Category Archives: Observers

Sir Patrick Moore, 1923-2012

The world of astronomy lost one of its most colourful and famous figures yesterday, Sunday 9th 2012, when Sir Patrick Moore died at his home in West Sussex. When I first got into astronomy, slightly over 20 years ago now, Sir Patrick was one of my main influences and I never missed a single episode of the Sky At Night. I was fortunate to meet Sir Patrick on a number of occasions and he never failed to be kind and funny.

At the age of 89, someone’s passing is never a huge surprise but still a sad loss.

R.I.P. Sir Patrick.

2012 has been a bad year for the fields of astronomy and space exploration, with the deaths of Neil Armstrong, Sir Bernard Lovell and now Sir Patrick Moore.


Everybody should be an astronomer

My friend Robert Reeves, of San Antonio, sent me a scan of the latest article he wrote for the ‘Comfort News‘, a local newspaper in the San Antonio area (Comfort is a small town nearby). He sent me the scan, as I have a mention! The gist of Bob’s article is that the world would be a much better place if we were all amateur astronomers which is something I totally agree with. If everyone had a telescope and spent a few clear nights each month looking at all the goodies up in the sky, like Bob, I believe that we’d all be better off. For one thing, amateur astronomy takes you away from all the petty nonsense of everyday lives, away from the moron who cut you up at the traffic lights that morning, away from that unexpected large bill that you have no idea how you are going to pay, away from that large overdraft and away from the feeling that the entire world has already completed 99% of its journey to hell (if you listen to the news bulletins).

Amateur astronomers are, by and large, some of the finest people I have had the pleasure of knowing. It is the only community I have ever fit into and felt comfortable in. Not just because they are just like me, more than any other people I’ve met, but because they are genuinely good people. That most likely stems from an interest in the universe at large and the realisation that the universe doesn’t revolve around human concerns.
As Bob points out in his article (scan posted below), amateur astronomers are more disdainful than most of petty national politics, travel restrictions and the politics (UK/EU sales taxes!) that make astronomy equipment either expensive or hard to obtain. Put another way, us amateur astronomers have a lower bullshit tolerance level than the rest of the public! I also wish that any amateur astronomer who desires to could just up and move to a drier, darker and clearer climate, such as the Southwestern United States, or Western Australia, with none of the hoops you currently have to jump through with existing visa and red tape nonsense. If you want to up and leave you can just go, without all this border crap.

Amateur astronomers of all nationalities – British, American, Australian, Chinese, Japanese, Finnish, French, German, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, etc –  as is seen at astronomy conventions, such as NEAF, London Astrofest and TSP, get on well with each other with no animosity based on partisan politics so wouldn’t it be good if our governments and non-astronomer general public could feel likewise? Not just nationalities but religions, too. I have personally seen Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc, of all sects and denominations, all getting on famously when discussing the sky – ironic really when you consider that a shared love of a starry night sky has succeeded where their various religions have failed!
I am a sports fan and I have heard it said that sport, like warfare, brings out the worst in people, which is not too far from the truth, if fans’ attitudes to the opposition is anything to go by (the Euro 2012 football – sorry Americans I mean soccer! – championships are imminent and, as a football fan, I am looking forward – with no expectations! – to watching England’s matches but I am not looking forward to the xenophobic crap that will undoubtedly appear in the gutter press and on football forums). I like to think that, if sport really does bring out the worst in people, then astronomy brings out the best. Of course, not everyone is an out-and-out good guy and even in astronomy, petty squabbles erupt from time to time with some spectacular fallings-out, but they are the exception to the rule and I have only ever met one or two genuinely unpleasant people. Another reason is that amateur astronomers, by and large, are generally more intelligent than most.

It’s a pipe-dream of course, but everyone should be an astronomer and we, the environment and civilisation would be a lot better for it. And there’d be no light pollution!

Here’s Bob’s article, click for largest (and readable!) size:



Amateur astronomer or stargazer? Or something else? Someone on Cloudy Nights forums made the comment that we non-scientists shouldn’t call ourselves ‘amateur astronomers’ because astronomy is a science and astronomers are scientists.

