I also maintain a small blog - see below - which is updated once or twice a month.
I've been an amateur astronomer for more than forty years. I've delivered somewhere in the region of 300 public lectures on a wide variety of subjects, and began lecturing on astronomy and cosmology for WEA in 2014. I've been featured on local TV and radio talking about astronomy and related subjects. In my spare time, I'm also a musician and a film maker. Click here to learn more about my musical endeavours.
Before going up to University, I was apprenticed as a Junior Optician making advanced scientific optics for research. I graduated with a degree in Physics from Newcastle University in 1984 and thereafter spent a major part of my career working in IT and Technical Support. In 2003, I founded Infection Music. We design and build bespoke electronic musical instruments. I'm also working on a number of on-line teaching tools as part of the celebrations surrounding the two hundredth anniversary of The Royal Astronomical Society.
Finally, I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in October 2019.
I lecture on a wide variety of subjects although my speciality is local scientists and astronomers. I've been working on The Great Geordie Space Race for a couple of years and, one day, I hope to turn it into a book or a film.
My audiences range from local history societies, astronomical societies and on a few occasions, the local Universities. I've recorded a fair bit for local TV and radio, and even ended up on Radio 4's Mickey-Take of the Day. Buy me a coffee and I'll tell you the story.
If you would like to book my services for an event then please drop me a line via Facebook, Twitter or e-mail:
As previously mentioned, in addition to my RAS lecture series, I have been invited to deliver two new courses in astronomy in the autumn term. The full list is as follows:
1. Introduction to Astronomy is suitable for absolute beginners who are just starting out and who may not have much observing experience. There will be little or no mathematics involved. Delivery will take place on Thursday afternoons, starting in September 2020.
2. Historical Figures in Astronomy is also suitable for absolute beginners but aimed rather more at historians than scientists. There will be little or no mathematics. Delivery will commence on Friday mornings, starting in September 2020.
3. Introduction to Astronomy series will be repeated in the very near future, probably early September. Whilst the format will be the same, there will be some variations in the subject matter, with the aim of continuing the series rather than just repeating content. Delivery will be on Thursday evening's at 1900 hours over Zoom.
4. The Intermediate Astronomy series, again sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society, will begin shortly, probably early December. Whilst the format will be very similar to the Introduction series, the content will be a little bit more challenging. I'll still try to keep the maths to a minimum but you should expect some hard sums.
5. Sadly, my normal WEA Astronomy sessions, usually held on Tuesday nights, will skip a term. They will (probably) resume again in January 2021.
All of the courses will be supported by the Royal Astronomical Society in their two hundredth anniversary year, and will be delivered via the Zoom video system. You'll need a good internet connection and a fairly recent computer or tablet to participate fully.
13-Jul-20 : WEA Astronomy Autumn 2020
I have been invited to deliver two new courses in astronomy in the autumn term. The full list is as follows.
1. Introduction to Astronomy is suitable for absolute beginners who are just starting out and who may not have much observing experience. There will be little or no mathematics and delivery will take place during the day, probably on Thursdays, starting in September 2020.
2. Historical Figures in Astronomy is also suitable for absolute beginners but aimed rather more at historians than scientists. As before, there will be little or no mathematics and delivery will again take place during the day, probably on Fridays, starting in September 2020.
3. Introduction to Astronomy series will be repeated in the very near future, probably early September. Whilst the format will be the same, there will be some variations in the subject matter, with the aim of continuing the series rather than just repeating content. Delivery will be on Thursday evening's at 1900 hours over Zoom.
4. The Intermediate Astronomy series, again sponsored by the Royal Astronomical Society, will begin shortly, probably early December. Whilst the format will be very similar to the Introduction series, the content will be a little bit more challenging. I'll still try to keep the maths to a minimum but you should expect some hard sums.
5. My normal WEA Astronomy sessions will resume again on 21st September at 1900 hours. A full list of subjects will be announced shortly.
All of the courses will be supported by the Royal Astronomical Society in their two hundredth anniversary year, and will be delivered via the Zoom video system. You'll need a good internet connection and a fairly recent computer or tablet to participate fully.
23-Mar-20 : Astronomy Classes are going virtual
This thoroghly rotten Corona Virus plague has meant that all of my astronomy classes based in the real world have been cancelled and/or postponed, which sucks. Like a Hoover. However... please do not despair. We're taking them on-line. We're jumping into Cyberspace. Again.
I'm currently recording the missing sessions from both last week and this week, plus I'm doing a real, live in-ya-face session for WEA tutors later in the week. If that wasn't enough, we're repeating the RAS Sessions from earlier in the year plus adding an Intermediate course shortly afterwards.
Finally, I'm delivering a one-off talk on an old favourite, Nikola Tesla, which promises to be something really special because Nikola was an amazing guy. A few quirks. Not very PC. Didn't like Edison. No, sir. Not a fan of Edison... Listen and enjoy.
I want to make push these lectures out into the public domain a little. At the moment, most are behind the WEA paywall and cost only ten quid for the full series. That said, I'll record a few of my lectures for Youtube. A lot of people have a lot of time on their hands at the moment. May as well learn something instead of watching old re-runs of Father Brown
21-Mar-20 : We made a movie!
Way back in the mists of time, 2017 I think, we made a movie. Romance and the Telescope was our first adventure into CGI, an opportunity to do something a little different, maybe an attempt to dig ourselves out of a creative ghetto. Sadly, not many people have actually seen it, which I think is a shame because, even with hindsight, it's not half bad. It has a story, a beginning, a middle and an end, some music, the odd laugh and ... even a little humanity.
Have a look. It's only six minutes long. Not even that. See what you think.
Yes, it's based on real life. Who are the real-life equivalents? Guess. :)
08-Aug-20 : iTelescope
In my last update, I talked about the urge to photograph the night sky, to capture the very essence of the delights I can see whilst peering down the business end of a telescope. I also talked about my research into astrophotography and about my utter dismay when I discovered the mountain I would have to ascend in terms of time, energy and money if I wanted to achieve even moderate results. Especially money. Yeah, the Big M.
An astrophotographer got in touch following publication of that article and scolded me, saying that it “costs NOTHING like fifty thousand pounds to set up a GOOD astrophotography system. Not even half that amount...” Yes, that’s a direct quote. Do I look like I have twenty five grand lying around?
Anyway, I started to look for a solution and... I found one.
It’s called iTelescope, and it’s a service which connects a large number of telescopes at a variety of excellent sites around the world. How does it work? You set up an account, pay a monthly subscription (fifteen quid) and …. that’s it. You immediately have a brilliant set of tools at your disposal. To take photographs, you just find an available time slot on a free telescope, ideally a telescope that is a good match for your intended target, and ideally a scope that is ‘in darkness’.
Before you begin, it’s a good idea to check the ‘all sky’ camera which most sites seem to support. It will give you a good idea about cloud cover and sources of light pollution. After that, you just let the automation do its job and then wait for an e-mail notification from the system that your job has ended.
I started using iTelescope a year ago and, whilst I haven’t used the service extensively, I’ve been more than delighted with the results. I began with a couple of shots of the Ring Nebula and then the Dumbbell Nebula. They were easy objects and the results looked promising.
Next, I went in search of that perennial favourite, the Andromeda galaxy, selecting two telescopes with different apertures at different sites around the world. I wanted a wide field of view for the first shot and so I selected a simple 100mm refractor based in New Mexico. For the second shot, I was able to snag some time on a bigger instrument, a 62 cm Planewave CDK, based at the Sierra Remote Observatory. Incidentally, this telescope retails for around twenty seven thousand pounds. There’s no way on earth I can afford that but, here it is. I can hire it for around £15 per month and I can buy extra credits if I want to.
I started the exposures off and, roughly ten minutes later, the results were ready to download.
And they were spectacular.
The 100mm showed a wide field of view with the Andromeda Galaxy right in the centre of a field of bright stars. To the lower right was it’s companion galaxy, M101. It’s an impressive image. I’d have struggled to get this kind of image in my back garden even under excellent conditions.
The 620 mm scope delivered a far more impressive result. Have a look for yourself. That's the untouched luminance image at the head of this post. You can make out the dust lanes, the spiral arms, the bright central core and a whole lot more.
So what? You might ask. And, indeed, so what? I sat at home and used by computer to tell another computer connected to a telescope to photograph a region of the sky that’s been photographed a million times before. What was so difficult about that? Well, nothing really. No long drive to a dark sky site. No sitting around in the freezing cold. No frostbitten toes. No soaking wet clothes. Back in time to watch Wire in the Blood with the missus.
I’d like to say that there was no waiting around for the sky to clear but... I did have to wait until the guide star came from behind a lump of cloud. I’d like to say there were no technical problems but that wouldn’t be true either because one of the telescopes simply refused to sync up properly the first time around. Similarly, I’d like to say that the download process was smooth because it wasn’t and I lost a couple of files along the way. Some IT skills were required to navigate the FTP file directories.
It wasn’t at all easy, a one-click solution to all of tour astrophotography woes. My image of M77, taken from a scope situated in Siding Springs, Australia, was out of focus and, frankly, useless. But at least I didn’t have to leave the comfort of my house to discover this for myself. I didn’t have to grab a long haul flight to the other side of the world. (The cost of a return ticket is around four thousand pounds) More so, I didn’t have to subject myself to the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and I didn’t have to travel into the outback and risks snakes, crocodiles or Australians. That, in itself, is worth the monthly subscription.
What did I do with those images? I’m not at all interested in pretty picture photography. I wanted to do something useful with these exposures and not just stick them in an album or share them on Facebook.
I immediately began to compare one against the other, searching for common reference points. I wanted to see the difference in resolving power between the systems. I was also keen to see what difference the wider field of view would make.
I also began comparing my images with those taken by other photographers, to see what might have changed. Plenty it seems. Some field stars seem way brighter than they should. Others less so. Perhaps. I dunno. But I’ll investigate further down the line.
One of my students asked a very pertinent question “How would you know if you’d downloaded an up-to-date image? Couldn’t they just send you any old thing?” True, and I don’t have any obvious way of figuring that out. At the moment. I wonder if there are any transient features in the image?
Anyway, I got on with analysing the images, studying the dust lanes and the star patterns and a number of the other features.
I was particularly interested in the stars close to the central region. An astronomer on an amateur forum claimed that he’d been able to measure a slight shift in the position of two of the stars close to the core, a claim I found rather hard to believe. Following an initial inspection, I found no such change in any of the central regions but that doesn’t mean that there’s no shift. I just couldn't see it in my images.
So that's iTelescope, the thinking astronomer's tool for photographing the heavens.
03-Aug-20 : A (painful) introduction to Astrophotography
Seduced by the never-ending parade of gorgeous astronomy images which flood my Facebook feed every day, I spent some time over the last month trying to summon up the courage to get into Astrophotography in a big way.
At the moment, I'm a dabbler. I can stick a camera mount on my telescope eyepiece and photograph the Moon. I can take time-exposures of the sky and get a blurred image of a comet. I even managed to borrow a solar telescope some years ago and photograph a solar flare. That was fun.
But something is missing. Something has been niggling away at the back of my mind about taking bigger, better pictures, of acquiring the skill set necessary to snap some truly astonishing images. Pin sharp, crystal clear, intense colour. I want to capture the cosmos and hold it in my hand. I want a permanent reminder of eveerything I've seen to help ward of the problems of my failing memory. I want to show these stellar artefacts to my nearest and dearest and scold them. "This is what you're missing..."
So, that's where I'm coming from...
At the beginning, I asked myself three questions:
1. How much equipment do I already have?
2. How much money will I need to spend on equipment (and what’s it’s resale value)
3. How long will it take to learn to use that equipment?
I began by trawling the usual quality publications, The Sky at Night Magazine, Astronomy Now, Astronomy etc, and came away armed with a set of reliable facts and figures, parameters and minimum requirements that might make this project run. In other words, what to look for in terms of equipment, how much it was likely to cost and, critically, what the payback might be in terms of quality images.
Secondly, I went looking at the kind of images I might be able to produce with on a budget of £1000. Not that I have £1000 to play with, mind you. This just seemed like a reasonable starting point.
Finally, I went looking for opinions from experienced astrophotographers. I went in search of recommendations, tips and tricks, techniques and solutions. Youtube, in particular, seemed to be an absolute gold mine of amateurs keen to talk about and show off their equipment.
After a couple of weeks of moderately heavy research, I came away ... despondent. Utterly despondent.
Here are my conclusions:
1. Whilst I already have some really nice equipment - a good scope and a good camera - the amount of light pollution in these parts makes practical astrophotography impossible. The question reduces to just one issue - how far am I willing to travel in order to get to a good, dark sky? Fifty miles round trip, give or take, seems reasonable. However, travelling to even the closest dark sky site means a round trip of maybe one hundred and twenty or so miles, in winter, along roads I don’t know well, in potentially adverse weather. Do I want to put myself (and my family) under that kind of stress?
2. Unless I spend a lot of money, somewhere in the region of ten to twenty thousand pounds, on mounts, lenses, laptops, guide scopes, a mirror-less camera, then I won’t be able to generate anything worth a damn. And I don’t have that kind of money.
3. I already knew that, technically, the field is very, very demanding but this was something else. Simply put, I drowned. I was left adrift on a sea of facts and figures, and conflicting information. The learning curve is steep and unforgiving, and mistakes are expensive.
What else left me despondent?
In the main, what I found was a bunch of photographers taking pictures without any real interest in the subjects that they were photographing and by interest I mean scientific interest. I hope I’m wrong. At best, it seemed to be about pretty pictures and little else. At worst, it was a pissing contest.
Okay, what do I mean? One popular target was the Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula in Lyra. It’s reasonably easy to find if you know where to look. It looks almost exactly like a smoke ring hanging in space. With clear skies, a steady atmosphere and a little bit of luck, you can just about glimpse the star which gave rise to the planetary nebula in the first instance. Some time ago, that star reached the end of its life and blew off its outer atmosphere. This isn’t unusual. It’s a well known phenomena, which has been observed right across the Milky Way. We see this expanding atmosphere as a ghostly, near incandescent shell of gas moving through space. Seen edge-on, it looks exactly like a smoke ring.
