On 15th June, myself and News Editor Meesha Patel took ourselves over to the Royal Albert Hall for Space Shambles.
The Royal Albert Hall are running their Festival of Science until July 10th, a series of space themed concerts, talks and comedy for science and sci-fi fans. As part of Cosmic Shambles, Space Shambles combined music, experiments and comedy in an out-of-this-world variety show.
I knew we were in safe hands as hosting the event was Robin Ince, introduced to me alongside Brian Cox on the Infinite Monkey Cage, as the ‘professional idiot’. Chris Hadfield joined him, bringing his experience of his 166 days in space as well as his trusty guitar.
Then the variety show begins – Jim Al-Khalili opens with a speedy story of the Universe, from Big Bang to Big Freeze, to Big Rip to other Big Questions.
Other speakers included Dr Helen Czerski and Hawaiian Elder Kimokeo Kapahulehua from Maui. Together, they showed how the stars are key for navigation and human culture across the world. It was a spine-tingling moment when 5000 people were simultaneously joined in a traditional chant to the stars.
Professor Monica Grady reminisced about Philae and Rosetta, describing the timescales and immense hard work undergone by teams over decades and the celebration and joy when such missions are successful – even with unexpected bumps.
Professor Lucie Green described her love for Skylab, her journey across the world to visit its resting place, how it inspired her personally and opened doors in science and the littering fine for NASA.
But this evening was not just fascinating facts to give you the edge in the next pub quiz.
To compliment Robin and Chris’s light-hearted hosting there were several comedy acts. Festival of the Spoken Nerd – the trio of mathematician Matt Parker, geek songstress Helen Arney, and experiment maestro Steve Mould – were a highlight of live experimentation and maths puns. We had a live demonstration of how to calculate Pi with a pie, via a pendulum– or rather a Pi-endulum (literally a pie hung and swung from the rafters). It is always worth seeing the Festival of the Spoken Nerd, and they did not disappoint even with a 6 minute slot.
Lasers lit up the show – courtesy of Seb Lee-Delise who then gave us a re-created with lasers Lunar Landing arcade game with immense nostalgia. The ultimate interactive version took place with a 5000 strong live play-a-long with a clap controlled lander. Unfortunately the Hall audience crashed it as laughing also controlled the thrust!
Unfortunately, the comedy act that fell flat for me was Stewart Lee. Perhaps it was the opening with and continuing to swear – I’m no prude but considering he was told and ignored that this was a family event it was discouraging. His set appeared to be solely insulting astronauts and did not match the positive and hopeful celebratory tone the evening had created. I felt I was left waiting for the punchline.
It was the music that made this evening unforgettable. Sitting in the Royal Albert Hall with the laser light shows and such talented musicians is what such a collaborative show is all about. She Makes War sang the beautiful Stargazing while Grace Petrie gave us the hauntingly touching The Golden Record inspired by the love of Carl Sagan and his wife.
Public Service Broadcasting were the finale with a fab blend of music, tech, visuals and dance. Unfortunately, while I found it a lively and fun conclusion, it was either too late in the evening or not right for this audience who clapped politely as opposed to clapping along.
However, the house band truly outdid themselves. Steve Pretty and the Origin of the Pieces kept the atmosphere as one of celebration and accompanied Grace Petrie wonderfully. Steve Pretty was musical director while also on trumpet, synth, percussion and electronics – often simultaneously!
It would not have been a space themed musical evening without playing tribute to David Bowie. Olivier Award winning Shelia Atim sang a beautiful rendition of Life on Mars while Chris Hadfield used his signature guitar in his performance of Space Oddity.
But one astronaut was not enough for this evening. Rusty Schweickart, who was the lunar landing pilot of Apollo 9, discussed with Chris the discussed the Apollo programme. Rusty also had a go on Seb’s lunar lander game to much joy – although he did a much better job than the audience!
Most touching of all was a musically accompanied speech of Carl Sagan’s The Pale Blue Dot read by Reece Shearsmith.
This reading summed up Space Shambles perfectly. A collaboration of performance and science, of human nature and culture, to preserve and encourage curiosity and compassion, of fun and of feelings.
“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Carl Sagan: The Pale Blue Dot
Poppy-Jayne Morgan is studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London
Banner image: Carbon Nanotubes, Flickr /Kyla Clay