ah, little Pluto, it’s so good to see you

imageWhen I was small, my grandfather would buy me the weekly journal, Finding Out. I remember it well. It was an educational magazine for young minds, dealing mainly with the sciences, geography, history, and the modern world, and which, if you chose to, could “build into an encyclopaedia”. (I think that could have been the phrase used in the promotional ad., though there were others – Knowledge for one, which Granddad bought subsequently – which may have used it instead.)

As required of any successful magazine, not least one aimed at children, it was packed with images. But not photographs, at least none of the ones I had. They were provided entirely by illustrators and artists. Photos, as an alternative, at that time with the technology available would probably have been too expensive. I hoped to find some examples on the web but so far have not. It’s a pity as I have a vivid recollection of some of the illustrations; a portrait of The Beatles (actually for an explanation of electric guitars); mythical and folk-lore creatures (the tokoloshe, the necromancer, the essential distinction between malevolent elves and merely mischevious pixies); landscapes of the planets (and moons) of our solar system. So vivid are these in my imagination that I needed to see them again for real to reassure myself of my recollective sanity. In particular I wanted to find an example of one of my favourite series of illustrations: landscapes on the other planets and moons in our solar system.

Over a number of weeks, each edition’s back cover would carry an artist’s impression of a view from a different planet’s surface. The illustrator’s brief seemed to have been 90% carte-blanche imagination and just 10% knowledge of astrophysics. It was pure science fiction. Most of our neighbouring worlds depicted were nice places you could visit wearing a 24tog anorak, light sun cream and, for prudence sake, a second pair of socks. They had often what looked like benign, breathable atmospheres. Wispy cloud trails would drift over high mountains over which moons would rise, or set. Maybe the sky would be rendered in an odd hue of red, yellow, or green. It was totally wrong, though it made me wonder. I wonder now, whether I remembered it incorrectly. That’s why I needed to see one once more. No luck so far.

This is the 60s I’m writing about. It’s seems odd to think that that time is closer to the year of Pluto’s discovery than it is to the present day. The seed that those magazines planted in my imagination has flourished, really without me being conscious of it. I find myself utterly fascinated now with the images from space telescopes and probes, and what it all means on a human level. Actually, I find the whole thing incomprehensible: the distances, the speeds, the sizes. All, to an ordinary bloke on Earth, is nonsense. Yet fascinating because of it. It kicks science-fiction into the Kuiper Belt. Why should we bother with that when the real science easily overwelms the capacity of the ordinary mind? I used to think that science-fiction was unbounded, limitless in the human ability to imagine what could be beyond reality. But now I realise it isn’t. It’s just the opposite.

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