We know that this shell of gas is expanding into space. How do we know? Because someone took two or more photographs several years apart and they noticed that the ring had changed. A series of back-of-the-envelope calculations later, and they were able to come up with a rough estimate for how quickly that shockwave is/was moving. And moving it is - about 43,000 miles (about 69,000 km) per hour.
Is this a difficult calculation to make? No. Is it lengthy or time-consuming? No. Does it involve researching an image from say, fifty years ago, and doing a quick comparison, and some maths, and maybe a bit of additional research to check your figures, and a little bit more to estimate the error bars on your estimations? Yes, it does.
And that’s my point.
Nowhere, not once, did I see any of these photographers actually scientifically scrutinising their images, doing the maths, checking the historical databases, researching the images, maybe even publishing a paper (or two). Okay, so they could leave that to a proper astronomer, someone with the time and skills to carry out the work. But my point is... they didn't and this isn’t difficult work.
Worse followed. I watched a YouTube video from a leading expert in the field detailing how you could use a humble DSLR to take pictures of the night sky. I learned a lot. I reckon I could tackle this job for myself and, yeah, I probably will. But why? Why bother? Photographing the Orion Nebula has been done thousands of times before now, and I can look up maybe two hundred or three hundred images showing the exactly same view with a simple Google search. You could, too.
And this is the point in the operation where I started to swear and scream. This same astrophotographer went over the techniques required to bring out the detail in his latest image although this technique mostly involved spreading out the somewhat limited dynamic range of his main exposure to its absolute maximum - without any kind of published method. “Just wing it”, seems to be the mantra of the day.
Could it get any worse? Yes, it could. He actually thought that it was okay to manually adjust the brightness and colour of the brighter stars in the image using Photoshop’s brush tools. His goal? To make a handful of stars more blue - not for any scientific reason but purely for aesthetic reasons. In my view, this isn’t astronomy. This isn’t science. This is deliberately massaging the results to make them look pretty. This is nothing more than high-tech finger-painting.
Annoyed but undaunted, I continued. I found another Beginner’s Guide to Astrophotography by another amateur snapper, although the equipment he described had a combined cost which totalled more than we spent on our first house. A horrendous amount of money... Then I was reminded that this guy and his Youtube channel have affiliate links. In other words, he’s paid by a company to promote their wares on his Youtube channel, something that wasn’t pointed out at the start of the video, something which is probably against advertising guidelines.
In the end, I threw my hands in the air and walked away. I came to the conclusion that I’m happy to leave the advanced photography to the big boys. They have the kit, the time and the energy, coupled with a lot of patience to make it all work ... just so long as they don’t keep doctoring their images to bring out details that aren’t genuinely there.
But, in spite of all of the forgoing, I still want to take pictures. I want to make some truly gorgeous images of the sky. There’s an urge to record the beauty of the heavens and maybe pass on some of that magic to another generation.
So, is there a better solution? Can I still take brilliant pictures of the night sky without spending huge amounts of money or putting myself at extreme risk?
Well, there is... And I'll talk about that next time.
30-Jul-20 : This way to the future...
Some years ago, Julie and I were watching a transit of the International Space Station. Nothing unusual in that. However, on this occasion, the ISS was being chased by a Space X Dragon Supply mission, which was something of a novelty in those days. Outside, in the cold, I could easily see the space station itself. Better still, I was utterly convinced that I could also see the Dragon vessel pulling up alongside its much larger companion. Alas, I was wrong. The two vehicles were nowhere near each other, and that faint dot to the right of the Space Station wasn’t a remotely operated cargo vessel. It was actually the first sign of a nasty defect within my own eyes. I was experiencing astigmatism, and not just in one eye but in both.
Astigmatism is, according to the text books, a refractive error, meaning that light isn’t brought to a single focus on your retina.
It’s a direct consequence of spending much of my working life squinting at various computer screens. And age. Age hasn’t helped either.
That was about ten years ago and, since then, the good news is that my astigmatism hasn’t worsened dramatically but then it hasn’t actually improved either, despite changing my screen habits - shorter sessions, more frequent breaks, better glasses. I think my eyes are just getting old. Maybe I’ve seen too much.
It’s not just my eyes, too. My experiences with Comet Neowise over the last couple of weeks have taught me some important age-related lessons.
First and foremost, my big scope, the SkyWatcher 150 mm, is just too big and too heavy to carry any distance unless it’s just a matter of a few feet, say onto the main drive or into the back of a car. Julie watched me from an upstairs window as I carried the scope down to the bottom of the estate so that we could get a better view of Comet Neowise and she wondered how I hadn’t pulled a back muscle. Well, I had. It just hurt less than my groaning knee joints.
The most obvious conclusion was... I need something lighter and more portable than the Skywatcher and all of its counterweights.
Secondly, I’m having trouble locating objects in the sky, particularly deep sky objects like nebulae. I’ve always had this problem, which is down to my wonky colour vision. (Yes, I’m partially colour blind). This is especially true of deep sky objects - nebulae and galaxies for instance. Add my astigmatism to the equation and, well, here we are.
Do I accept that age and infirmity will overtake me and put an end to my nocturnal adventures?
Like b*llocks I do.
I’m a habitual and unrepentant astronomer, and I won’t allow something as utterly insignificant as my rotten eyesight to put a stop to observing the night sky. Not a chance.
Consequently, I’ve spent this week been looking at possible solutions.
I’ve been hunting for a GoTo mount that’s small and portable but also able to take a reasonably-sized telescope or a DSLR, and I think I’ve found the ideal candidate - a SkyWatcher Startravel-102 AZ-GTi. It’s small enough to fit into a tiny carry-case, boasts a pretty good GoTo system and a well-reviewed 100mm fast lens, making it a good compromise for deep sky objects and planetary work. It can also accept payloads of up to 5 Kg, which is ideal for my humble Nikon 3100. It’s also simple to operate. Point it at two bright stars and it sorts out the alignment for you. It will track at sidereal, solar and lunar rate and a few more besides. The cost - about £350 - isn’t out of this world either.
Next, I need to find a good solution to the problem of locating those hard-to-spot images.
The StarTravel mount can’t take much weight, which limits the size of the telescope I can mount, which, in turn, limits what I can see. So another solution is required if I want to see something dim like Messier 51, the Triangulum Galaxy or on anything on Channel 4 after 11 pm at night.
The good news is that I don’t have a problem with Electronically Assisted Astronomy. I don’t mind looking at astronomy pictures in a book even if the photographer has used a few ‘processing tricks’ to bring out details that might not be there in the first instance. (I’ll talk about that particularly shabby practice in a later instalment...)
I’ve found what could be an ideal solution - an Altair GPCAM2 327C video astronomy camera. Remove your eyepiece, plug the device in its place and connect it up to your laptop. Set the exposure time and gain appropriately and… the fast USB 2.00 connection delivers nice, sharp images to your screen. Better still, the device will stack images in real time, so that a bigger, bolder, brighter image builds up on your screen over a couple of minutes. I’ve read a couple of reviews and the only downside that I can see is that the camera doesn’t connect to a Mac. It’s strictly a PC-based animal so I need to factor a cheap Windows Tablet into the equation, too.
Thinking this through, this arrangement could be perfect for my astronomy classes. I should be able to pipe the output from the camera into my Zoom presentation, and thereby be able to deliver live views of the sky for my students, many of whom don’t have telescopes or access to this kind of technology. So, another win.
Some amateur astronomers tend to look down their noses at this approach. They insist that it isn’t proper astronomy because you’re not actually looking at the sky. You’re not actually looking at photons. I think this is utter cobblers and smacks of something else going on in the back of their heads. Elitism, perhaps. These days, the vast majority of professional astronomers and scientists rarely, if ever, look at the skies with their own eyes. Instead, they spend their time looking at data files, tables and graphs. It isn’t about pretty pictures. It’s about data.
As far as I’m concerned, I may not be looking at actual photons from space but my camera is, and I control where the camera points. Hence, in my view, it’s real astronomy.
So, that’s the plan. I need to go electronic. I need to go portable. I need assistance because my eyesight isn’t up to it anymore and technology can provide a solution if I’m going to keep doing this whole astronomy thing.
And I am, and I will.
16-Jul-20 : Comet C/2020 F3 Neowise Updated
I felt pretty blessed to see Comet Neowise at the weekend. Alas, cloud and light polution cut short my first adventure but... at least I'd seen it, albeit fleetingly.
Skip forward to Monday night. Jenny and I are outside with the dogs, hunting for this elusive celestial vistor but, once again, it looks like we're out of luck. I can't find it and there's a huge lump of heavy black cloud hovering just over the spot where I think Neowise is lurking. Reluctantly, we give up and take solace in the fact that at least we tried.
Ten minutes later, and there's a frantic call on my mobile. It's Jenny.
"I can see it from my bathroom window." "Really? Sure it's not that patch of Noctilucent Cloud?" "No, if I lean out of my window I can see it. Tail and all..."
Okay, so... I rush back to Jenny's house because I have a vision of her hanging out of a third floor window by her belt buckle. Such things, and worse, have happened before. Please don't ask. And I'm not far wrong. She's had an uncomfortable encounter with one of the more truculent house plants. "Where no Yukka Planet has gone before..." to paraphrase Captain Kirk. Anyway, she's right. There it is, Comet Neowise. However, it's not where I expected it to be.
Two minutes later, having rescued Jenny (and the Yukka plant), I'm back on the playing fields but... Comet Neowise has gone. It's stuck behind that *expletive deleted* lump of cloud. I could scream. I really could. Actually, I think I did.
Crestfallen, I return home. My neighbours, John and Nancy, are hanging out of their window. "Can you see it?". I shake my head.
Undeterred, I grab the big scope and haul its carcass down to the school's entrance. The plan is to hang around long enough for that big lump of scruff to get out of the way and, meanwhile, have a look at Jupiter and Saturn hanging low down in the South. I'm again joined by John and Nancy but that sodding lump of cloud doesn't want to move no matter how much we collectively swear and curse.
After twenty minutes, I give up and drag the telescope back to the garage, cursing and moaning and swearing in the manner typical of all disappointed astronomers. This is what it must feel like to be a Sunderland Supporter.
Of course, you know what happens next? I put Jasper out on the front lawn long enough to notice that the big lump of cloud had finally moved out of the way and... there it is... Comet Neowise.
So, we're back to the garage to grab the big scope and a notebook. I tentatively knock on John and Nancy's door (it's after midnight by now) but they're still up and eager to see this vision.
We're not disappointed. It's amazing.
The comet fills the entire field of view of my 25mm eyepiece. I can make out a bright, irregularly shaped nucleus surrounded by the coma. It's bigger than a star but smaller than, say, Saturn. I think I can just make out a second tail although the primary dust tail is so bright I can't be certain. There's a field star embedded in the tail so I can use that to figure out how quickly the comet is moving. The field star exits the comet's tail around thirty five minutes later so the comet is moving at a fair old lick across the sky.
My colour vision isn't good but it's quite clear that the nucleus is an off-white/yellowish tone when judged against the same background star, which is brilliant white/blue. The tail itself? Hard to say. There's a hint of green in there.
John and Nancy are suitably impressed, and we agree to retire before the clouds return. That said, I hung around long enough to take another look at Jupiter and Saturn, and then Mars in the East.
At this point, I'm approached by a lone male out for an evening walk. He may or may not be drunk, I can't tell. He's intrigued by the scope but doesn't come over to have a look. He says he can easily make out the comet with the naked eye, "... like a kiddie's torch hanging in the sky...". I'm jealous, sort of. I'm jealous of his eyesight. I can barely make out the fuzzy blur even on a good night. I'm not jealous of his inebriated state. I don't think I've been that drunk on a Monday night since my student days.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Space Station whizzing over for the second time this evening, which means I've been outside, observing, for nearly three hours. Time for bed.
The next day, I convert my hand-written notes into something sensible and, in doing so, pause to consider an important question. "Will I ever have another weekend like this in my life?".
Look at it this way. I bagged all of the major visible planets except Mercury, four Moons (two of Jupiter's, one of Saturn's and our own), the Space Station, a comet, several Messier objects, a couple of bright meteors and ...
Will I ever be so lucky again?
One to think about, eh?
12-Jul-20 : Comet C/2020 F3 Neowise
For the first time in over forty years of star-gazing, I found a comet without the usual life-or-death struggle. I just walked over to the playing fields at the side of our house, and there it was, Comet C/2020 F3 Neowise, shining away just above the horizon in the North West. I was elated. Simply elated.
Comets don't normally make the process of discovery very easy where I'm concerned. Were I not a hardened scientist, seemingly immune to all of the usual psuedo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, I'd probably start to think long and hard about a blood sacrifice or two before going outside in search of one of these little fuzzy so-and-so's. (Yes, "so-and-so's" isn't the first term I used here... I censored myself...)
This isn't a recent development. It's been this way for a very, very long time indeed. I guess I'm not a very lucky observer.
My first comet was IRAS-ARAKI-ALCOCK, way back in 1983. I remember standing in my mother's backyard around midnight with my home-made telescope, searching the zenith for what had been predicted to be a particularly bright comet and... wow... there it was. I found it in less than two minutes - a little fuzzy blob slap bang in the middle of my field of view. That was the last time I found a comet with such relative ease.
What made this comet all the more remarkable was that it was really moving! Lots of comets crawl through the solar system at a steady, sedate almost lazy pace. Not so IRAS-ARAKI-ALCOCK. You could clearly see this comet moving against the background stars minute by minute, which was quite remarkable.
Comet Halley was next up in 1986 although that turned into a massive disappointment. I was working as a Laboratory Technician at a Boy's School in Newcastle at the time and the Physics department organised several after-hours observing sessions. Alas, at the start of every session, a crowd of small boys and their heavily expectant parents gathered around the school's telescope, only to be disappointed. The sky was cloudy on nearly every single occasion and on the one occasion when it wasn't cloudy, nobody had turned up. I was left on my lonesome with only a comet, a flask of hot tea and a packet of Chocolate Hobnobs to keep me company. Some hardship, you might say but... I still had to walk home.
After Halley... I think I lost interest in astronomy, a victim of too many late nights standing out in the cold only for the sky to cloud over at the last minute. Maybe I just needed a break. Ten years of intense study. Ten years of freezing cold nights. Ten years of numb fingers and frostbitten toes. Over time, such non-events dampen your enthuasiasm.