Personally speaking I really, really don’t like the term ‘stargazer’, partly because, to me, the term invokes a vision of someone standing or sitting, staring up, mouth open, at the the sky and not doing much else. I also don’t think that ‘stargazer’ adequately conveys what a lot of amateurs do. Ok, so most of us aren’t making variable star estimates, studying black holes or contributing to a theory but neither are we aimless gawkers either. A ‘stargazer’ to me is someone who goes out stares up for a while, enjoys the view and that’s it. Yes, there’s a bit of the stargazer in all of us, but there’s also something more, even if it doesn’t quite extend to ‘scientist’.

Anyway, since when did professional scientists lay claim to the term ‘astronomer’? Astronomy began as an amateur pursuit, as did all the sciences, and the name has stuck ever since. If you Google  ‘definition of astronomer’ you get this:

Noun: “An expert in or student of astronomy”

I wouldn’t claim to be an expert but, as someone who reads about astronomy, I think I could call myself a ‘student’ of the subject and, as I am not paid for it, an amateur. Therefore I think we are entitled to claim to being ‘amateur astronomers’.   That said, I generally just call myself a ‘deep sky observer’, which suits what I do, very nicely, as I don’t tend to observe the Moon or planets.

My friend, and fellow amateur astronomer, Steph, put it this way:

I’m with you, we’re in that middle state between those who do little but look up, and those who are scientific astronomers. We’re serious enough about what we do to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars on our equipment, and hundreds and thousands of hours of time using it. I think we’ve earned the right to use ‘amateur astronomer’.” Spot on and well said.

On a related note – and in the same CN thread – the same guy who told us that we shouldn’t call ourselves ‘amateur astronomers’ also derided those of us who enjoy doing observing lists and getting pins as being boy scout/girl guide-ish. Excuse me? Is it really anyone’s business why we observe? And if we get a certificate and/or a pin for it, so what? Some of the best observers in the world have done these club observing programs and earned pins and I am sure they wouldn’t be happy at being accused of being overgrown boy scouts or girl guides. Not only that, I don’t like having my interests and activities devalued and sneered at by somebody who seems to think they are above such things, even if they may be trolling. It doesn’t matter why you do astronomy, as long as you do it.

Visit to Cambridge

I was asked to do a talk at the Webb Deep Sky Society’s AGM, about my ‘Experiences at the Texas Star Party’. The meeting was originally scheduled for December 2010 but, thanks to deep snow and dangerous travelling conditions, it was postponed until 18th June 2011.
I arranged to travel up with Don Miles, who met me at Portsmouth’s Wightlink Gunwharf Terminal. It was an early start, as Cambridge is a three hour drive, at least, from the South Coast. After an uneventful drive up, with a brief stop at Clacket Lane Services, we arrived at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy at 0930. I hadn’t been to the Webb Society annual meeting since 2005, when it was held at the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, simply because of the awkwardness of getting to Cambridge, where it’s been held ever since, and back in a day from the Isle of Wight. It’s the Solent crossing that makes life difficult, more than anything, as it adds at least an hour to travel times and in the late evening, if you miss one ferry there isn’t another for two or three hours. I left home at 0430 on Saturday morning and didn’t get back until 0300 this morning, but despite the negatives of the location from a logistical point of view, the IoA is a lovely venue and has plenty of astronomical interest – not least the historic telescopes in the grounds and spectacular posters of galaxies, planets, nebulae and clusters lining the walls of the Hoyle Building.

