I’m sitting in the library of the Royal Astronomical Society in Burlington House, Mayfair, London. The afternoon sun is reflecting off the window of the building on the other side of the quadrangle, and is streaming through the window behind me, and I feel totally at peace.
This building is not open to the public, and while I have been a Fellow since 2009, I’ve only recently started to come here myself. My PhD was an ultimately successful, but long drawn out affair, and by the end of it I needed to put some space between me and the stars. My work as a consultant and enterprise architect has also kept me away; for the last few years, commuting has taken me everywhere but London. At the moment, however, I’m between contracts, the job hunt is taken longer than I would like, but at least this hiatus has given me the opportunity to reconnect. So, at last, I have been able to use the key to Ivory Tower that I worked so hard to obtain.
The library is wonderfully Victorian; practical in design, with a high ceiling, restrained colour scheme, and a few quiet flourishes of unnecessary ornamentation. There’s a dun-coloured marble fireplace, with a grand portrait of Francis Bailey – four times President of the Society, and famous for his observations of solar eclipses – peering down upon me from his perch over the mantelpiece. These days, the fire is never lit, but there are radiators under the windows, each with an elaborate iron grille displaying the old monogram of the society. They’re working well today, it’s comfortably warm in here.
A delicate gallery hangs above; thin planks of varnished wood laid on slender brackets, and accessible only by a wrought iron spiral staircase. Only the librarians are allowed on the top level; it’s solid enough, but the railing (set just below waist height) is too low to risk allowing anyone else into that sacred space; gravity might have something to say about it otherwise. The records of the society going back nearly two hundred years are gradually accumulating up there; bound in hard back, and ordered by year and type, slowly gathering dust.
It is unusual for a building of this age, and a room of this type, but there is no religious iconography. This is, after all, a proudly secular temple to the understanding of the Universe. That said, there are treasures worthy of veneration; the first time I came here, the contents of the unassuming glass display cabinet by the window took my breath away: a lump of Newton’s apple tree, and a 1st edition of the Principia – the world-changing book in which he expounded the Laws of Motion and Gravity, and so laid the foundation for modern maths and physics.
The literature is, of course, the glory of this room. The walls are lined on all four walls with solid honey-toned oak cabinets, bowed under the weight of books, the carefully curated knowledge of centuries. Red leather bound volumes line the upper shelves; while the lower ones are filled with text books on every astronomical and astrophysical topic you could imagine. There are familiar friends here; copies of a few of these books have graced my own bookcase for years, but there are so many new faces. When I was a child, I thought I would be able to read all of the books there were about astronomy. Now I know for sure that the rest of my life would not be sufficient to get through a wall of the volumes in this room. There is so much knowledge in here, so much research. The output of lifetimes of scientific work. It’s hard to know where to start.
I love this austere and magnificent library, with its glorious, soft and comforting silence. The rest of the world can and must progress, London will bustle outside; but this room will remain uncorrupted. Maybe that’s why, amidst all the uncertainty of the job hunt, I keep returning to this timeless sanctuary.
How does it smell? Seriously – is it a combination of musty old books and polished wood, or something else?
Great question! It’s well aired, so not at all musty, but there is the distinctive odour of book glue and old printer’s ink. It’s both cosy and spacious and the same time. Honestly, I’d live in there if they’d let me.