut up into little bricks?

“Deconstructing GSA” he'd called it and I'd asked him what it all meant. I should have known better, his standard answer to “What does it mean?” being “It doesn't mean anything. It's art.”

After four years of being asked the question, his response has become dismissively minimalist. It's not easy to convey the sound he makes through the written word, but allow me to try. 

Stand up, shrug your shoulders, as he's doing in the photo, and say out loud “I don't know”. Now keep repeating the sentence, gradually removing all consonants, while retaining the vocalised intonation. 

What you're left with, if you do it right, is like the grin of the Cheshire Cat. The substance has gone but the sense remains. It sounds like 'A-u-oh', and the vocalisation is roughly re-mi-do (D-E-C).

Got it? Now let's join up the dots. My smart son kept telling me, all the time he was at Art School, that science and art are far more similar than they seem. They are, he believes, two roads to the same, distant destination.  

I think I now agree with him. He as an artist and I as a scientist are both trying to comprehend the strange universe our mums shoved us out into, without handbook or roadmap, and it is far from easy. 

Some scientists suffer from an ossified certainty. They have acquired so much knowledge and authority that they've come to equate these with understanding. The best scientists know that's nonsense.   

“I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there,” said Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and a man not known for his modesty.

The correct response of any scientist or artist to the ineffably weird world we inhabit is not dogmatic conviction. It's the sound my son makes when I ask him what it means.

Space has a smell. It also has a sound. “A-u-oh” is, I believe, one of the fundamental sounds of the universe. It's the sound of space. 

It's the sound of art.

It's the sound of science.