The meeting was held in the IoA’s Hoyle Building

After coffee and chat with people I hadn’t seen in ages, it was time for the meeting to get under way. My talk wasn’t until the afternoon, scheduled that way in case of any problems getting to Cambridge. The talks were Wolfgang Steinicke – The M51 Mystery: Rosse, Robinson, South and the Astonishing Detection in 1845 of Spiral Structure; Robert Kennicutt – The (Very…) Improbable Universe; Mark Hurn –  Star Atlases; Martin Griffiths – New Developments in  Planetary Nebula Research; Andrew Robertson – Telescopes and their Capabilities; then me with Experiences at the Texas Star Party and finally David Ratledge – New Developments in Astrophotography.
Of the talks, my particular favourites were Wolfgang and Andrew. Martin was also very good. Andrew’s talk was right up my street, with plenty of pictures of large dobs and his sketches, as he is purely a visual observer but I will disagree with his assertion that we visual observers are a dying breed, though! Andrew is a member of Norwich Astronomical Society and they sound like a very active club with a thriving deep sky observing section. Not only that, they mostly have large dobs of between 16 to 24 inches, with one person with a ‘minnow’ (my description) 14 incher – a few years ago I wouldn’t have described a 14″ scope as a ‘minnow’, such is the rapid pace of telescope development – and are among the most active and keenest deep sky observers in the UK. As a committee member of a local society struggling to get our own membership off of its collective arse and out observing, it sounds perfect to me and made me wish I lived in Norfolk – I’m envious! Later, in conversation, Andrew claimed to me that Norfolk has better skies than the Isle of Wight. They’re probably a bit drier (depending on the season, our problem here on the island is often sea fog which wipes out the southern horizon as seen from the southern coast) but I doubt they’re darker although it does depend on local conditions at any given time.
My own talk went well, I was more fluent than I thought I would be but when you’re speaking to like-minded people it’s easy. Certainly easier than practising the talk on uninterested relatives and bewildered pets! I even managed to get laughs with stories about skunks and hazards.

I got outside and walked round the grounds at lunchtime. I joined a group having a look round the telescopes but we only had time to see the 12″ Northumberland refractor before having to go back inside for the afternoon session.
Here are some photos of the grounds and domes (excuse the poor photos, I was using my Samsung compact whose image quality is not the best).

Statue of Fred Hoyle
Northumberland telescope dome
12″ Northumberland refractor
Close up of focusser and eyepiece. Note brass fittings – including the eyepiece! An Ethos or UWA would look totally out of place here. To observe at or near the zenith the observer needs to lie down – sounds like my kind of observing!
Diagram of the 12″ Northumberland telescope
Picture of the original Northumberland dome
The observatory housing the 8″ Thorrowgood refractor; the pillar at right is one of several for Cambridge AS members to mount scopes on for public observing sessions.
The Institute of Astronomy Observatory Building, which now houses the Library.

There were a few vendors at the meeting, among them Cambridge University Press, Green Witch, a secondhand book dealer (who lost a potential customer when he said ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ on learning my name. It may sound trivial and an overreaction but it is guaranteed to piss me off every time someone says it, especially when you’ve heard it for what seems like 54 billion times since early childhood! Don’t do it, it’s old, boring, unoriginal and insulting. How would people like it if I made fun of their name? ‘Scuse the rant!) and the Webb Deep Sky Society themselves.
I was tempted by Wolfgang’s book Observing and Cataloguing Nebulae and Star Clusters but was put off by the retail price of £90. The ‘show special’ was £72 but that was still very expensive so I will wait until I have a bit more disposable income. I am also probably going to get Philip S Harrington’s Cosmic Challenge at some point as it looks like an excellent book.
I did, however, buy the Webb Archive DVD which has scanned copies of every Quarterly Journal and Deep Sky Observer since 1968. It also contains the Observing Section Reports. As for the OSRs, I have quite a few back copies of these but when I saw the IoA was offloading two bound volumes of them for a fiver, as part of a clearout of the Library, I couldn’t resist them and snapped them up before anyone else could, so they’re now sitting happy and loved on my bookshelf. The Library was also getting rid of the Millennium Star Atlas for whatever offer you made but, as it wasn’t just the Millennium Star Atlas but the entire Hipparchos Catalogue, I decided against it. Despite being sorely tempted, there’s no way I could have carried that lot on and off the ferry!
Something else that came out of the meeting was me agreeing to revise and update An Introduction to Visual Deep Sky Observing. I wrote the original in 1998 and a lot of it is now dated and in bad need of revision. I plan to rewrite a lot of it, plus add more content, including more sketches and photos. I also have another Webb book project (as editor, rather than author) in the planning stages, of which more nearer the time.

When the meeting finished and we’d packed up, the committee and speakers headed for a local pub in Girton for a meal and chat, eventually going our separate ways at 2130. Don and I headed back to Portsmouth, timing it so I didn’t have a long wait at Gunwharf. After a mercifully brief wait (it was raining, the Wightlink waiting room smelled bad and there was a tramp asleep on the seats inside! I don’t want to be rude but I don’t think the tramp and the smell were unconnected!), I got the 0130 ferry home across a stormy Solent, collected my car from Fishbourne ferry terminal and got home just before 3 am.

