Doctor Niamh Shaw has come a long way, but she dreams of travelling farther still. Since an afternoon in the cinema in Carlow when she was eight years old, she has known the stars were her destination, for that was when she first saw Star Wars.
How to get there is the problem, but in the meantime she knows where she is, performing her solo spoken word show To Space in Summerhall on the southside of Edinburgh (264 square kilometres), the capital of Scotland (~78,000 square kilometres), and so she continues to the edge of the observable universe and the corresponding limits of human knowledge, 46.6 billion light years away.
Soft spoken against a shifting backdrop of astronomical photography, diagrams and illustrations, she ponders the discontinuity: “The more we look at the stars, the smaller we become. How simple life would be if we didn’t ask questions.”
Touching briefly on planetary panspermia before moving to the proposed Mars One Project of 2027 and NASA and ESA’s joint Orion project to Mars in 2037, either of which she would be happy to join, it’s a fairly basic introduction to planetary astronomy and space exploration, enjoyable but insufficiently illuminating to those already versed in the ‘verse.
Told through Doctor Shaw’s memories, it’s a very personal piece but has much which anyone can understand and associate with, and she herself is warm, enthusiastic and honest but has little to add to the existing wonder, her disappointment at disqualification from the astronaut selection programme demonstrating a naivety which somewhat undermines her credibility, an unexpected blind spot in an otherwise intelligent and articulate scientist.
By keeping it generic, Doctor Shaw makes the show accessible but also forgettable, and as a performance piece it needs tightening, the onstage experimental demonstration adding nothing to proceedings, and ultimately the show is not so much about achieving but learning to live with less.
With only 536 members of the human race in the entirety of their recorded history having become space travellers, this may perhaps be a more valuable lesson for the average audience member who is equally unlikely to realise their dreams, but it is not the message they expected to hear from a talk which is advertised as uplifting.