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.
I wonder where he will take it.