Skip forward about a decade to perhaps the best known comet of the last fifty years, Comet Hale/Bopp, a comet that was so bright that it was visible for most observers in the UK for the better part of a year. Hale/Bopp certainly helped to revive my interest in astronomy, if only briefly. It was a truly magnificent sight.
A few other comets came and went. The most notable was perhaps Comet Holmes, which initially appeared as yet another small, rather nondescript fuzzy blob towards the end of 2007. Uninspired, I wrote something rather caustic in my observer's log and thought nothing more of it... until a few nights later when, bored, I got the big scope out again and had another look. And what a sight! Comet Holmes had increased not only in brightness but also in size, having thrown off most of its outer layers and suddenly doubled, and later trebled in diameter... wow... Amazing.
Others comets followed. I saw Comet MacPherson for all of five seconds before it disappeared behind a bank of clouds. Comet of the century, Lovejoy, came with so many spectacular expections that I was invited onto the local radio station to talk about what we might expect to see, assuming the comet didn't smash itself to pieces as it flew through the Sun's outer atmosphere, which it did. And that was the end of Comet Lovejoy, the original damp squib if ever there was one.
Other comets came and went but few left any kind of lasting impression. Alas, in my mind, comets were no longer fascinating.
Earlier his year, astronomers were buzzing with the talk of a really bright comet, Comet Swan. It would be an easy sight, they said, moving through the Sword Handle in Perseus. I found it but... was it worth staying up so late? Probably not. Comet Atlas followed hot on its heels but it too came to nought.
Consequently, when another advance notice appeared announcing yet another bright comet, a comet that would truly rock your world and perhaps get the public utterly buzzing for astronomy, I turned the page and thought nothing of it.
However, I was wrong. Word began to spread that Comet Neowise might actually deliver the goods for once and... you know... third time lucky and all that. Best of all, it might actually brighten enough to be visible without the need for a sixteen inch telescope.
Suitably inspired, I went outside at around 0330 hours on Saturday morning but the sky was already bright and very cloudy. I did witness the tail end of a truly stunning Noctilucent Cloud display and the planet Mars has perhaps never looked so red. Jupiter and Saturn were hanging low in the southern sky and the Moon would intermittently appear from behind a bank of cloud illuminating the playing fields in a manner eeriliy reminiscent of those early Hammer Horror movies. Better still, Venus was rising in the east, ahead of the sunrise... and I genuinely wished I'd gotten up an hour earlier. A thoroughly special night. Alas, there was no sign of the comet but, you know, you can't have everything.
The next night... near perfect conditions. I went out on to the playing fields and, seconds later, there it was, Comet Neowise, hanging in the sky just above the North Western Horizon. Frankly, my expectations were low so "Why was I even bothering?", I asked myself. I didn't expect to see anything more than just yet another non-descript blurry mess. But I was wrong, and I was ... astonished. Here was a proper comet, easily visible with the naked eye and with a bright nucleus and a long tail. Yes, my first proper comet since Hale/Bopp twenty years before.
As the first law of astronomy demands, I went back to the house to retrieve my camera and tripod, which I'd already prepped just in case. See? I am vaguely optimistic at least some of the time. I also went back to the house to see if anyone else was interested but, err, they weren't.
Back outside, I set the camera up and blazed off a couple of shots before realising that shooting as such a high ISO results in very, very grainy images. I knocked the sensor back to just 800 ASA and accepted that my star images would be a little blurred.
But, you know something? I quickly got bored with the camera and its overly fussy attitude with regards to taking images in the near dark. I accepted that I'm no good at astrophotography a long time ago and other astronomers are so much better at snapping our celestial companions than I am. They have the time, the kit and the patience and I don't, so I let them do the hard work. Instead, I was content to just settle back and enjoy this celestial visitor as nature intended. It won't come this way for another 6400 years. Or was that 64000 years? I don't recall. Does it even matter?
At the same time, I caught a glimpse of Jupiter and Saturn, Mars and Venus, the Moon and... the Cherry on the Cake, the Space Station, sailing overhead into the east and the rising sun. Who could ask for more?
Not me, for sure.
In my mind, the point of astronomy should never be about who has the biggest telescope or the most expensive camera or even the cleverest software. It should be about the vision in front of you at that moment, in the eyepiece, intercepting beams of light that have been in transit perhaps over billions of miles and millions of years, and catching them on the back of your retina. That's where the true wonder lies. Leave the theorists and the philosophers to figure out what the whole point of the show is.
I'll happily settle for some raw photons. That's what astronomy is really about, isn't it?
28-May-20 : Venus takes a bow
Once again, Venus moves towards inferior conjunction and its slender crescent slides, westwards, into the sunset. Don't worry. It's done this before. It will do so again. According to my trusty ephemeris - Stellarium - a repeat performance will begin again in another year or so. Something like that.
I find moments such as this to be profoundly sad. They mark the passing of another astronomical season, the grand finale to an observing epoch which began last September (2019) as Venus appeared from behind the Sun and became an evening object, a tiny disc way over yonder, on the far side of its orbit. Yes, there's a definite sense of loss lingering in the back of my mind. The Universe has changed and moved on, and I'm standing here, quite literally, holding the baby.
Well, that's actually true some nights. Chris has his second look down a telescope over the weekend and, whilst he almost certainly had no comprehension of what he was seeing - he’s only a year old - this occasion was, at the very least, an order of magnitude more successful than his first look through the telescope. It took me a full day to lever the last lump of Farley's Rusk out of my favourite eyepiece.
Events like this remind you that the Universe is constantly changing, a never-ending cycle of movement, that everything about you is in a constant state of flux.
What's so special about a series of observations of Venus shining forth in the evening twilight? Here's a simple truth. Evening objects are definitely preferred over morning objects amongst the majority of astronomers, particularly the less dedicated astronomers. (That's me, by the way). But why so?
Firstly, evening objects are generally easier on the soul. You don't have to get out of bed in the wee hours just to observe a small flickering light or a fuzzy patch of incandescent gas. And for astronomers, getting out of bed in the wee hours usually means getting your telescope out of its nice, cozy warm storage facility, only to to manhandle said deadweight into the back of the car or worse drag its unsympathetic carcass into the back garden thirty seconds before the clouds roll in from the South. It is actually easier to stuff a two-day old corpse into the back of a Ford Fusion. Don't ask me how I know. At least a two day old corpse bends in the middle - unlike a Skywatcher 150mm refractor.
Next, evening objects can, and usually do, involve the whole family. I like it when I can show my kith and kin a planet or two shimmering away in the fading twilight. They can clearly see that this massively expensive and usually fruitless endeavour does give me some pleasant, albeit fleetingly. Similarly, they are able to demonstrate an interest in my hobby and thus escape that most dreaded of family conundrums 'How can I fain interest in another fuzzy blob when Gogglebox is about to start? How indeed? As in all similar cases, you should simply follow Mother's advice. Shut your eyes, think of England and it'll all be over before you know it.
Works a charm...
Evening objects are better than morning objects because nobody I know likes an early riser. Nobody. Everyone in my small circle adores and would wholeheartedly embrace the idea of getting up at the crack of dawn, earlier if possible, if only it was a few hours later in the day. Alas, such noble aspirations rarely materialise. 'Sleep, perchance to dream' is altogether more appealing to the majority than standing beneath a cloudy sky in your pyjamas and slippers, trying to spot a transient visitor whilst, at the same time, shielding your eyes from your neighbour's security light.
Worse, those individuals who delight in getting up before everyone they know usually enjoy telling everyone they know that they were up before everyone they know. Worse still, they love to add to that great, big steaming pile of unfettered virtuosity when they remind you that they accomplished so much more than all of those lazy luggers who were still asleep in their miserable pits, all comfortable and warm beneath their 24 TOG duvet, silently dreaming of... I know not what.
Anyway, early risers and their ever-so-virtuous grins can bugger off in my book.
So, evening objects. Thumbs up. Double thumbs up if they can put on a show before eleven o'clock at night, when our household has more or less closed down and those that remain conscious are the perpetual night owls who seem to linger in that twilight state between waking and sleeping for most of their lives. That's me, by the way.
Back to Venus.
Way back in the distant past, okay, last September, I spotted Venus hovering above the western horizon behind a group of particularly difficult tress. I've had trouble with this particular group of trees for the past twenty years, or latent flat-packs as I prefer to think of them. They're like that lanky git with the bad hair and the smelly jacket who always seems to be standing between you and the stage at every concert you've ever been to. To think that these giant wooden bastards had the temerity to plant themselves in God's good earth well knowing that all they'll do every summer is climb skywards just to show off their leaves and then brag about how tall they've become to all of the other smaller trees. Gits, they are. They're gits.
There it was, hanging in the air, intent on chasing the Sun below the horizon, a tiny off-white disc against an off-white sky, like a Cabinet Minister trailing the prettiest of interns.
Months went by and Venus moved further and further away from the Sun, shining ever more brightly from night to night, inviting those with a curious eye to come stare at her lovely curves. So I did. Not sure what the neighbours made of that but, such is life. I wear my semi-permanent stoop with pride. This stoop was earned. This stoop is a badge of office. I, too, have lugged a massively oversized telescope down the road simply to find a marginally better vantage point. Binoculars would have been sufficient. A small telescope, maybe two inches, would have been enough to show the developing arc. But no, David has to carry the huge six inch machine, and its tripod and its counterweights, down to the main road, dodging chavs and drunks at every turn, simply to gaze upon Venus and all of her mysterious beauty.
"Gawd! Such florid purple prose. Such rampant and unrepentant use of redundant smilies. This guy should write for Cosmo..." , I hear you mumble and, truth be told, I wish I did. They pay better.
I recorded the passage and shape of Venus as best I could, a chewed up biro and the back of an envelope being the preferred medium. I understand Picasso went through a similar phase although art historians don't label it as such because The Blue Period sounds so much better than The Chewed-up Biro Period. Yes, I'm waffling. I need to fill a page to keep my editor happy. No, I don't get paid by the word. However, I do get paid a bit more if I use the word serendipity, so I did. There you go.
So, here's to Venus in all of her unfettered glory.
Until next time, my sweet.
09-Apr-20 : Good Friday
Today, 10th April 2020, is Good Friday. We're in the third week of the Lock down.
In years gone by, we'd have followed a small party up to the nearby Hillside Cemetry in Houghton to watch the Passion Play, where a group of overly enthusiastic members of our local congregation pretend to nail one of their friends to a cross. Most years, it's dominated by a bitterly cold North Wind instead of a balmy Mediterranean heat but the cold has never gotten in the way of a thoroughly motivated zealot and, every year, our faux Jesus still stripped down to a loin cloth and then made to walk barefoot through the tomestones. Last year, I couldn't help but think that there was some score-settling going on because those three Roman Soldiers over there looked like they were having a bit too much fun, and that Spear of Destiny was sporting a ferocious tip.
Of course, the timing of Easter has an astronomical significance, otherwise what would be the point of adding it to an astronomical blog?
According to scholars, the date of Easter is defined as the first Sunday following the first Full Moon following the Spring Equinox. Thus, Easter does not fall on any specific date like Christmas Day (December 25th) or The Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (15th August). Easter and its related feast, Accension Day, move around the calendar according to whatever is happening in the sky.
Who came up with this method?
And how are the dates calculated?
It's a complicated business...
The Athenians calculated their dates with respect to a particular Archon or Ruler. The Romans did something similar and referenced all of their historical events with respect to various Consuls. Hence, establishing accurate dates for specific events requires that you know exactly when a specific ruler or despot was in charge. It's a difficult busines, more so when you consider that when one despot takes over from another, all prior works by the previous incumbent are usually obliterated. This means that fixing the date of an event in time is enormously difficult for ancient and medieval historians, and perhaps accounts for why they're such a testy lot, have few real friends and rarely get invited to parties.
The method of computing time from a fixed point e.g. the birth of Jesus has made writing histories significantly easier, to the point where every sensible person on the planet might want to scratch their collective heads and wonder why nobody thought of using this method in the first instance. Those pesky medieval historians are to blame, frankly.
According to the Bible, Jesus Christ's death and resurrection occurred at the time of the Jewish Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), which is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Hebrews' exodus from slavery in Egypt. It lasts seven days in Israel (and among Reform Jews), and eight days elsewhere around the world. The holiday begins on the 15th day of Nisan, which is the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. It ends on the 21st of Nisan in Israel (and for Reform Jews) and on the 22nd of Nisan elsewhere.
These subtle variations in the Jewish calendar led to different groups of Christians celebrating Easter at different times. At the end of the 2nd century, some congregations celebrated Easter on the day of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday. The Christian Church universally agreed was not a good thing and decided to make a ruling.
In 325 AD, the Council of Nicaea ruled that Easter would be held on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon occurring on or after the vernal equinox and predicting the movements of the Moon N years into the future isn't difficult.
From that point forward, the Easter date depended on the ecclesiastical approximation of March 21 for the vernal equinox.
But wait... it gets even more complicated...
Between 325 AD and now, we had a change of calendar... Back in 325 AD, we used the Julian calendar, so named after Julius Caesar - yes, that Julius Caesar - because he was the ruler who standardised all of the calendars throughout the Roman Empire. Makes sense, really.
Insert obligatory What have the Romans ever done for us? joke here...
At the Synod of Whitby in 664, King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter (and observe the monastic tonsure) according to the customs of Rome rather than the customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and its satellite institutions.
I mention this because perhaps the most respected of scientists, astronomers and historians of that age, the Venerable Bede, lived up the road from us in Jarrow & Wearmouth, and it was his advice at the Synod of Whitby which helped define the method for calculating Easter using the science of Computus, as Bede would have known it. In addition, we have Bede to thank for the name Easter, a name which he seems to have derived from the Germanic Goddess Eostre.
Local legend has it that Bede frequently visited the village of Hoton, as Houghton-le-Spring was called in the seventh Century, whilst on his numerous pilgrimages to Durham Cathedral. Bede was also known to frequent a licensed hostelry thought to have occupied a site near to what is now a branch of the J. D. Wetherspoons chain, namely the Wild Boar, where you may, for a suitable fiduciary inducement, sample one of those same pies that Bede found so delicious. If you can get served at the bar, that is. In fact, Bede wrote in one of his landmark volumes, A History of the English-speaking peoples
"... I beeseech thee, goodly sirs... Verily, do not attympt to visyt yon place (Ye Wilde Boare) on match days, for the buildyng is knee-deep in red-faced and visybly sour Sunderland supporters, anxious to restore their side's mediocre fortunes... Ale is as flate as Ye Witch's Tit but the pies are good though..."
