As part of a planning meeting for some CPD I am involved with, a group of us were taken on a tour around the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh. In one laboratory, a machine sat on the floor making odd noises. As it did so, the read-out on a display constantly changed. 3.99 . 4.03 . 4.06 .
As I listened to the young woman operating the apparatus, I realised that the numbers represented the Kelvin temperature of a sample contained inside it. I was momentarily disorientated, somehow transported to my Higher physics class and the day we carried out an experiment to find the coldest temperature possible.
How close we got to the established answer I cannot recall, but, at that time, I doubt that I ever expected to be standing next to a device that could cool something to within four degrees of absolute zero.
Thirty-plus years ago, I probably said something fatuous involving brass monkeys to one of my classmates, or perhaps whispered the joke about the man who spent a year in the Arctic, only for his girlfriend to break it off when he came back. In the present day, I kept quiet.
I wish I had kept quiet earlier in the tour when we were shown part of the Crawford Collection. The Observatory librarian told us we were going to see some old manuscripts and books. "Are some of these hand-written?" I blurted out. "Well, that's the definition of a manuscript," replied the librarian in a tone that bore none of the sarcasm I could reasonably have expected.
The "I'll-get-me-coat" moment didn't last. It could not have in the presence of what transpired to be first editions of works by Copernicus, Brahe and Newton. I was humbled, and me being humbled is never a bad thing.
Quite often, I seek the approval of my nine-year-old self. Wide-eyed at Moon shots and supersonic planes, he had not yet sunk to the level of jokes about frost-bitten willies. What would he have made of his future self, standing in a room surrounded by centuries of paradigm-shifting thinking? Despite his earnestness, probably not a lot.
He was definitely by my side a couple of weeks earlier when I heard Richard Noble talk about the Bloodhound project to build a car capable of 1,000 miles per hour. "Cool," said wee me.
The old me liked the fact that Bloodhound is being used to inspire boys and girls to become involved in science and engineering. There is time enough for them to find coolness in a first edition of Principia or, more literally, in a cryogenics lab.
Gregor Steele fears his nine-year-old self would berate him for not having been in space yet
Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre.