Features Strangeness + Charm Published 5 October 2015

Terra Firma

Strangeness + Charm is a new column that will explore the art of science and the science of art. This month - home.
Mary Halton

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I’ve always really enjoyed moving house. By the time I was 5 years old, we’d lived in 5 different places, and instead of drawing on the walls, I was usually painting them. There’s a picture of a tiny me, hair in an awful green scrunchie (cheers, the 90s!), gloss coating a newly built set of shelves. Life with my mum felt a bit like an adventure – we’d move somewhere new, and within days it would be home. We could build, paint, mend and improvise almost everything, just short of plumbing in the washing machine. I’d hang up my Sunday Times Map of the Night Sky and wherever I was, there I would be.

Moving day was always my favourite. When everything’s packed into boxes and you’re spreading peanut butter on to toast with the wrong end of a fork, then eating it off a frisbee, it feels a little like camping. The urge to tell ghost stories by flashlight surges up, unbidden. Packing a van is just physics (extreme Tetris) and planning the layout of a new place is just a life-sized puzzle. Eventually, I’d done it so many times that it became a game.

As I got older, my appreciation of what made me feel at home changed somewhat. The places I was in began to feel ephemeral and ever changing, passing by on dizzying microfiche, while I remained still. Other things started to feel permanent. Mulder and Scully always had their basement office (except that time it burned down”¦ and the time the X-Files got shut down”¦ err, twice), my books lived with me everywhere I went, and the stars”¦ the stars were ever fixed, awaiting me outside whichever window I happened to be behind. And I stopped putting stock in the places themselves.

Until this summer, when my flatmate and I got a letter saying we had to leave our silly Edwardian flat with its high ceilings and beautiful sunrises. The kitchen tap used to drip, there was occasionally some odd clanking in the attic, and the balcony sporadically creaked and cracked sharply as though it might drop off the front of the building at any moment.  And, having considered myself pretty much casual no-strings in the housing department for the longest of times, it turned out that I loved that place – helplessly.




2.7 billion years ago

Glacier National Park, Montana

A warm, shallow pre-Cambrian sea laps at a long, reef-like structure of small, knobbly rocks. The cyanobacteria coating and forming these rocks bask in the weak light of a young sun; their sticky mats the only form of life on Earth. Each single celled organism is a tiny powerhouse, humming with activity. They have recently figured out how to photosynthesise, and are slowly filling our atmosphere with the oxygen that will be necessary when the Cambrian explosion births complex life. By which time, these microbial mats will have ruled the world for over 3 billion years, or 84% of life on Earth.

Homo sapiens (a flutter, a miracle) will appear millennia later to prise them from the ground and wonder at their longevity. For now, they patiently lay down beautiful ripple patterns in the rock, year after year.

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Níl aon tinteán mar do thinteán féin. Borta bra, men hemma bäst. Umetum iz gut un in der heym iz beser. Oma maa mansikka, muu maa mustikka. Zuhause ist es doch am schönsten. Zoals het klokje thuis tikt, tikt het nergens. Ude godt, men hjemme bedst.

Clocks. Strawberries. Fireplaces. There’s no place like home. In so many languages it comes out the same; home is better than everywhere else. It’s where you lay your head, light your fire, where your clock ticks.

Researchers have, it turns out, found it somewhat tricky to pin down what our sense of place, our sense of home is driven by.  Some refer to ‘place attachment’, which is the relationship formed by people giving both culturally shared and personal meaning to a particular place. Others believe it is simply a familiarity created over the course of time through habit and recurring events, while yet more acknowledge certain places having a ‘spirit’ that is immediately, tangibly felt on entering it. The latter will sound familiar to anyone who has house hunted – “Yes, but does it feel right?”.

Anthropologically, the argument has been made that the use of a home base first came about because we didn’t want anyone stealing our meat. A kill site would attract scavengers and other predators, whereas removing the food to a focal site where it could be protected increased the return on the labour of hunting.

Home these days is more than a meat locker; we imbue it with a great deal of meaning. Theory often coldly describes our relationship with places in terms of their resources, but it seems to be a much more complex web of back and forth interactions, memory creation and association with interpersonal relationships. People who have been forced to leave their homes go through a process similar to grieving for someone they have lost.

I remember feeling a tangible tug as I ran my fingers across the turbulent ocean that I had rag-rolled onto my bedroom wall, before closing the door on our flat for the last time. I lingered, wondering if the next person to inhabit it would see the same storm-tossed sea – know that this space, right down to its ephemeral cobwebs and the shadows of past furniture, was mine. A home, it seems, is a place that we have made our own, somewhere we choose to belong.

Photo: Mariano Cecowski

Photo: Mariano Cecowski



25,500 BHE

Maros, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Pressing her hand tightly against the cold wall of the cave, she tries hard to keep very still as her father carefully blows paint around the outline of her fingers. It tickles and trickles down her arm, caking in the crease between her wrist and hand as it dries. She laughs at her brother’s outline, trying hard not to shake. It has smudged slightly and looks as though he has four fingers. He grins up at her, his teeth bright in the dim firelight.