Back to the story...
Great. Everyone is cool. We're all using the same calendar and everybody is in agreement, right?
By the time of the middle ages, it was realised that the Julian calendar had slipped and critical astronomical dates such as the timing of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes didn't match what was going on in the Heavens. What was the problem? The method of calculating Leap Years as defined by the Julian Calendar was wrong. The Julian formula produced a leap year every four years, which is too many. Leap years happen less often than every four years. Disagree? Look the maths up for yourself.
To get the calendar back in sync with astronomical events, it was agreed that a number of days would have to be dropped from history altogether. Syncing the calendars fell on the shoulders of Pope Gregory XIII, who, in 1582, issued a Papal Bull (a decree), which stated that 10 days had to be dropped when switching to the Gregorian Calendar, and the later the switch occurred then the more days would have to be omitted.
Making the jump to the Gregorian Calendar was a confusing process, and created short months with only 18 days and odd dates like February 30 during the year of the changeover. In North America, the month of September 1752 was exceptionally short, skipping 11 days.
Sounds like a good plan, right? Everyone is using the same calendar again and all of the astronomical events tie up!
Not so. It took over three hundred years for every country in the world to adopt the same calendar. The Catholic countries were the first to fall in line, as you might expect. Spain, France, Italy and Portugal all jumped to the new calendar within a year. However, those pesky Brits took over two hundred years to make the change, and whilst those Colonial Renegades across the Atlantic made the jump at roughly the same time as their British Cousins, it's important to remember that certain regions of the United States didn't jump to the Gregorian Calendar for many, many years. I'm tempted to make a Trump-related joke here but I'm not going to.
These days, whilst countries like China and India still retain their original calendars for the timing of religious and cultural holidays, they use the Gregorian Calendar for business transactions.
Do we need another revision? Is our modern calendar out of step with astronomical events? Indeed, there are moves by the English Churches to fix the date of Easter so that it falls on one specific date just to make it better fit the modern world.
Many cynical modern observers, who now cast a doubting eye over the machinations of the Church, have suggested that we should perhaps fix the date of Easter as starting from that point in the year when Easter Eggs first appear on the shelves at their local branch of Tesco since that date is fixed in the calendar with some considerable precision - namely the 2nd of January.
So there's a potted history of the date of Easter.
Finally, I began the day with a bad case of Writer's Block. At first, the words did not come easily, if at all. I felt ... out of touch... That there was something missing, which I couldn't quite put my finger on. Blame this wretched lock down. I had wanted to talk all about some recent observations of the Moon and Venus but... I got sidetracked and the result was this update.
Bowing to pressure from my legions of readers... Okay, just one of you, I'll explain. The photes of the Moon at the top of this update were taken with my mobile smart phone, a humble Samsung Galaxy J5, using a Celestron NEXYz attached to my SkyWatcher 150mm scope. The graphic represents Venus, about two weeks past elongation. I wasn't able to photograph it - the Smart Phone wouldn't lock focus and I got a huge blue every time - so I did the next best thing and rendered it as a crude drawing.
05-Mar-20 : Encounter in Byker
Today... March 2020 ... Another trip into Newcastle. Another wander down memory lane.
This time... it's 1980 and I'm in Byker, in the east end of the City. It's a strange place. Certain areas are gorgeous - full of leafy green trees and lush, verdant grass whilst others still hark back to the dark, stark grey depravity of the 30's and 40's. The sun rarely shines on these enclaves, that much is obvious.
We're standing on Commercial Road, Byker, where much of this adventure begins.
Why am I here? I'm building a telescope, a modest six inch Newtonian reflector. I have a tube - a lump of soil pipe recovered from a skip on a building site the year before. I have a mirror. It didn't cost much and it's not very good but does form tolerable star images so long as you don't look too closely. I have a mount, crudely hacked together from bits of wood and a bicycle frame. It works, after a fashion. My skills as a carpenter were (and are) questionable. I tell people it's one of Chippendale's early works, from the time before he learned his trade. And some, strangely, believe me.
What I do need is a secondary mirror but where to get one with my meager funds? "You need to visit David Sinden at his workshop in Byker..." suggests my friend Joe Mackie.
Whilst this is good advice, it brings two new problems to the table.
Firstly, as far as I'm concerned, Byker might as well be on another planet. "It's rough. It's violent. It's not the place for a polite young gentleman to wander..." opines my Mother. She's right. The bus journey across the river is smooth and unremarkable but, as soon as we alight, a group of youths lob an empty bottle in our direction and shout something incomprehensible. From their tone, they seem to be implying that I am rather too fond of the Old Testament character, Onan. Reason? I am wearing a suit and nobody in this part of the city wears a suit except when they're getting married, buried or up in front of a Magistrate.
Secondly, David Sinden.
David is something of a legend in the local astronomical community and, even at the age of seventeen years, I know that it is never a good idea to meet your idols. They almost invariably disappoint and most of us youngsters are in awe of this man and his accomplishments.
David Sinden is widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the design and fabrication of large telescope mirrors. From humble origins in the Dog End of Hartlepool - his words, not mine - he made his first telescope mirror at the age of fourteen years, and it was sufficiently good to merit a mention in the local newspaper, The Hartlepool Gazette. From there, he, like his peers, left school to work at the local ICI plant, where he was apprenticed as a fitter. After hours, he attended night classes and proved to be an exemplary student. In his free time, he continued working on his telescope mirrors.
Convinced that working in ICI for the rest of his days was not a good idea - it wasn't - he sent one of his telescope mirrors to the manager of the Optical Shop at Grubb Parsons, Newcastle, then one of the foremost telescope makers in the world. They were so impressed with the figure of David's mirror that they offered him a job on the spot.
Once at Grubb's, David excelled and quickly moved through the ranks to become Technical Manager of the Optical Shop, where he worked on a dazzling array of telescopes including the Anglo-Australian telescope at Siding Spings, widely regarded as one of the best instruments in the world. His reputation for engineering excellence was thoroughly deserved and his knowledge and skills were widely recognised throughout the field.
Back to the story.
We've been told to look for a landmark, namely the Raby Bingo Hall. It's easy to find - the only building left standing in what is a genuine wasteland. This is where the long rows of terraced houses used to sit. They survived the Kaiser, the Depression and the Luftwaffe but they were unable to resist the Long March of T. Dan Smith and his scheme to drag old Newcastle into his vision of a Brave New World. The Brazillia of the North was how T. Dan once described his concrete pipe dream. Well, we're certainly a long way from Brazil, that's for sure.
The Bingo Hall is remarkable because it's adorned with the image of a weightless astronaut tethered to a largely unseen spaceship, out and about on a spacewalk. The image bares a slight resemblence to the late Ed White and I wonder if it's some form of tribute. However, the simple and in escapable truth is that this image looks hopelessly out of place in this Temple to the Grim and the Grime.
Sinden Optical Company. It says so on the brass plaque on the door. The plaque also shows signs of having been recently restored. There are deep gouges in the cement and brickwork behind the sign, and the shiny brass screws fixing the plaque to the wall are untarnished by soot. They're remarkable in that they're the only items I can see for a mile in any direction that are untarnished by soot.
An impossibly tall, bearded man appears in the doorway. "What?" he grunts, angrily. "Oh... Sorry... I thought it was those little f***ers trying to steal the gutters again."
Erm, okay. Maybe my mother was right.
I'm with my girlfriend of the day, a moon-faced elfin cherub by the name of Lorianne. She's here for moral support because I am impossibly shy and deeply uncomfortable in all but the most familiar of social surroundings. Lorianne is the exact opposite. She's loud and bubbly and very, very bouncy. She's the perfect front of a nervous boy who hasn't really got much of a clue about the real world.
Lorianne and I enter, and find ourselves in a kind of Aladdin's Cave... Except this is the kind of Aladdin's Cave if Aladdin had really let himself go and perhaps taken up a career in repairing old motorcycles or renovating broken washing machines instead of saving the Sultan's Daughter from Evil Wizards. There are motors and belts and gears adorning every surface. Those surfaces not cluttered with bits of broken down mechanicals are decorated with either handwritten notes hastily scribbled on bits of crumpled paper or recently abandoned tea cups. This facility runs on tea, or so it would seem.
David Sinden, whom I recognise from a previous encounter, is in fine form. Spectacles perched on the end of his nose and prizing lumps of cheese sandwich out of his thick black beard with what looks like a Cassegrain Primary, he's of the opinion that their current endeavour (whatever that is) is doomed to failure and that all involved should give up, put the kettle on and figure out a new way of bending reality to their will.
David pauses, smiles and pushes his spectacles up his nose. "Hello," he says, offering his hand. "David, right? I'm a David too. Nearly everyone is called David around here. Except Brian."
Lorianne and I are invited to sit and then made welcome with tea. The reception is warm and friendly, and there is some discussion of telescopes, and how the Mice do all of the work around here. David apologises profusely for the grit and the dust. "We make mirrors and telescopes here..." he says. "It sort of goes with the territory."
"Have you done much grinding?" asks David. Lorianne giggles.
We talk about my telescope mirror, specifically the one I am hand-grinding rather than my shop-bought mirror and decide that the hand-ground mirror will be vastly superior. He asks where I bought the smaller mirror from. "Tel-Optics" I reply. David says "Oh..." and that part of the conversation ends.
We are guests. Special guests, it would seem. Why? David and the impossibly tall, bearded guy (Brian) know that we are in possession of a strange and mythical substance hardly ever seen in these parts. This substance is called cash. Money. Moolah. Vitamin M.
Better still, it's real cash. Not cheques or postal orders or promisary notes. It's cash in the form of pound notes and coins. It's money that doesn't have to go through the books. This is the sort of cash you can hide it from the Accountant and the Bank Manager and the Missus. It's yours and it's untraceable.
Why is cash such a precious commodity? This is 1980 and we're in the midst of Margaret Thatcher's Utopian Vision, which has no time for pure research. Big contracts for big optics are thin on the ground and, frankly, times are hard when you make specialist items for Universities and Industry.
In real terms, this paltry sum - a mere eleven pounds - is the difference between having enough petrol in the car to get you home, or, in terms of food, a stone cold mince pie from Greggs or two rounds of hot fish and chips from the Chip Shop on the corner. Which would you choose? It's a no-brainer. As I later discovered, the fish and chips from the Chip Shop on the corner are actually rather good. However, as I also later discovered, there's an ugly rumour circulating which suggests that whenever certain bakeries on Commercial Road see a jump in demand for stone cold mince pies there's a corresponding dip in the local cat population. Make your own mind up. I'm sure it's only a rumour but...
David presents me with a couple of secondary mirrors. I can't afford a first quality item and I've already accepted that I'll have to settle for a second. Optically, it'll work well but aesthetically, it will be flawed. One has a corner missing. The other has a deep, deep scratch across the first surface. Another is chipped. Eventually, we find one that is minimally flawed but it's still too expensive. With luck, charm and the skillful and willful application of Lorianne's feminine attributes, we manage to haggle the price down. The mirror will work well and, when it's installed in the telescope, nobody will know or care except me. Steve Jobs wouldn't approve but I don't have the luxury of his bank balance.
The mirror is wrapped in lint-free tissue paper, packed out with brown paper and then placed in a small cardboard box. It is more precious than you can imagine. Although the package has the outward appearance of an engagement ring, it is most definitely not an engagement ring. Someone is clearly a little disappointed. Sorry, Lorianne. You were fresh out of luck there.
Thereafter, Lorianne and I are treated to a brief tour of the works. A grinding machine hogging out a twelve inch primary mirror for an observatory in Japan. A polishing machine fine tuning a set of six optical flats for a University in France. The long dark of the test tunnel wherein a 24 inch primary is cooling down to room temperature, ready for its Coude Screen test (Look it up). The steady throb-throb-throb of the vacuum pump preparing a six inch primary for its first coat of molecular aluminium.
I am suitably impressed. Very impressed. I make that obvious.
Maybe it was a test of sorts. If it was then I passed because, just three months later, I begin working for Sinden Optical Company. The impossibly tall, bearded guy called Brian didn't stay very long after our first encounter and I went to work for David, on and off, for the next two years.
My job title was Junior Optical Production Technologist which is a title David dreamed up as a means of impressing my future employers. In reality, it was a posh way of saying I make the tea and clean the machines....
That's only partially true. I have no idea how many optical systems I worked on. I really don't. I just remember a lot of grit, polishing compound, tar and bitumen, the smell of beeswax and the steady drip-drip-drip of machine oil.
I remember the precision. David didn't work in thousandths of an inch, as most engineers do. He worked in millionths of an inch. Precision was all. We measured our successes and our failures in fractions of a wavelength. A lot of mirror makers boast that their surfaces are accurate to one quarter of a wavelength. You'll see it on their adverts. "Our mirrors are all quarter wave and diffraction limited," they proudly declare. This is, of course, bollocks. You can't make a quarter wave, diffraction limited mirror for £100. Not unless it's made in a Victorian Sweat Shop, which some are, sad to say.
The work was hard, uncomfortable and demanding but it was enjoyable. Hugely enjoyable. At the end of the day, you had created something, a product, a thing, something solid and real and tangible that you could exchange for that mythical substance known as cash, cash which paid for the roof over your head and the food on your table. A simple equation when you think about it but all but lost to most...
Mirror making is a form of sculpture except that you're working at the molecular level. That's what you're doing when you optically polish and pitch lap a mirror. You're moving individual atoms of glass around, one by one, to create the perfect optical figure. Glass is just a supercooled liquid and, under the right circumstances, you can move it anywhere you want. Yes, the windows in front of you are actually changing shape, albeit very, very slowly.
"Measure twice and cut once" was my Grandfather's mantra. With David the mantra became "Measure twice, put the kettle on, measure again, wait until the kettle has boiled and then measure again." That sounds jokey and not very serious but it isn't. It's utterly remarkable how many times a set of dimensions will change between putting a tea bag in a cup and adding hot water. It's a fact of Engineering Life and one I both cherish and respect to this day.
