A hitch hiker’s guide to chemists


“Space,” notes The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster2

As an anxious introverted recluse, I don’t get out much (even going to the chemist can take planning). I never travelled far in my life (to Belfast and the in-laws half a dozen times, and once each to France and Chicago) and my children have already both accumulated more air miles than me (visits to Belfast, school trips and holidays in Europe). I’ve travelled in space, like we all have, but I think about these things more than most.

At 48 years old, I’ve travelled around the sun 48 times, which is roughly 45,120,000,000 km or 28,032,000,000 miles (and counting). To my mind, that’s forty five thousand million km, but nowadays we call it 45 billion, when that’s not what it is. A billion (in maths) is a million million, just as a million is a thousand thousand. So I’ve travelled 45 ‘billion’ km, which is roughly the distance to Neptune and back, five times.

To put that into the perspective of the universe, it’s about 0.005 light years. So in 48 years, I’ve travelled as far as light does in 42 hours: Strange how that number crops up when you’re considering your place in the universal scheme of things. Even if I’d spent my life travelling at light speed (in which case, I wouldn’t have aged), I’d only recently have reached the nearest exoplanets outside our solar system.

That’s where humans need to go, to places like the Trappist system, about 41 light years away. But we are nowhere near ready or evolved to do more than contemplate the science we need to take us there, or to terraform and colonise the moon or Mars. For whatever future is foreseeable, we will remain a one-planet race, so we have to hope we find ways of getting along as a species and being nicer to our neighbours who were here first. Those are other blog entries, already written or on my mind.

I may not have travelled much on the surface of the planet but I appreciate where I’ve been while sitting on it. It’s humbling and often emotional to place ourselves relative to something else, in space or in time, to remind ourselves not how small we are, but how big everything else is. There’s a regular mind exercise I do, sometimes exploring ideas for stories, and other times just to remember or imagine.

I think of my age now (48), then I go back to a time when my dad was that age, which would be 1990, where I remember a lot about myself. I also think forward, to when my son will be 48 (2052) and imagine what might be going on then. But first, back to a time when problems seemed far away, when I was my son’s age (I was 13 in 1983).

Both are going through changes in their own lives at the moment, yet I can only relate to the younger one, who’s where I’ve been before. My dad is way ahead of me. At 76, he’s travelled that many times around the sun and clocked up just over 71 billion km, equivalent to five return trips to Pluto and just a tiny fraction nearer the closest habitable planets. I don’t see either of them as much as I’d like, because I don’t get out much.

I’ve just put myself through the first part of the human mincing machine which is the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) bi-annual re-assessment. Filling out the form, ‘How your disability affects you’ made me realise how my own mental health has declined over the last couple of years.

When you live a life of social exclusion, depression becomes degenerative. If I’m not fully dehumanised by the whole process, having to prove my mental disability at tribunal (for a third time), then maybe I’ll have the confidence to seek further treatment, now that I’ve seen with my own eyes how bad things can get by writing it all down in an application form. Then I could see more of people.

Just remember, next time you’re looking at the night sky: You’ve been there, about 300 million km away. The Earth passed through that part of space six months ago, but that’s like a walk to the chemist’s on the universal scale. In our singular worlds, we’re much more significant in time than we are in space.