6 - 20 October 2017

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The Manchester Literature Festival Blog

The Universe Explained

punk rock + science at Gorilla

John Robb performs in The Membranes at The Universe Explained

  • John Robb performs in The Membranes at The Universe Explained

Picture a Venn diagram with one circle labelled 'into punk rock' and the other labelled 'interested in science'; the bit where the two circles overlap looked like the audience at Gorilla the other night for The Universe Explained. Our hosts were the two white-coat wearing masterminds John Robb, the author and Mancunian punk legend, and Northern Quarter-based artist Michael Trainor, who came up with the idea for this unusual one-off event, which brought together a heady mix of theoretical physicists, science-loving poets, astronomers and spaced-out musicians for an busy evening of learning cool stuff capped off by a rare performance from Robb’s band, The Membranes.

Professor John Ellis, a theoretical physicist involved in devising experiments for the Large Hadron Collider at CERN provided some very welcome straight talk on far-out cosmological concepts like super symmetry and the search for dark matter. He also described the way the universe would end: galaxies are slowly being pulled apart. Eventually all matter will decay and all that will be left is a cold radiation-filled space “with the occasional black hole to cheer things up.” Sounds like a real bag of chuckles, eh?

Suzie Shrubb and the Edges Ensemble performed what could be described as the music of the spheres: compositions built around tones emitted by pulsars. Poet Maurice Riordan read some compelling science-inspired poems. Radmila Topalovic from Greenwich Royal Observatory took us on a whistle-stop tour of the universe, scouting for aliens along the way and pointing out a few of the potentially habitable planets we might like to relocate to once we’re done with this one. I have concerns about closet space and methane-based atmospheres, but I think we might be able to make one of them work.

Trainor then demonstrated the workings of the Small (Cheap) Hadron Collider, which to my untrained eye did slightly resemble a tinfoil-wrapped hoover blowing ping pong balls around, but you probably have to be a scientist to properly understand the way these things work. Finally, post-punk pioneers The Membranes closed things out with a raucous performance that blasted everything we’d just learned right back out of our brains. Science and punk rock? An unlikely combo, maybe, but it worked for me. I don’t feel like I understand everything there is to know about the universe, but I sure know a lot more than I did. Not bad for a Saturday night on Earth.

  • Iain Sinclair at MLF2013

    Iain Sinclair at MLF2013