Up at 6:30 AM. With the aid of a scalding shower and a citrusy breakfast to restore electrolytes, I manage to override my body's desire to slump into a sulky hangover. I checked out and dashed to the train to catch the 8:15 AM train to London. On arrival to Euston at 10:23, I charged to the underground and South Kensington. I spent 45 minutes at work feverishly swapping round the contents of my suitcase to the mini-magnetometers and assorted frippery needed to run outreach workshops, then scurried to the tube to get a District line train to Wimbledon. I discovered then that the trains run half as frequently as stated on the Transport for London web site and run incredibly slowly. The taxi from Wimbledon station dropped me off at King's College School with three minutes to spare before lunch at 12:30 PM.
The event organiser greeted me. He possessed more energy than someone half his age and had wrangled six schools into bringing a total of 63 year 10 students to hear my lecture and do workshops for the afternoon. Post-lunch, I prepared the workshop room, then the lecture theatre (the school's chapel, a beautiful high-ceilinged affair) and settled down to wait for the students to arrived. They trickled in shyly. Their teachers had a quiet word with me, and I learnt they were a mixture of Gifted & Talented (advanced for their age) and Aspirations (average, but expected to improve with encouragement) students. I began my lecture at 2:00 PM and started handing out pens with built-in compasses to those who answered my questions correctly. This, and what the teachers later tell me is my approachable manner, turned out to be enough inducement to get both groups to participate. I was particularly pleased when one girl answered, "CH4" when I asked, "What is methane?" Even A-level students don't typically answer with chemical formulae.
The workshops were less clearly successful. Twenty minutes wasn't quite enough to give a proper introduction to the material let alone for the students to make & plot their measurements. Luckily, I had prepared some results slides so I could walk them through the concepts quickly at the end of each session. The applause before they departed at 4:15 PM seemed genuine enough.
A minicab picked me up at 4:40 PM and dropped me off at Wimbledon station. Having been advised to take the overground trains as they are faster and more frequent than the tube, I jumped on one for Vauxhall and then raced to South Kensington. I swapped the contents of my suitcase round again. When I hit the pavement outside my building, it was 5:45 PM. I needed to catch the 6:15 PM train to Cambridge to make it to the bloke's college in time for dinner at 7:30 PM. Public transport would have been risky, so I hailed a cab. The lovely driver, on being informed of my dire situation, performed the miraculous feat of getting me to Kings Cross with 12 minutes to spare. I don't know how. I was too afraid to watch. On reaching the train, I discovered that the friend who was accompanying us to dinner had managed to fend off the hordes of grumpy commuters for long enough to save me a seat.
I wriggled into my dress and transformed my frazzled appearance into a semblance of calm, cool and collected with the aid of hairbrush and various tinctures and unguents. We arrived at Robinson with three minutes to spare. The bloke hurried us into the dining hall. I sat between two delightful Portuguese fellows - one a land economist, the other a distinguished medic. My composure held through the meal. I could just about manage cheerful and responsive. But after a glass of port in the senior common room at 10 PM (remember, I'd started my day at 6:30 AM in Manchester), I could no longer pretend I wasn't on the verge of collapse. The bloke & friend kindly agreed we should get a cab home. I was horizontal and unconscious by 10:45.
Saturday & Sunday
My immune system failed, necessitating an entire weekend spent in bed either sleeping or playing Diablo II: Lord of Destruction.
Monday, 15 March
My immune system rallied, but to be safe, I worked from home.
Tuesday, 16 March
Back in the office, I caught up on missed meetings, attended telecons and prepared frantically for Wednesday. I also dealt with enquiries relating to upcoming outreach activities in May and June.
Wednesday, 16 March
I worked a full day, then caught a train from Euston, which is starting to feel as familiar as Kings Cross, to Bushey, in Hertfordshire. Queen's School is starting up a Cafe Scientifique, and they wanted me to be their inaugural speaker. The timing of their first meeting was serendipitous because last Sunday's BBC programme "Wonders of the Solar System" was dedicated to Saturn, its rings, and the moon Enceladus.
The audience was the most mixed I've ever spoken to. There were primary and secondary school students, but also their parents and teachers, totalling about 50 people. I did my usual trick of telling them about myself. The NASA part of my career history draws an involuntary, "Ooh!" from some of them, which was a portent of future events. After my talk, I spent 5 minutes answering questions formally and then the next 40 with waves of them coming to speak to me in small groups. I was asked to pose for photos with the students. All of the sixth-formers wanted me to autograph the lithographs of Saturn I handed out. I felt like quite the celebrity scientist. (I'm sure this will never happen again.)
My favourite encounter of the evening, though, was with a small moon-faced boy with enormous blue eyes who came up and stood quite close, patiently waiting until I bent down to speak to him.
"Miss," he said, almost breathless with wonder. "Miss, have you been in space?"
"Sadly, no," I reply. "And Britain doesn't have a manned spaceflight programme, so I'd have to go back to the US if I wanted to train to be an astronaut."
To my surprise, he seemed totally undeterred by this answer. Without the faintest hint of disappointment, he plucked up his courage again and asked his second question. "Miss - does Pluto really exist?"