Theory amid chaos

August 22, 1997

Continuing The THES series on academics' rooms, astronomer David Hughes guides Kate Worsley around his office space

A life spent looking at the skies through a telescope provides more than its share of space, emptiness and speculation. Faced with the vast and unknowable expanse of the universe, astronomer David Hughes has hoarded a great cluster of work paraphernalia in his 30 years at Sheffield University.

"As you can see, space is of the essence here," he proclaims, edging nimbly past a two-bar electric heater to the few clear square feet of pea-green rag rug still visible.

His room is a standard eight by ten foot in a 1950s lab block, where varnished wooden fittings have aged well but metal windows have not. The venetian blind lolls at a slant; cupboards, shelves, desks and filing cabinets reduce the room's dimensions by at least a third. Visitors must float uneasily in the tiny vacuum at its centre.

Dr Hughes has TV science boffin stamped all over him. His pencils are sharpened at both ends, his reading glasses slip off his nose and his socks are harlequin. Barely pausing for breath after a long climb up the stairs, he smooths his tie over a bursting shirt front and launches into a rapid orbit of the room's various elements and their trajectories.

"My interest is in minor bodies in the solar system, in where these little particles came from, so I studied comets and the way they decayed, and then asteroids and the way they decayed, and then we looked at Halley's comet using spacecraft. Then I got interested in Halley as a man and the history of astronomy."

The order underlying apparent chaos begins to emerge. Deeply averse to relying on the university library, he has telescoped centuries of other people's research into a wallful of glassed bookshelves. Titles include The Cosmic Catastrophe and Rain of Fire. "I'm interested in things hitting the earth," he says.

His own publications nestle among the leather and gilt. His 1979 book on the star of Bethlehem has "always been a good goer". He thinks it was Jupiter, but "you can't ring up and say 'can I have the truth please?'" Items balance on the edge of the shelves: a medallion commemorating Halley's comet; a small bust of the man himself; Halley mugs and a picture of Hughes presented to him by the Post Office when he wrote the blurb for their Halley commemorative stamps.

Heaped behind the glass at eye level are a pile of slide rules and secreted about the place are numerous early calculators, some in their original foam-lined cases. Judging by the age of his terminal he was an early convert to computers too. Above a handsome old clock is a picture of Sir William Hugo "the famous spectotropist. He's been looking down on me from the day I started. I rescued him from the dustbin at Oxford."

Hughes comes to rest in the larger of his two armchairs. It belonged to Tom Kaiser, professor of space science at Sheffield in the late 1960s, when Hughes arrived as an assistant lecturer after studying physics at Birmingham and taking a doctorate at Oxford. It was Kaiser's enthusiasm for radio detection through the Sheffield cloud cover, and for meteors that inspired Hughes.

Over by the window is a framed text from Danton "Apr s le pain l'education est le premier besoin du peuple." He used to go to Paris when he was on the European Space Agency's committee, and saw the text on the statue by the metro entrance at Odeon. He is hugely amused by it.

And half hidden by the door is a small wooden frame attached to the wall at eye level, with a hinged flap and small handle. These were once used for remote observation of experiments, fitted so you could stand in one room, open the flap and see what was going on next door. It is all electronically controlled now. He salvaged this one before it was thrown out. If you open it now all you see is the wall.

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