It was an enjoyable day and it was good to catch up with people I hadn’t seen for a while. Out of the people I have known for years I’d only seen Owen Brazell since 2005, at the Isle of Wight Star Party, and this May’s VAS monthly meeting when he was the speaker. I would like to go next year, but I will definitely have to sort out more sensible travel arrangements because leaving home at 0430 one morning and not getting home until 0300 the following morning is just stupid. Next year, I will see if I can stay with my sister in Newbury for a couple of nights and go from there, rather than a round trip crammed into 24 hours.
Many thanks to Don for the lift up to and back to Cambridge from Portsmouth. It was a pleasant trip, where we talked about astronomy, life in general and cricket, of which I am also a fan. Don’s involved with women’s cricket, as photographer, selector and chairman of Sussex Women’s Cricket Association. I am more of a fan of the men’s game, especially Hampshire and England, but it was interesting hearing about the women’s game.

After my blog post about how the UK weather isn’t quite as bad as often perceived, it’s done nothing but rain and blow a gale since early June and May was also fairly unsettled. I think we can blame Owen for this, as he’s bought a 22 inch Obsession UC! Oh well, summer is yet young and June is often unsettled – and is probably the best month to have rotten weather as it’s not much use for observing thanks to the twilight!

I have a long way to go!

I have just been visiting some of the links on my website. One of these is of the homepage of famed visual deep sky observer Barbara Wilson of Houston TX. On there, she has a page about her astronomy exploits and, on it, she tells us how many things she has seen. As you’d expect, an observer like Barbara has seen a lot. In her own words she has:

…observed thousands of galaxies, hundreds of  galaxy clusters, completed the Herschel 400, the Messier 110, I have observed all but 25 of the Arp Galaxies, all except for 10 of the Milky Way globular clusters, hundreds of open clusters, asteroids, dozens of comets, several great meteor showers, including the Leonids of 1998, and 2001, planetary nebulae, diffuse nebulae, reflection nebulae, asteroid occultations, lunar grazes, (I once got 36 events on a graze of Beta Tauri), solar eclipses (5 total eclipses), dozens of lunar eclipses, iridium flares, earth x crossing asteroids, supernovae, and never have seen anything in the sky that could not be explained in one way or another.
I hope that by the time I get to Barbara’s age I will have a comparable record, but I have a long way to go (I hasten to add that’s in terms of things seen!)! To date, I have seen a lot of things out there (and, like Barbara, never anything that cannot be totally explained) but not the sheer amount of objects that Barbara has seen. What I’ve seen probably numbers in the high hundreds, not quite the thousands, not that I’ve actually properly counted.

Another visual observer who has seen a tremendous amount is Steve Gottlieb of California, who has notes on the entire NGC catalogue. He is part of the NGC/IC project, which aims to correct discrepancies and errors in the NGC/IC catalogue and, as part of this project Steve (and others) has reobserved the entire NGC/IC and done an excellent job in clearing up the errors. Steve’s NGC notes can be found here, alongside those of Jeffrey Corder and others.

These are but two of those who have seen, if not it all, certainly most of it. These people have been observing a lot longer than I have, but it shows what dedication, a lot of clear nights and a lot of skill can bring. My current observing projects – the Herschel 400, Herschel II, then the rest of the Herschels, making the Herschel 2500, plus Arp galaxies and galaxy groups and clusters – will go a long way towards my goal of achieving this sort of accomplishment for myself. This is especially the case as I have done a lot of observing since 1993 but none of it systematic projects. Having a systematic project helps a lot in keeping your observing structured and thus, keeping track of things.
A larger scope will also help a lot, as will a few more trips south of the Equator.

Now, you might ask, what am I doing posting on here in the evening, when I could be observing and catching up with the likes of Barbara and Steve, et al? I wish I was out there, but unfortunately the Moon, clouds and a wrecked ankle after an accident in the kitchen earlier this week (I slipped on a wet patch on the kitchen floor and have torn the ligaments in my right ankle) all say ‘no’.
I can’t wait to get back into things, once my ankle’s better, the Moon’s gone and – hopefully – the clouds have cleared.