Her mother adds broad strokes to the drawing beside her, and as the girl looks from animal to woman, and from woman to animal, she smiles and sees that it is good.

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There is a Mandarin idiom é¥®æ°´æ€æº which (very roughly) translates as “when drinking water, remember its source”. When I opted for the highly scientific ask-people-on-social-media approach that I used to find out what home meant to others and how they expressed that in their own language, my friend Shawne was the only one to come back with phrases that connected home not just with being a precious place, but with being a formative one, and intimately connected to personal identity and a sense of self.

Oliver Sacks, renowned neuroscientist and author, died just as I began to write this piece. Coincidentally, I had very recently read his op-ed in the New York Times about his terminal cancer diagnosis. Written in February of this year, it finishes out by saying that “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Because it occurred to me, when I was thinking about what home might be and mean, that I had a more beautiful, more permanent one than any four walls I could ever stake a claim to. But I had never thought of it in terms of ‘home’, because a home implies that there’s an alternate place you can be that isn’t yours.

Photo: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

Photo: NASA/JPL/Texas A&M/Cornell

18:56 LTST

Aeneas Base, Sol 354 (Saturday)

Pictures are the first personal items he unpacks. He hasn’t pre-planned the moment, but is simply desperate for something, anything, uncomplicated and colourful. Green – oh, he misses green. This mission is no jaunt to the ISS, and non-essentials are kept to a bare minimum, but the two thinly folded sheets of paper had not been a troubling negotiation before launch. Explaining to two children under ten that they needed to use markers because crayon could flake off paper over time and clog vital filters had, however, been an exercise in diplomacy.

He sticks Arrie’s up first. Almost 6, his  youngest daughter is still mastering scale, and her stick figure DADDY dwarfs not just Oxia Planum, where his base currently stands, but most of the northern hemisphere of the red planet, which he appears to be crushing beneath footless legs the width of Arsia Mons. He wonders if hers is the first drawing anyone has brought with them, and whether he ought to have treated the hanging of the first artwork on an entire planet with a touch more ceremony than the quick application of duct tape.

Windows weren’t a priority of the ESA’s when building the module he now occupies. Any additional seams are potential weaknesses in the structure and the newly not-so-arid landscape is there to be studied, not idly looked at. But he knows that even now, outside the crisp walls, the thumbnail sun is setting in a cold blue haze, and soon the Earth will rise; a bright, fierce evening star.

He tapes Leo’s fiery crimson sky beside his bunk and begins to lay out the rest of his things.



This is a picture of you.

Taken in July this year by the NASA/NOAA Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), it’s the first complete image of Earth (not a stitched composite) taken since 1972, and in it is everyone you know and love. DSCOVR is one million miles away from Earth and well outside the orbit of both the moon and the ISS, so although the space station is not directly visible here, this image does contain every single human being there is. That’s all of us, in (or above) the only home we have.

Its predecessor – the famous Blue Marble shot – changed the world it depicted when it was taken by the Apollo 17 team. It was the first (and for several years only) clear image of our entire planet; and we were forced to truly look at ourselves as a global community. In it, political borders are no longer visible and only the geological remain. It is also the last image of Earth in its entirety to have been taken by a human being, as Apollo 17 marked the final manned lunar mission. Those missions were and remain the furthest we have ever travelled from home, and whenever we leave, we are constantly looking back.

But we will go further someday. There will come a time when that image will not show the totality of human civilisation clasped within the fragile envelope of our atmosphere. It might be a population issue. It might be because we’ve scorched the planet that nurtured us through millions of years of evolution. Or, if we have anything like the staying power of those early bacteria, it will be the interplanetary version of being kicked out so our landlord can move back in; as our sun gets older and hotter, the current inferno that is Venus’ hellish surface is the future that awaits us.

So we will pack up and shuffle out into our solar system (and perhaps further), chasing H2O, and we will inhabit each new place with the fundamental impulses that have always driven us; to explore, to question, to invent, and to draw all over it until it feels like our own. But I wonder how Earth will live on in our mythology once it’s passed beyond a speck on the horizon, and whether it will always be home; the source, the place we’ve chosen to belong.

This is the first in a series of columns that will explore the art of science and the science of art, and (hopefully) break down the idea that they are discrete and unrelated. First Thursday of every month, same bear time, same bear channel!

Strangeness + Charm is a collaboration between Mary Halton and Grace Harrison; you can contact them on Twitter @maryhalton and @_grace_eliz or by emailing [email protected]

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Mary Halton

Mary is a writer and critic, interested in performance, science and popular culture. By day, she works in radio drama, by night she studies planetary science at Birkbeck, and by dusk and dawn she writes Exeunt's science blog Strangeness + Charm. For Christmas, she would like a timeturner.


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