Comfort Books May 11, 2008Posted by Peter Hornby in books.
When you look over your shoulder, and find the world staring at you accusingly, you need help. Some people have comfort foods – the kind that their mothers made for them when they were small. For me, it’s comfort books. There are several heavily dog-eared books on my shelves which fill this need, offering a sense of familiarity and warmth when life starts to crowd me.
One of my best comfort books is Fred Hoyle’s 1957 science-fiction novel “The Black Cloud”. It’s not a literary classic by any means, as I’m sure Hoyle would have admitted – he called it a “frolic” in the Preface. I think what I like about the story is the sense of bright scientific collegiality it conjures in its characters, who are mostly astronomers and physicists. It takes me back to my undergraduate days, many years ago, when I was peripherally involved in the professional astronomy scene in the UK. The hero is Chris Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy in the University of Cambridge, and it’s clear that Kingsley is who Hoyle wants to be when he grows up – he’s young, ferociously smart, and suffers fools not at all. Oh yes, and he’s also possessed of a “shock of thick, dark hair” and “penetrating blue eyes”.
Let me give you an example of the kind of dialog which makes me smile. Kingsley is travelling back to Cambridge with the Astronomer Royal, after the meeting at which the observations which led to the discovery of The Black Cloud were announced:
“Let’s put it this way”, answered Kingsley. “There are two hypotheses I can make. Both at first sight seem incredible, but one of them must be right. One hypothesis is that a hitherto unknown body with a mass of the same order as Jupiter has invaded the solar system. The second hypothesis is that the Astronomer Royal has taken leave of his senses. I don’t want to give offence, but quite frankly the second alternative seems to me less incredible than the first”.