We didn't just make telescope mirrors. I worked on some very specialised optical systems. Extreme Aspheric Mirrors was one of David's speciality products. There were (and probably are) very few people on the planet with the skills to make this kind of surface. David didn't keep those secrets to himself. I was encouraged to get knee-deep in the torturous maths required to generate such steep curves. These days, you'd probably hog them out and fine grind with the aid of a specialised CNC machine but, back then, it was out with the Black and Decker, and a set of hand tools. Polishing and figuring such a surface is most definitely a hands-on operation, and I still get cramp in my right hand from one particularly extreme surface. A twelve inch f0.1 ellipsoidal for off-axis spectroscopic imaging in a milking machine, if you're interested.
There wasn't enough money in the bank to pay me a proper salary so I went through the books as Wood and Sundries, or Petrol. Every two weeks, I would sign on at the Dole Office in Swan House, Newcastle, and defiantly declare that I had not been able to find a job and had done no paid work since I had last signed on. I would then get on the bus on Blackett Street and go to work at Sinden's, just like so many other students back then.
Eventually, University beckoned and I left Sinden Optical Company in September 1981. David and I remained friends, off and on, for the next twenty six years until he went to The Great Optical Workshop in the Sky.
Those times were very, very character forming. The work was everything. Precision was everything. You did a good job not for David Sinden's sake but for your own. David was rarely disappointed because David openly acknowledged and embraced the fact that making mistakes is a huge part of the learning process and you only get good at a task through experience. Doing a good job is a personal thing and goes beyond taking pride in your work.
David was fond of saying that telescope mirrors don't wear out. The reflecting surfaces tarnish over time but they can be resurfaced relatively easily. What lingers long after you've gone to dust is the quality of the work, the effort you put into making the surface as near perfect as possible and the hours spent correcting mistakes and refining your processes. Think on that. What you're making now may last five hundred years.
So, forty years on. Byker is still Byker. Commercial Road is still busy. The workshop is still there except it's a car repair shop. The funeral director is still in the far corner, and the bodies of the deceased still come and go at all hours of the day and night. The workshop next to ours (where Jim, the printer, was caught and imprisoned for forging Bolivian Bank Notes) is still up for sale, just as it was when I last came through these parts twenty years ago.
And, of course, Greggs is still there. Yup. Still there. However, there's not a tabby cat in sight. Not one. Make your own mind up.
20-Feb-20 : A Room with a View
I was fifteen when I was bitten by the astronomy bug. When I say bitten... well, that's not true. This wasn't like a gentle nip from a playful puppy. I would liken the experience as being more closely akin to that of being mauled by a rather disgruntled Walrus with a bad case of fish-breath. Yes, I was smitten. Utterly smitten. Indeed, I was more smitten with the stars above than I was with my first ever love, Janette Peddar, with whom I had planned to spend my entire future, if only she'd smile in my direction instead of punching me in the guts or sitting on my head at every opportunity. Just once would be nice. Just once...Alas, poor Janette was immediately ousted in my affections by my desire for a six inch reflecting telescope and a subscription to Sky and Telescope.
At fifteen, I had a scope. I had a pair of (borrowed) binoculars. What I really needed was an observatory, somewhere away from prying eyes and difficult questions like "Why bother?" and "Haven't you got anything better to do?". I needed a place where I could practice these dark and mysterious arts without fear of interruption, a locked room where the madness within could hide away from the madness without.
However, what I really needed, more than anything else, was a facility away from those who dust, specificially my Grandmother, who insisted that my highly technical and precisely calibrated items of scientific scrutiny required a regular dusting, usually every other day, otherwise... "Where would we be? Some anonmyous Banana Republic. That's where we'd be."
"This is how Empires crumble..." she would grumble as she flitted from surface to surface, feather duster in hand, like a geriatric version of Tinkerbell. "The first thing to go in your typical socialist republic is the dusting." she would mutter to herself. "After that, it's armed insurrection and Secret Policemen on every street corner."
You might be tempted to laugh at the above but, no. Don't. Remember this. Astronomical mirrors are first surface mirrors, which means that the reflective coating is on the front optical surface. They're not like your typical bathroom mirror where the coating is behind the main glass and protected by a thick film of solidified goo. Touch the surface of an astronomical mirror in any way and you WILL damage the aluminium coating.
And Granny did. She swears she didn't but someone did, and she was caught red handed, duster poised in a Ninja-like stance, hovering above my scope. Alas, our duster-intervention came too late and my main telescope mirror was trashed. Those fine-lined sleeks carved into the atomic level reflective coating rendered it all but useless for practical observing. That was an expensive repair job. In the end, I bought a new mirror entirely.
As a response to Duster-Gate, I started to look for a small plot of land away from street lights and off the main thoroughfare but not too far from the house. As luck would have it, I soon found a really good location that matched all of the criteria tolerably well. It was in the middle of a block of allotments near our house and just off the main foot path, with greenhouses on all sides that would pretty much block out most of the intrusive streetlighting. I made a couple of late night reconnaissance trips, hauling myself (and our dog, Brandy) over the rather shambolic wooden fencing that surrounded the enclosure and concluded that, yes, this location would do nicely.
Convinced that this was a good idea, I wrote (what I thought) was a very compelling but friendly letter to the Chair of the Allotments Association, a rather pompous, self-agrandised and very self important would-be dominatrix by the name of Mrs. Irene Betts. I waited a couple of days and then (rather nervously) went to visit Irene in person.
The hauty Irene said that, on the surface, my letter had some strong points and, whilst she had a few misgivings about late-night tresspassers, she was generally in favour of the idea. There were some conditions - the Observatory had to be well used and that it wouldn't cost the Allotment Association any money. Seemed fair, I thought. I agreed that I would pay for, and maintain, the observatory myself and thereafter arrange to pay the rent on a monthly basis just as the other Allotment holders did. Irene agreed to consider my proposal and would let me know in due course. My Grandmother offered to act as a guarantor and her word was a cast-iron promise that the money would be paid on time.
However, weeks went by and I never received a reply to that letter. I went to see Irene in person on at least one occasion but, even when pressed, she would not commit.
Two months later, a bloody great big shed about the size of an industrial container arrived at the entrance to the allotments and thereafter was plonked directly on the site of my proposed observatory. I had my reply.
I was very, very upset. It would be wrong to say otherwise. My mother sympathised and suggested that it was likely a response to my father’s activities when he'd been a City Councillor a few years before. Irene and her friends on the Allotments Committee were, politically, slightly to the right of Atilla the Hun and, to their considerable chagrin, had never been able to bend my father to their will. Clearly some resentment still lingered. Such is life in local politics.
Yes, I was (and remained) pissed at Irene and her passive/aggressive minions for some time to come and, yes, I decided that some form of protest gesture was in order. I mean, this is Astronomy and Astronomy is a serious business. You do not mess with Astronomers. We get mean. Quickly.
There's an old meme which suggests that confession is good for the soul, and it is, after a fashion. Don't worry. I'm not going to confess all of my sins in the next few paragraphs. I'll leave that odious task until Judgement Day, when brain rot and senility having rendered me about as bright as a Cabinet Minister, and poor St. Peter is delegated with the uneviable task of reminding me of what a little git I was in my youth. I may even smile, if I still can.
But, yeah, this is where I fess up to a spot of rather juvenile silliness.
I was in the habit of walking Brandy at around midnight, usually at the end of an observing session or whenever BBC2 had shut down for the evening. And every time I passed Irene Betts’ house, I would swap out the carefully crafted and artfully penned note she’d written for her milkman "Two pints only and a dozen eggs, please." with one of my own. “The door is open. Come and get some, big boy!” was a common theme. “I need your special Gold Top this morning, handsome...” was another. Juvenile? Yes, absolutely. But don't judge me. This was forty years ago and I haven't done anything even remotely comparable since then. Well, certainly not in the last month at least.
At the time, I thought that this petty act of rebellion was incredibly funny although I am not sure what Joe, our milkman, ever made of those notes or if he ever acted upon them. I sincerely hope not. I like to think that he had more sense than to toy with Irene Betts' affections. She did not take prisoners (allegedly).
Skip forward a couple of weeks and the joke had now worn a bit thin but... You know... standards and all that. They have to be maintained. It’s a British tradition. However, on this occasion, something was clearly amiss. There was a light on in Irene's front porch. And was that a shadow lurking just behind the front door? My spidey sense began tingling. The hair on the back of my neck stood up proud and tall, and roundly declared that this rather clumsy deception was likely a trap. Consequently, Brandy and I elected to just sail on past Irene's front door, quickly disappearing into the inky void, binoculars on hand, like thieves in the night.
That was 1978.
Makes you feel old, doesn't it?
Skip forwards a lifetime. I passed through my old village last week as I was returning from a business trip into Newcastle, and the memories came flooding back, as they often do. And they made me smile. The allotments were still there but the shed/container had gone, presumably long since faded into dust. Alas, Irene's precious allotment was overgrown and thick with weeds, as were most of the others but that's nothing new. Those allotments had always been that way or so it seemed. They gave the village the aura of third world, chanty town that had really gone to the dogs.
Alas, Irene passed on to the Great Committee in the Sky several decades ago as did all of her submissives on the Allotments Committee. However, I did wonder if Joe, the Milkman ever kept Irene's Notes and I do wonder if he ever smiled at them. Joe was a man of the world and he had a sense of humour, and he could plainly see through all of Irene's pretentious bluster. I can well imagine the pleasure he might have taken when he eventually presented those minor missives to Irene. "Are these yours?" he might have said in his near-impenetrable Geordie accent. I can well imagine the look on Irene's face. I'm fairly sure that they would have burst her pompous, self important bubble.
I hope so. I really do.
29-Jan-20 : Bang on the money!
I am convinced that some considerable time ago, way off in the dim and distant past, the God of Weather and the God of Astronomy were sitting in a bar having a beer or two, or three (you know what these Gods are like) and, somehow they got into a bit of a heated debate over something, I know not what. Maybe an item of bar trivia or whose round it was. Who knows? This heated debate soon shifted up a gear and quickly became an argument, and then the argument rapidly morphed into a bare knuckle fist fight, which spilled out into the street and required the intervention of a Police Officer before peace could be restored. Since then, the God of Weather and the God of Astronomy have never seen eye to eye. Worse, they've never, ever had the stones to sit down, have a chat, discuss their differences and maybe end the evening with an amicable handshake or a friendly game of shove-happenny. And because these two mythical superbeings have never, ever been able to settle their differences, it's us astronomers who have to deal with the consequences.
Don't believe me? Not convinced? It's a story, much like lots of other stories involving mythical superbeings. Take from it what you will.
So whenever a magazine like Astronomy Now or Sky And Telescope makes a knowing prediction of heavenly delights, I always smile and wonder which of the afore-mentioned imaginary deities will prevail. Will I see something? Anything? Or will the event be (once again) clouded out?
As a for instance... Comet C/2017 Panstarrs was supposed to make a graceful flyby of the Double Cluster in Perseus last weekend and, whilst I was able to track the comet on two occasions last week, the actual event was, rather predictably, clouded out.
On Monday 27th January 2020, predictions had said that the planet Neptune (always a tricky target) could be found sitting in the same field of view as the planet Venus. I wasn't optimistic. I hadn't slaughtered any cockrells or bowed down on bended knee before a makeshift altar so... It's my own fault, I guess. I should be more diligent in my worshipping.
However, come 1700 hours, though still slightly hazy, the skies cleared enough to show a thoroughly gorgeous crescent Moon crowned by the equally gorgeous Venus, beaming away at roughly magntitude -4. Yes, that's bright enough to cast a shadow, and it did. I tested it.
Out came the big Skywatcher 150mm scope. Venus was easy to find but also incredibly unstable. So much hot air rising from the ground.
The available maps suggested that Neptune would be in the upper left of the field of a low power eyepiece. I had a quick, furtive look and... well... What's that? Is it a field star? Is it a satellite? No, is it Neptune? Well, it was. Neptune. The bain of John Couch-Adams and George Biddel Airy. (Look them up...)
Jules came out and had a look. It was her first encounter with Neptune and ... wow... that was impressive.
I left the telescope in place and returned, periodically, when I really should have been paying more attention to cooking dinner (which was late. Sorry, Jules) but... you know... Neptune. I have to admit that I was positively bouncing around the room for most of the evening. Finding Neptune under one's own steam is an event in itself. I've seen Neptune once before, at a star party in a group of about twenty, and I saw the taciturn planet for about five seconds, no more. So this was a special moment.
Last night, Tuesday night, I had another go. Stellarium suggested that Neptune and Venus had moved a little further apart in the sky (and they had) but a quick search resulted in another successful find. Once again, pretty thrilling.
And so, for once, the Great God of Astronomy prevailed and we got to see something. It doesn't happen much these days, or that's the way it seems. I want to say that it seems to rain a lot more today than it did forty years ago, and that clear nights seem few and far between at the moment but that isn't true. My observing logs from 1978 strongly indicate that the weather was just as unpredictable then as it is now.
Anyway, Neptune. Still pretty thrilled, frankly. I could get to like this astronomy lark again.
27-Jan-20 : Comet Hunting and Guerilla Astronomy
Returning home one night a couple of weeks ago, I was dismayed to find that the family were watching Ru Paul's Drag Race. Think of me what you will but this programme just isn't for me. I'd rather floss the cat. (We haven't got a cat, either)... Alas, it was too soon to go to bed and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to sleep anyway so ... I felt the need to do something a bit more positive, something useful with those precious minutes before the Sandman robs me of my critical faculties.
The good news was the the sky was clear, or as clear as it gets around these parts given that we're marginally less light polluted than Oxford Street in the run up to Christmas. Undeterred and feeling somewhat mischievous, I went outside and tried to find a sweet spot between the two competing street lights and a security light from the Church at the back of our house. I found just such a position but the lights from inside the house spoiled the view a little so, a couple of seconds later, I nipped indoors and pulled shut as many curtains as I could find. Back at my makeshift observation station, I found that these makeshift solutions had worked pretty well. It wasn't dark by any means but it was certainly better.
Then... I discovered that if I got down on my knees then I could blot out a couple of extra lamps, and if I dropped even further I could eliminate another series of house lights altogether. In the end, I found that lying on my back, on our driveway, gave me a more than acceptable view of the sky. Certainly not horizon to horizon but good enough up towards the zenith.
