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!