I'd also had the foresight - some may call it hopeless optimism - to bring a pair of binoculars along with me and so I began sweeping the sky for anything of interest. It was cold down on the ground and I was glad of my big, thick heavy winter overcoat and a wooly hat. Never underestimate the restorative power of a wooly hat.
Gradually, as my dark adaption started to work, I began to see far more stars than I have in a long time, and certainly from this location. Casually sweeping the sky brought out some absolute gems. I managed to spot all three of the Auriga Messier clusters (M36, M37 and M38) in one go, and I've never been able to do that from here before. The double cluster in Perseus was another absolute gem. Indeed, that whole area of the sky is wonderfully rich in bright stars and a myriad of tiny clusters.
I shifted my attention to the east and the constellation Gemini. One of my all time favourite targets is Messier 35, an open cluster not far from the star Propus. Jupiter was passing close to this object when I first began observing seriously forty years ago and it's never lost its magic. The cluster itself is fairly loose but I was even more amazed to notice the vaguest twinkling of the nearby globular cluster NGC 2158. It's an easy object in my big Skywatcher scope but not at all easy in a pair of binoculars. In fact, I was fairly convinced that my eyes were tricking me.
Moving further to the east, I found the Beehive Cluster aka Praesepe or Messier 44, which was just gorgeous.
Moving back to the south, The Pleiades were just about to drift over the roof of the house and that view was... just incredible. Thousands and thousands of stars, all pin sharp and blue.
Then something else occurred to me - my astigmatism, which has been a constantly problem in both of my eyes for the last fifteen years, seemed somewhat reduced. Either reduced or perhaps not there at all. The star images in the binoculars were absolutely pin sharp and not the blurred-out rectangles I've been used to. I wondered if lying on my back in a very relaxed state was helping. Later, I checked in with a doctor friend and he was skeptical. Astigmatism does not come and go. Once you've got it, only corrective glasses and/or laser surgery can fix it. However, I did mention that I had not been anywhere near a computer screen for several days and my eyes were almost certainly far more relaxed than they have been in many years so maybe my astigmatism is stress-related. I've seen stranger things.
The Hyades cluster in Taurus was similarly gorgeous and I spent quite a while surveying this region, especially the area around Aldebaran.
Finally, I decided to pay another visit to M42, the Orion Nebula. This one wasn't so easy because it wasn't high in the sky and I had to crane my neck at an awkward angle. I quickly gave up and returned to The Pleiades and then the area through Perseus.
After about thirty minutes - give or take - I started to noticed that I was feeling a little damp, and that the cold was starting to get into my coat and especially the back of my head. This is a good way to catch the infamous Astronomer's head cold, an unfortunate malady of the nose and throat which causes astronomers of all ages to sniff, cough and wheeze, and to casually waft thoroughly grotty handkerchiefs throughout the winter observing months between October and March.
There was also one more nagging possibility pushing at the back of my mind - our Milkman, Ernie, has taken to making his deliveries at around midnight and I had no idea how the poor soul would react if he came across an astronomer lying prone on a customer's driveway. I also had visions of being run over by a milk float and ending up in Accident and Emergency having finished the night covered from head to foot in a heady mix of Gold Top and broken glass.
Back indoors, I wrote some notes - you do right up your sessions, don't you? - before retiring for the night feeling somewhat pleased with myself. Some might say smug even. And they'd be right.
A couple of nights later, we were returning home following a night out and, looking up, I noticed that the sky was a glorious mess of clouds, all skudding in front of the nearly-full Moon. Not much of interest astronomically speaking but still... something about the cloud patterns were interesting. Chris was flat out asleep and thoroughly wrapped up against the freezing air so Jenny I grabbed a decent camera and a tripod, and honkered down close to the ground so that the roof of our neighbour's house obscured the full glare of the Moon. We were then treated to an amazing display of alternating dark and bright clouds, beautiful patterns and shadows which shifted and changed every time we looked away. I've uploaded one of the best images to give you a flavour of what was on offer. Amazing. Truly amazing.
Skip forwards a couple of weeks and Wow... There's a new comet in the sky. C/2017 Panstarrs is not particularly bright but the ephemeris stated that it would pass close to, if not through, the Double Cluster in Perseus. At magnitude +8.5, I wasn't particularly optimistic but, never-the-less, I picked it up from my makeshift observing site on Wednesday January 22nd and again the following night. It was small and fuzzy, as most comets are, but conditions were more favourable on Thursday night when it was certainly not at all star-like and it had clearly moved over the previous twenty four hours.
Alas, last night, Sunday 26th January, it was finally clear enough to get out the big Skywatcher 6" scope and, whilst conditions were not ideal, I did have some wonderfully pin-sharp star images. Sadly, there was no sign of the comet. It had moved on to pastures new.
The moral of the tale is this - despite some pretty horrendous light pollution, you can still do some reasonably useful astronomy. It's also still possible to get a real buzz out of observing even when you have pretty bad astigmatism and I, for one, came away wonderfully inspired. My new observing location has been thoroughly used in the past month and I don't think I've done this much serious observing in many, many years.
The only fly in the astronomical ointment is this... I do wonder if our neighbours will ever get used to the sight of a body lying prone outside their house. This is Houghton-le-Spring after all, and you're never, ever sure what you might find when you go to get the newspaper first thing in the morning.
30-Dec-19 : William Shanks and Calculating Pi
William Shanks is something of a local celebrity in my adopted home of Houghton-le-Spring. Way back in the 1800's, Shanks was a well-known and well-respected headmaster and his former boarding school is still standing in Nesham Place to this day although it has long since passed into private hands.
Less well known is that Shanks was also an amateur mathematician, a man who dedicated a major part of his life to calculating many of the important mathematical constants which are an essential part of everyday life, constants such as pi, e and Euler's Constant, γ. He also published a table of prime numbers up to 60,000 and calculated the natural logarithms for 2, 3, 5 and 10 to 137 decimal places.
(Yes, they are essential. The device you're using to read this missive couldn't have been designed and built without a thorough knwoledge of these constants!)
I've been assembling a guide to some of the region's best known astronomers for around a decade, a project which we dubbed The Great Geordie Space Race, and, for various reasons, Shanks' name kept popping up in our researches. Hence, I decided to seek him out.
But just how did he calculate Pi in the first instance? What method did he use?
Way back in the mysts of time, I was taught Archimede's method for calculating Pi. However, this method yields an approximate value, meaning that it works up to a point but it's not particularly good when you need real precision, and that was Shanks' main goal - the pursuit of precision.
It turns out that Shanks' method for calculating Pi was based on Machin's formula, which can be represented in mathematical notations as follows :
Looks complicated, doesn't it? However, it's not that difficult to follow (Really, it isn't...). Better still, you can run this algorithm very quickly and very easily on a modern digital computer. Here's a Python Script, which will calculate Pi to 10000 places in around seven seconds.
Try it for yourself... Just 25 lines of code. Easy, isn't it? :)
Now remember that way back in 1873, Shanks performed these same calculations over and over again by hand, using just paper and a pencil, and it took him many, many years. And he did very well, too. He was accurate right the way up to around 500 decimal places.
Of course, Shanks was a human being and therefore fallable, and he did make a mistake in his calculations. Actually, he was right all the way up to the 527th decimal place... At this point, he seems to have transposed two figures without realising his error. The remaining digits, right up to the 707th place are wrong, a fact that was only discovered in 1937 with the advent of digital computers.
Some folk like to scoff at Shanks' error and many do - file under heroic British failures - but I take solace in the fact that the vast majority of such folk can't add up their shopping bill without a calculator and fewer still understand Machin's Formula enough to code it in a programming language like Python, Java or C.
Unbeknownst to him, Shanks also stopped short of the so-called Feynman Point, a sequence of six 9's, which occurs at 762 decimal places. This is a curious anomaly in an irrational number - one that seemingly continues ad infinitum - and, had he found it then said anomaly might have been known as the Shanks Point. This would perhaps have been more appropriate because the Feynmann Point actually has nothing to do with the physicist it's named after, namely Richard Feynmann.
Finding Shanks' Grave
I decided that I wanted to find Shanks grave for myself, or at the very least, his headstone.
However, a bit of digging on the web brought up some sad news. Our local history group, The Houghton Heritage Society, discovered that the original location of Shanks' grave had been lost when the municipal council levelled the area where he was buried. Sadly, his headstone was only recovered by volunteers from a pile of rubble many decades later and the original location of his grave has gone.
Without much hope of locating the headstone, I set off one day between Christmas and New Year, armed with nothing more than my phone and a rough idea of what I should be looking for. I also took our dog, Jasper because... why not?
We made our way to the plateau atop Houghton Hillside Cemetery and began looking. As a consecrated graveyard, it's in a pretty disgusting state, the plateau region being covered in shopping trollies, beer cans and other examples of modern detritus. A volunteer group routinely clears the area and tries to keep it presentable but it's tough work in the face of locals who treat the cemetery as a Saturday night picnic area.
I downloaded a copy of the layout (which looked Victorian) but the resolution was too poor to be of practical value. I did find a couple of photographs which alluded to the position of the headstone but provided nothing conclusive.
With the weather closing in and Jasper getting bored, we made one last sweep, comparing a series of fence posts in one of the photographs with what I could see in front of me, trying to determine an angle and a direction and... that's when I tripped over a headstone embedded in the ground.
Cursing (loudly), I read the inscription and was astonished to discover that I'd actually (quite literally) stumbled over ... Shanks' marker, placed here by volunteers some years before.
I'd used a mixture of pot luck, blind guess work and a hand held computer connected to the internet to locate a lump of stone bearing an inscription. I wondered what Shanks himself would have made of this bit of clumsy sleuthing.
I felt a bit sad at this point. I felt that Shanks deserves a bit more than this. His contribution is of astonishing importance, as exemplified in the small slab of silicon genius I held in my hand at that moment. But at least I'd found him, and learned a bit about Machin's method in the process and, of course, added another chapter to The Great Geordie Space Race.
Job done but ... still, a shame to find no greater marker to Shanks' work.
Let's see what we can do to fix this, shall we?
22-Nov-19 : "Come on, Betelgeuse... Come on..."
Winter heralds the arrival of another strange and beautiful object to the Eastern skies and, every time I see it, I begin to chant a strange and unusual Mantra : "Come on, Betelgeuse. Come on Betelgeuse".
So what's this odd thing called Betelgeuse and why do I find myself repeating a frankly rather childish (and perhaps a little ghoulish) incantation in a graveyard at the front of my house around midnight so close to Hallowe'en?
For those of you not already familiar with this particular celestial phenomena, Betelgeuse is a star. You'll find it in the constellation Orion, which is a particularly easy constellation to locate.
The constellation Orion represents Orion the Hunter in Greek mythology. It's big and covers a substantial area of the winter sky. It's also readily identifiable, framed, as it is, by a rectangle of four really bright stars. To find Orion, just wait until shortly after midnight and look towards the east - Orion should be rising over the eastern horizon.
The name 'Betelgeuse' is Arabic and pronounced Beetle-Juice. This isn't unusual. Lots of stars have Arabic names because, way back in the Golden Age of Islamic Science, Arabic astronomers obtained star catalogues produced by Greek, Babylonian and Indian astronomers, and translated them into Arabic. These volumes then spread through the Islamic Empire where they were picked up by European astronomers, and the names stuck.
Betelgeuse itself sits at Orion's right shoulder - that's Orion's right and our left - and, even with an unaided eye, you should notice that it's an odd colour. To my eyes, it's yellowish red. You may see it differently though.
What's special about Betelgeuse? Betelgeuse is what astronomers call a Red Super Giant, which, in layman's terms, means that it's very big and very red. That might sound astonishingly obvious and it is. "You actually get paid for this sort of guff?" I might hear you ask and, again, you'd be right - I do - but… Betelgeuse is interesting for all sorts of reasons.
Firstly, we're pretty confident that Betelgeuse is rapidly approaching the end of its life. That's not unusual. Stars do that all the time. What makes Betelgeuse special is that it's not very old at all and, in stellar terms, it's just a youngster.
Not very old? How old is Betelgeuse?
Stars like our Sun live for quite a long time. We think that the Sun is around four and a half billion years old, give or take, and our current theories suggest that it will last for another five or six billion years before it too yields to the ravages of old age.
The Sun is an unremarkable star in many ways. It's not particularly massive for a start. Actually, it's a little on the small size. As a consequence of it's diminutive size, the Sun burns its fuel at a relatively slow rate. This means that it's not particularly hot when compared to other stars.
Compare and contrast our Sun with Betelgeuse.
According to current theories, Betelgeuse was originally a huge star - many, many thousands of times more massive than our Sun.
Now, this may seem completely counter-intuitive but big stars burn faster than small stars. Surely, if you make a bigger bonfire then it takes longer to burn. Not so with stars. The more mass there is then the greater the number of nuclear reactions that can take place at a particular moment in time and the faster the star's fuel is converted to energy. Consequently, big stars burn hotter than little stars, which means that they also consume their available fuel at a greater rate.
If this is the case (and it seems highly likely) then Betelgeuse may only be a few tens of millions of years old and, more so, when we look at Betelgeuse with a telescope, when we examine it's chemical and physical make-up, when we compare it with other stars then we're forced to conclude that Betelgeuse maybe very close to the end of its life, and that might just have some interesting consequences for us here on Earth.
Betelgeuse is a remarkable star and astronomers have puzzled over its behaviour for centuries. Back in the 1800's, Sir John Herschel noted that the star was variable, and then it wasn't, and then it was again, which was puzzling. Albert Michelson, an American astronomer, set out to do something remarkable - he attempted to measure the actual size of the star. He succeeded but he didn't get the answer he was expecting. The value he obtained (using a device of his own devising called the Michelson Interferometer) was far larger than expected and implied that Betelgeuse had a diameter which was roughly the size of Jupiter's orbit. In other words, the star's outer atmosphere had expanded massively, consuming all of the star's inner planets.
If that's the case then how do we account for the changes in brightness? Why is Betelgeuse variable?
We think that Betelgeuse has a least one outer shell of hot gas, which is pushed outwards through space by Betelgeuse's equivalent of our solar wind and lots of evidence from our space telescopes seems to support this view.
The star's outer atmosphere is pushed away by some kind of cataclysmic explosion and expands quickly into space. This expansion causes the shell to cool off, and so the outer shell falls back towards the star, where it heats up again. Hence, we see a jump in the star's brightness as it heats up followed by a period of cooling where the star is not as bright as it was. Okay, so this is a rather simplistic explanation but will serve our purposes for the time being.
Here's in the interesting bit… This cyclic behaviour can't go on forever. Eventually Betelgeuse is going to run out of fuel and the solar wind which pushed those outer shells further and further away from the star will eventually fall off to nothing and if there's nothing to push those shells away then gravity will take over and pull them back to the point where they fall into the star and… the star goes BOOM!
Betelgeuse is, or was, a big star and when that amount of matter collapses back in on itself, the result is what astronomers call a Supernova. When this happens, a huge proportion of the star's mass is converted into energy and the star's brightness jumps enormously, to the extent that the star's energy output is more than every other star in the galaxy combined, albeit very, very briefly. How briefly? Probably a few months, maybe a little more or a little less, which doesn't sound particularly brief but, in stellar terms, it's a mere instant in the star's life.
What does this mean for life on Earth?
Well, very little actually. Betelgeuse is a long way off, at around six hundred and forty two light years distant. What that means that it takes the light from Betelgeuse roughly six hundred and forty two years to reach us so if Betelgeuse did go Supernova tomorrow, we wouldn't know for another six hundred and forty two years. That said, if Betelgeuse did go Supernova six hundred and forty two years ago then we might see the consequences tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.
What would happen here on Earth? Well, we'd suddenly see a very bright star in the sky. We reckon that it would be about as bright as the full moon and therefore visible in daylight. At night, it would shine incredibly brightly. Astronomers would have to wait until Betelgeuse had set before we could do any meaningful observations of the sky.
What about the region of space around Betelgeuse? What would happen there?
That's a really interesting question. We do know that when a star goes nova or Supernova, it sends a shockwave moving through space and that shock wave can bump into pockets of interstellar gas and that collision can trigger new stars to form. Okay, so that would take a long, long time to happen but it's probably that we'd later see a series of other stars all burst into life at roughly the same time, astronomically speaking. When a star dies, it usually causes other stars to be born, and that's happened many, many times in the past, a phenomena which I'll talk about in a forthcoming addition to the blog.
So, to answer the question at the top of this blog, that's why you'll find me in a graveyard at midnight around Hallowe'en, egging Betelgeuse on towards its final messy demise.
"Come on, Betelgeuse. Come on Betelgeuse"
"Come on, Betelgeuse. Come on Betelgeuse".
15-Nov-19 : Off to a smashing start
My on-line astronomy class produced for the WEA and supported by the Royal Astronomical Society resumed last night and what a cracking night it was.
A huge increase in the numbers meant that our advertising worked wonders. I felt that the whole session went very well despite some fairly awful problems with my voice. I'm having some difficulty shaking a throat infection so I sounded a little croaky at times.
As promised, I've added a Glossary of Terms so that learners can read up in advance on some of the terms that get tossed around rather casually by yours truly. The document I uploaded is a modified and updated of an early glossary, produced around 1993 and containing a number of defintions which related to my apprenticeship at The Sinden Optical Company in the early 80's. I enjoyed re-reading them and decided to leave them alone so that another generation can read and enjoy.
11-Nov-19 : Is that a smudge on my lens?
It’s a cold dark night in November. You’re outside with a small group of enthusiastic amateur astronomers and you’re keen to get them hooked. You want to feed their new addiction.
There are a handful of objects in the night sky that are guaranteed to make a nascent astronomer really sit back and take notice. In no particular order these are: The Moon, The Andromeda Galaxy, The Pleiades, Jupiter/Saturn and … one other. Please forgive the deliberate tease. I want you to keep reading.
The Moon is an easy win but it isn’t always visible and when it is, its light can be a bit of a nuisance in that it blots out many of the fainter objects. However, seeing the Moon for the first time through a telescope, for real, and not just on a screen or in a book but actually for real, as photons screaming at you through the void of space… that’s pretty hard to beat.
Similarly, Jupiter and the Andromeda Galaxy. They’re hard to top. Jupiter and it’s bigger Moons. The Galileo Moons. “Fireflies” was how Big G described them.
And we’re seeing Andromeda as it was two million years ago because that’s how long those photons have been in transit. That’s a real mind bender. Think about it. You’re a photon and you’ve just spent two million years traversing the inky blackness of space, enduring the lonely isolation, surviving the chasm that separates two sibling Galaxies… and your light is stopped in the last pico second of your two million year journey when it gets trapped behind a cloud or bounces off the windscreen of a 1978 Morris Marina. Makes you want to stay in bed somedays.
However, being positive...
The Pleiades too, outlined below. Thousands of stars born from the same nebula, all spreading out across the vastness of space, bound together by gravity.
But there’s one object that, for my money, really makes the imagination soar. One glimpse and you’re suddenly transported somewhere else, and it isn’t on this world.
That object is the Orion Nebula.
Orion the Hunter is one of the easiest constellations to find. At the moment, it’s rising in the east just before 11 pm and it’s a huge rectangle with three amazing “Belt” Stars.
Now, look just below those three belt stars. You should see a small off-white smudge, which looks utterly unremarkable. This is the Orion Nebula.
And you might be tempted to think “Oh, that’s just a blemish on my lens” or “I need to see the Optician again. There’s something in my eye...” but..
Take a second look. Grab a telescope or a pair of binoculars and have another go. What can you make out? A couple of bright stars and a blurred patch of gas. Not very impressive, is it?
Now, step back from the edge a little and have a long, hard think about that small grey-white smudge. How far away is it? Well, we think we know how far away it is and the result might just surprise you. It’s around one thousand three hundred light years away. This means it takes the light from the Orion Nebula over thirteen hundred years travelling through space before it reaches the back of your eye.
And if the Orion Nebula is that far away then how big is that structure physically? And what’s it like to find yourself floating in the midst of that bubble of gas?
For an observer on Earth, the nebula is roughly the size of the full Moon - about half a degree across the sky. But remember this - that small white smudge is just those areas of the nebula that we can see with the naked eye. As you might imagine, the nebula is actually much, much bigger, and that becomes apparent as soon as you look through even a modest telescope.
A pair of binoculars will show you the central region and maybe the four bright stars - The Trapezium - at the heart of the nebula. A bigger telescope, say a six inch reflector, will show you some of the extended clouds and structures.
With an even bigger telescope and your eyes fully dark-adapted, you should be able to see curving arcs of gas spreading across the entire region. I’ve included one of my renderings of the nebula to give you an idea of what you can see with, say, a ten inch Maksutov Telescope.
Now for the best bit. If this doesn’t blow your mind then... maybe you need to think about another hobby or interest. I hear stamp collecting is a lot of fun.
Way back in 2006, NASA pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at the Orion Nebula and, over 106 orbits, they assembled one of the most detailed astronomical images ever. This image is available to look at for free over on the nebula’s Wiki page. The composite image is roughly 18000 pixels wide by 18000 pixels high so it’s a big image. If you want to view it, make sure you have lots of disk space, a powerful computer and a fast connection.
And I would urge you to do just that. Download the image in a browser and then use the Zoom button. See what you can find.
I’ll give you some hints. You’ll see expanding bubbles of gas, bright stars, curving arcs of the most amazing structures and truly beautiful objects called proplyds, which are expanding discs of photo-planetary systems. Yes, stars and planets actually forming before your very eyes.
So what is the Orion Nebula? We think it's the remnants of a series of huge supernovae explosions, which happened when a group of stars left over from the formation of the early universe reached the end of their lives and exploded in sequence in roughly the same region of space about three billion years ago. The Orion Nebula is the debris from that explosion and has been expanding through space ever since. We can't visually see all of the debris from those explosions because some of it is obscured by dust between us and the Nebula itself but our instruments tell us it's there. And it's remarkable.
For me, this all about the romance of astronomy. To imagine that all of this took place in the night sky before there were humans walking the Earth, before life had even crawled out of the oceans. There’s a real, solid, tangible connection between us, in the present, and an enormous cataclysm which took place a long time ago in our own galaxy.
Studying this nebula as it is now gives us picture of our origins in space and time, and what might become of our region of space in years to come when the Sun starts to wain and humans have long since migrated across the galaxy and perhaps gone on to form new Earths.
08-Nov-19 : Space Zone @ Centre for Life, Newcastle
I was looking forward to this exhibition. I really was. However, I can't and won't pretend that it wasn't a massive disappointment. It was. And expensive too. For the first time in a very long time, I came away from a museum with the feeling that I didn't get anything like good value for money.
First off, at twelve pounds per adult, the entry fee is steep.
Secondly, the Space Zone exihibition space feels incredibly sparce or maybe it just felt like that because there was nobody else there. Just a handful of CfL staffers looking bored.
Most of the exhibits are computer screens. Some of the screens are purely informational whilst others feature one or two interesting puzzles. We both enjoyed the satellite challenge and the 3D house of the future interactive was very good although, in the end, it had the feel of a NASA sales pitch. However, whilst the screen detailing the workings of our GPS system was initially informative, the voice-over quickly became loud and obtrusive, and ultimately just plain annoying. Like Mona Lisa's eyes, the commentary follows you around the exhibition and there's no escaping its nagging tones.
We'd been in the building less than five minutes when we were pounced on by the first of a series of researchers asking questions about how they could make the Centre better. We asked for a bit more time before adding our comments.
Mission Control was quite impressive. In particular we liked the main high definition display showing scenes from a recent Space walk even though it was on a relatively short loop. I enjoyed some of the puzzles and some of the role playing games. Flight Director was quite taxing mentally, as was the lunar lander simulation. However, the Space Debris Catcher didn't work and one or two of the purely informational screens contained some glaring errors as well as a couple of spelling mistakes. Quality Control?
The majority of the display boards littered around the floor were static and contained little more than career advice for teens. The biggest disappointment was the mockup of the interior of the International Space Station. It had a real Blue Peter feel to it, and that isn't a compliment. I can't help but feel that the majority of visitors would find Fenwick's Christmas windows more interesting.
Sadly, the space reserved for the Planets Informational was off-limits because the main exhibit (another screen) was in pieces on the floor. The same applied to the Mars Rover exhibition. The display was working but the software was stuck.
At this point, we were pounced on by another researcher who wanted to know how they could make the exhibition better. I declined to say anything. I wasn't very happy and I didn't have anything positive to say.
Finally, we took refuge in the Planetarium, which thankfully didn't disappoint. Tales of a Time Traveller was well thought out and well delivered even if it too contained a couple of factual errors. However, aside from the operator, we were the only people present and the whole facility had the feel of a rather sweaty ghost ship.
When I compare and contrast this exhibition with Amazing Space over at The Word in South Shields, the much bigger Great North Museum and the even bigger Discovery Museum, I came away feeling monumentally disappointed. All of the forgoing spaces are free to enter and The Word seemed to cram in an awful lot more in a fraction of the space, no pun intended.
The Space Zone exhibition is for teens. There's nothing here for pre-schoolers and nothing here for adults. It's just a career drive for the local Universities who are, surprise, surprise, the main sponsors.
Alas, the Centre for Life seems to be... lacking a lot these days. Other visitors have echoed my complaints and, sad to say, I don't think I'll be going back any time soon.
Worse, now that they've cancelled Maker Faire and have taken to propping up their earnings with an Ice Rink and various novelty shows in Times Square, I'm left wondering how much life is left in Life.
05-Nov-19 : Twelve things which annoy astronomers
... well, maybe this astronomer...
3. People who confuse astronomy and astrology
4. People who insist that Uranus is pronounced Your-anus.
5. Christening an object OUMUAMUA
6. Dropping your telescope’s counterweight on your foot
7. Did I mention rain?
8. People who think it matters that Pluto isn’t a proper planet anymore
9. Dropping your favourite eyepiece in a cow pat
10. People who insist that the light on the horizon is the vanguard of an alien armada when it's actually the 2245 flight from Bergen
11. Confidently informing the astronomical community that you've found an alien megastructure around Tabby's star
12. Did I mention clouds?
01-Nov-19 : Los Angeles, November 2019
Way back in the mists of time, Summer 1982 to be specific, I was dragged (screaming) to a Star Trek convention in my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne. I enjoyed myself, after a fashion, although the highlight of the weekend was not the tall, statuesque lady bedecked as a member of the Vulcan High Command or the near-naked Andorian lady who, it transpired, wasn't ignoring my feeble attempts at a conversation but was actually Italian and didn't speak very much English at all.
No, the genuine highlight of the weekend was a trailer for a soon-to-be-released film, which had somehow sneaked in under the radar of all things Star Trek. This film was not Star Trek. This film was different. It was an adventure but, we were told, it was a thinking person's adventure. Though shot throughout in full colour, it was classic film noir. This was something different.
And, right from the opening images, it looked amazing, utterly amazing. This was due, in part, to the futuristic stylings of the legendary Sid Mead, but also because it had grown from the imagination of Whitley Bay alumni made-good, namely Ridley Scott, later Sir Ridley Scott.
The film, of course, was Blade Runner.
If you haven't seen Blade Runner or one of its numerous edits at some point in the last thirty seven years then you must have been living near the Tanhauser Gates. (Did you see what I did there?) Okay, so if you haven't seen the movie then here's a brief synopsis.
In the near future, (today to be specific!) humans share the planet with their genetically engineered slaves, termed Replicants. Replicants are artificial people - better, stronger and fitter than their human counterparts, and certainly as intelligent as the human engineers who designed them. Sounds brilliant. Cheap labour. However, there's a catch. Replicants are basically humans in disguise and so they're subject to the same needs and drives as real humans, which makes them a threat to their creators. Hence, they're deliberately limited. They have a four year life span. After that, pop. They're gone. They've also been exiled from Earth on pain of Death. Any replicant who trespasses will be hunted down and killed by the eponymous Blade Runners.
In the movie, six Replicants return to earth in the hope of trying to locate their maker, Eldon Tyrell. Their goal? More life. They want to bypass the four year limit and to do that, they need to seek out their God, their Creator, who can remake them anew. Blade Runner Harrison Ford is assigned to track the renegade Raplicants down and he does...
But hang on? Why is this film in a blog about astronomy? Well, this blog isn't specificially about Astronomy. After all, it's my blog and I make the rules.
Okay, it's here because the date is special. Yesterday, October 31st 2019, was the last day that we could possibly say that Blade Runner was set in the future because Blade Runner is set in November 2019.
Blade Runner is the present. Blade Runner is now. Blade Runner is today.
Except that it isn't. Earth is still largely habitable and we don't have flying cars. Not yet, anyway. Or Replicants. Or a raging Environmental Metdown. But what about in five years time? What about sometime in the next say... thirty seven years?
Boston Dynamics have a stand-alone robot that can do gymnastics. Where will they be in five years? We have TV programmes with AI news readers, and you absolutely can't tell whether you're watching a human or a data file. And designs for flying cars are all over the Engineering Press at the moment. How long before the first flying car hits the marketplace, and how long before the Government formulates the appropriate legislation to make sure these things don't fall out of the skies whenever they need an MOT?
The Environmental Meltdown depicted in Blade Runner hasn't happened yet but I'm not massively optimistic in this regard. I think we're putting way too much faith in our ability to come up with a scientific solution to the crisis and we're not addressing the real driving force behind the planet's destruction - that we're pumping staggering amounts of waste energy into our atmosphere.
Okay, so where's the astronomy? Well, the film talks a lot about off world colonies and the need for labour on the colonised worlds. Aside from the rather awful notion that we've simply dumped our humanity out of the window and decided that Slavery is somehow okay because the AI we made is just a machine in a new skin, this implies that we've managed to jump to other star systems. But how? This would mean we'd somehow mastered Faster-than-Light Drives, and we're still scrabbling around in the dark where they're concerned. And where are those colonies? Which planet? Neither issue is addrressed in the film (which pehaps is a saving grace, come to think of it...)
Replicant Roy Batty's closing speech is notable in that it mentions "C-Beams glittering off the Tanhauser Gates" and "Attack ships on fire off the Shoulder of Orion", although likewise, they are not expanded upon either in the original film nor the underrated sequel.
Blade Runner is both wildly pessimistic about our future on this small blue rock but, conversely, it's also wildly over-optimistic. Maybe there's hope yet.
I'm still left with one question... Just where did the last thirty seven years go?
30-Oct-19 : Amazing Space, The Word, South Shields
A trip to out into the wilds yesterday, South Shields to be specific, to view the Amazing Space exhibition at The Word .
The sun is shining and the wind is coming off the land so it’s not freezing cold as we glide down The Leas towards the beach and the distant funfair... However, I make the mistake of parking too far from our destination - why? I don’t know - and I will soon realise that whilst it’s downhill all the way into the Town Centre, this is going to be a difficult and time consuming walk back, and you can bet your first dollar bill that my travelling companion, Christopher, is going to be in full-on whinge mode by then. Such is life.
The Exhibition Space is quite small - we were here a couple of years ago for the Ridley Scott Exhibition - but the curators do manage to cram in quite a lot into a tiny area.
The theme is, as you might imagine, space, and forms part of the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landings. Good for them. I note that several of the local institutions, specifically those who actually HANDLED Moon Rock samples on behalf of NASA way back in 1970, did not actually do ANYTHING special or noteworthy to mark the event. You know, might have been nice guys, to to perhaps remember some of the fellows who did some amazing work.
There’s some good science here, and the wall decorations are both rich and informative. There’s a lot to take in - a short film about life as an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, some props from Star Trek (which are reproductions rather than originals) and some very colourful graphics. Science Fiction is predominant though, which might not be to your taste but does serve to show that Science and Science Fiction are closely linked, even if they are uneasy bedfellows. What science there is... is good.
All of the graphics are excellent - especially the representation of the scale of the Universe (the bits that we know about anyway). Impressive.
Chris was captivated for the first twenty minutes but he fell asleep as soon as we came across the panel dedicated to Kubrick’s seminal “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Hey ho. Can't have everything...
We left after an hour or so, convinced that we would return later in greater numbers. It’s worth a visit. Nothing you haven’t seen before but well presented and, as I said, a lot to see in a small space.
Yes, the walk back to the car was difficult and Christopher did go into full-on whinge mode but... we had fun. Next time, park closer.
This is Christopher James Hughes. He's six months old.
27-Oct-19 : You know it's winter when...
You know that Winter has well and truly arrived when you spot the Pleiades rising in the east shortly before midnight.
Strangely, the Pleiades always seems to bring on something close to a state of nirvana for certain die-hard amateur astronomers, myself included. Winter means cold nights, ground frosts and stout underwear, the sort of underwear that needs to be three inches thick just to stop your legs sticking to the telescope's tripod. And observings. Lots and lots of 'scope time.
In addition, there's something wonderfully anarchic about observing the sky when everyone else is tucked up in bed and dreaming of... something other than astronomy. Sliding under the duvet after a long night hunting for an obscure Messier Objects feels incredibly rebellious.
The Pleiades, also known as The Seven Sisters, is an easy 'object', even for the novice astronomer. They're a collecton of stars grouped closelytogether in the sky, not far from the constellation Taurus. They're easily visible to the naked eye - even in quite light-polluted areas. Of course, how many Pleiades you can see depends very much upon how dark your sky is and, as I've recently discovered, how much of the sky you can still see without spectacles.
When I was fifteen and just starting out in astronomy, I could easily make out around ten to sixteen members of the Pleaides cluster. These days, now that I have astigmatism in both eyes, I can make out maybe seven in good conditions. However, from my front garden, which is marginally less light-polluted than Wembley Stadium, all I can really see is a smudge.
Matters improve dramatically when I pick up a pair of binoculars - assumining I can find my binoculars, which is not always easy in a house when you have a six month old son who is just starting to pick things up. Heavy objects, like binoculars, have to be moved out of harm's way lest he drop them on his head, and that means I can never find the darned things...
Anyway, in low power binoculars, the Pleiades are an absolute gem. They're actually better in a low power telescope than in a high power instrument because you can fit all of the major stars into the same field of fiew.
Straight away, you should see that there are six stars of roughly the same brightness. There's also a seventh Pleiad, which is not quite as bright as the others and seems to have faded somewhat. In historical times, this star was the same brightness as the others in the cluster - hence the term The Seven Sisters - which causes us to ask the question 'Why has it faded?' and, truthfully, we don't have a good answer. Curiously, the legend of a lost seventh Pleiad is universal - European, African, Asian, Indonesian, Native American & Aboriginal Australian populations all have legends relating to the 7th brightest Pleiades star – Pleione.
Want to see more? Go to a really dark site with a really good telescope and you might just be able to see a faint, whispy cloud around each of the stars. It takes time and patience but it's worth it. This is the Maia Nebula, and we think that this is what's left of the birthplace of the Pleaides Cluster. Actually, this region of space is filled with this special kind of nebulae, termed a Reflection Nebula. It gets that name because it shines by reflected light. There's another reflection nebula nearby, the Merope Nebula, although it too is only really visible with a big telescope.
The thing about the Pleiades is that there's a lot of them... Estimates vary but there's certainly more than three thousand of them spread over roughly thirteen light years. They're all coupled together - what astronomers called Gravitationally bound - and, from analysis of their chemical make-up, they seem to share a common origin.
Please excuse the brevity of this blog entry. Rather than try to cram a huge number of amazing facts into just one blog entry, I decided to keep it brief. However, why not do some research for yourself? See how far you can get. Then go have a look at this remarkable little group of stars and be prepared to be amazed.
One parting thought... Here's something for you to ponder whilst everyone else is asleep.
Do you wonder what it's like to live on a planet close up to the Pleiades. What are the skies like at night? What might a typical sunset look like on such a planet? Is it ever truly dark? I wonder what the summers are like? Are the winters harsh? Is there someone up there looking down at me and thinking 'I wish I had nice, dark skies...'
Something to think about, eh?
25-Oct-19 How did you get into astronomy?
Every term, I kick off my classes with an invitation. I ask members of the class to tell the rest of the group how and why they got into astronomy. I always try to make this a friendly and non-threatening experience. It's an important exercise for a numbers of reasons. Firstly, it gives members an opportunity to introduce themselves to the group and perhaps share their experiences and their histories. Secondly, it's an opportunity for me to discover more about my learners, an activity which has sometimes turned up some incredible memories. One gentleman talked about his experiences whilst working down at the South Pole. Another talked about his life in the RAF. And so on. Thirdly, it's about building confidence. If someone is afraid to voice their opinion then, as a group, we need to make sure that this person is able to talk and ask questions freely, without fear or intimidation. Finally, the exercise is both useful in trying to establish a group dynamic and as a way of looking for signs of bullying, which I won't tolerate in any of my classes.
And yet, strange as it may seem, I've never gone through this exercise myself.
So here goes...
I was probably about fourteen or fifteen years old and a pupil at Rutherford Comprehensive in Newcastle upon Tyne when I was bitten by the astronomy bug. Properly bitten that is. Properly bitten as in hopelessly smitten. For as long as I can remember, I've always had more than a passing interest in space and space exploration, an interest which had its roots in my passion for science fiction. That interest was certainly much in evidence well before the days of the Apollo missions although those lunar meanderings seemed to be the catalyst for the Great Adventure which was to come.
Rutherford was founded by the formidable The Rev. Dr John Hunter Rutherford and the school's motto Nec Sorte, Nec Fato, loosely translates as Not by chance nor by fate, seems to be particularly relevant in this instance because...
I found two of my fellow schoolboys kicking a small book down the corridor. When challenged, said schoolboys responded with a series of expletives which I will not repeat herein because such shipyard language is best left in the shipyards or perhaps in 10, Downing Street, where it is more appropriate. The boys ran away, leaving the little book behind them, and presumably moved on to another soft target, perhaps a Geography teacher, the Classics Master or something else inanimate. Such was life at a Comprehensive School in the 1970's.
I picked up the book and slipped it into my pocket, intent on returning the shabby volume to the school library later that day. However, the book was in a pretty poor state - the spine was ripped and the cover was torn - and I knew that if I returned the book to the library then it would almost certainly be tossed in a bin because it was too expensive and too time consuming to repair it. So I put it back in my pocket and there it stayed.
The book was a pocket edition of Patrick Moore's Observer's Book of Astronomy.
Later that night, I opened the book...
Nec sorte, Nec Fato.
... and I was hooked. In an instant. That's all it took.
I knew some of the images at first sight. Any fan of Star Trek would recognise the Horsehead Nebula because that image was displayed regularly atop Mr. Spock's science station. I was in familiar territory.
However, there was more. I already knew some of the constellations. Orion was easy. So was the Ursa Major/Great Bear but here were others that I didn't know, specifically Lyra, Cygnus, Taurus, Gemini. I wondered if I could find them. So I did.
And as chance would have it, all of the major bright planets (with the exception of Venus) were on display in the sky over my head at that exact moment. You couldn't have wanted a better time to get into in Astronomy.
Jupiter was the first object I studied in any great detail. The largest planet in our solar system had become a regular travelling companion as I walked home from school on those long, dark Winter nights. It would follow me from the school gates all the way through Fenham, down Brighton Grove and, eventually, right up to my front door in Spital Tongues, Newcastle. Later in the evening, when the house was quiet and everyone else was in bed, I would take out my binoculars and peek under its petticoats, so to speak. I was rarely disappointed. Jupiter knows how to tease an astronomer.
With the naked eye, Jupiter is a small yellowish dot. Through my father's binoculars, it appeared as a small disc surrounded by three or four tiny dots, the so-called Galilean Moons because they were first observed by the renaissance astronomer, Galileo Galilei.
Spotting those Moons - Io, Callisto, Europa and Ganymede - was a bit of a revelation. I thought that you needed a huge, expensive telescope to do proper astronomy. However you don't. You can do it with just a pair of humble binoculars. These binoculars weren't new and they certainly weren't state of the art. They'd originally been bought as a birthday present for my father but they'd been left, largely unused and unloved, in their box for over a decade, until... the time was right.
Mars was the next object I discovered. With the unaided eye, Mars looked like a bright red circle perched high in the constellation Gemini. I couldn't make out any detail on its surface and neither could I see its two Moons, Phobos and Deimos, but on Sir Patrick's recommendation, I began recording the position of Mars against the background stars over a period of weeks and then months. What I found was intriguing. Mars didn't move across the sky in a straight line. Instead, there was a kink in its path, a small loop, which I later discovered can only be explained properly by the difference in time it takes for the Earth and Mars to circle the Sun.
I found Saturn lurking in the constellation Leo, not far from the bright star Regulus. I knew Regulus from Star Trek so, again, I was in familiar territory, and sweeping around this region of the sky was just... inspiring...
Saturn's rings were not easy to see at first, even in binoculars. Saturn looked like a smaller version of Jupiter only with little lobes on either side, barely visible. I couldn't see any detail although I thought I spotted Saturn's largest Moon, Titan, on several occasions.
Recognising a new hobby in the making, my mother bought me an early birthday present, a small 40mm Tasco refractor, and.. there they were. The rings. And what was that bright dot to the right of Saturn? Yes, that was Titan.
Let's not forget the Moon, my first love. I knew some of the Moon's features from my days obsessing over the Apollo Missions. However, Neil and Buzz's epic walk on the surface of our nearest neighbour had become a rapidly fading memory to many and was anybody really interested in the Moon anymore? I know I was. I began sketching the Moon's features even though it's surface had been thoroughly photographed by Russian and American probes for years.
The thing about the Moon is... Whilst its surface is geologically inactive and hasn't changed in millennia, it's appearance changes as the Sun's position in the sky changes. Every time you look at the Moon, the shadows are slightly longer, or shorter, or darker and you can see far more detail on every occasion. That, in itself, is very rewarding.
After that, I began observing whenever there was a clear night and, looking back, there were an awful lot of clear nights. Maybe I'm remembering it with rose-tinted glasses but I did seem to spend far too many long hours hiding away in my makeshift observatory - a skylight in the garage roof - when perhaps I should have been doing homework.
So that was the start.
I still have that that Observer's Book of Astronomy. It's travelled a bit over the years. I took it with me to America, and my partner spent nearly a year in Norway with this little book, studying the northern constellations from close to the Arctic Circle. And that same book is sitting next to me on my desk as I write this entry. I intend to pass it on to my six month old son, Christopher, just as soon as he has stopped chewing books.