Life through a lens

This is the one thousandth post of the blog, so I thought I’d describe a little about the event that led up to it – my astronomical biography, if you like…

The Early Years

Growing up in the town of Kendal in the English Lake District, I had access to some lovely dark skies at times. At others, the light pollution from the town and rising water from the river Kent blocked out much of what could be seen, even on the rare cloudless days. Even so, my mother assures me the first time she noticed me taking an interest was during a trip to London, not known for its equivalent skies, but known at the time for the London Planetarium, now sadly deceased. At the time the planetarium, which was attached to Madame Tussuad’s, had no recorded show, but instead an astronomer would talk through the stars on the domed roof as those present reclined in those strange hybrids between cinema and deck chairs that line such an institution.

My first significant astronomical memory is of being given a book by my Uncle Bob who’d apparently heard of the interest. He had passed it on to my mother who handed it to my whilst we were walking from my primary school. Over the years I collected a few spotters guides, Greenwich guides and the rest. Most of them were school level text books, but one or two encouraged actual observations, like two books I have called ‘The Night Sky’. One is an Usborne Spotter’s Guide, which is pretty much just a list of stuff to see after a general introduction to astronomy, and the other, by Dennis L. Mammana, focuses more on observing techniques.

My first telescopes arrived within a few months of each other as the nineties broke. The first was a Greenkat spotting scope that had come out of the attic of one of my mother’s friends. The other my dad bought from Woolworths (another vanished institution). I still have them here, they are both small refractors, that is they focus light using lenses. They are too small make much of an impression on the night sky, but suitable for seeing the phases of Venus, rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s Moons and the like. The Greenkat advantages include a wider aperture and easier focusing, but it has a fixed magnification and is a spotting scope, so has extra lenses, each of which absorb more light, to turn the image the right way up. The Woollies scope hasn’t those disadvantages and came with its own tripod, but has less eye relief and so isn’t as easy to use.

My main observations to begin with were of the Pleiades, otherwise known as the Seven Sisters. This is a young star cluster containing around 200 stars, though fewer of these are visible to the naked eye. They appear a bit like a tightly packed cross in the skies, with a strange glow around it when you’re not looking directly at it (ie with averted vision). Looking at it with even just the tiny telescopes I had revealed a celestial jewel box of bright blue stars seemingly tailing off into the deepest part of the night. There was something refreshing about this, something revealing the deeper universe through just a small instrument.

My next significant observation was of a meteor shower. I waited up and my sisters waiting with me for this early to mid nineties shower. The sky was clear, the appointed hour arrived, but nothing. Not even one or two sporadics. Now I’m not sure if there was a UT/BST mix up or something like that, but even though my sisters had headed back in, I kept popping my head out until around forty five minutes later, meteors started to flash. I grabbed my sisters and we headed outside and the shower got underway. Meteors every couple of minutes, with long golden tails. Then every minutes. Then a few every minute. Suddenly, the shower became a storm, with more bright meteors overhead that it was possible to keep in view. One managed to make it almost from horizon to horizon, north to south, a bright bolide. The storm continued for a good few minutes before relenting back to shower conditions and then slowly petering out again. My mother watched from inside the kitchen with the lights on, most certainly not getting the full benefit of dark adapted eyes.

Throughout the rest of this time, there were lunar eclipses and partial solar eclipses, occasional meteors and more glances skyward, even a talk on astronomy at school, which I gave, but little else. I went to Kendal Library to ask about astronomical societies, there were none within reach. I went back to ask about the Junior Astronomical Society, advertised in one of my books, but it no longer existed (it did, it had changed its name to the Society for Popular Astronomy, but the library hadn’t been updated). Now my main focus was on academic astronomy.

Having finished my GCSEs with appropriate marks, I went on to select A-levels best suited for carrying on with astronomy – Physics, Chemistry, Maths. I later found I could’ve fitted in an extra one, like English or Biology, but had been advised the school normally didn’t cater for this, so didn’t. A-level physics at one point offered the chance of doing a module in astronomy, using half bitten equipment and with a strong focus on us lot being self sufficient as regards teaching. The staff got cold feet for unexplained reasons, so it never happened. What did happen was I managed to choose my next step, the first one into pure astronomy. Looking through the available degree courses, the one place that stood out both on Ectis and on Astronomy Now‘s pull out section was University College London. I visited the place for an interview (on extra solar planets) but was told the college had already decided to accept everyone who had turned up. I had already decided to put UCL down as my first choice, so it was fair. This also saw my first visit to Mill Hill, but more on that later.

The first time a naked eye comet appeared to me was in 1997. Hale-Bopp seemed to come out of almost nowhere and then to just stand in the middle of the sky, this alien thing shining where previously little stood. It is little surprise the awe felt by people in ancient times when the night sky is so fundamentally altered.

This preUniversity section of my life ended in 1999. The month before I left for UCL, travelling down the west coast, there was a total eclipse of the Sun. I never went down to Cornwall to view it as the trains were advising against travel and the weather never looked like we’d have a break, but many did.

Undergraduate years

Then came university (see some UCL pics here and here and here) and a much different pace of life. Down in the big city with the hustle and bustle around me. Living in student halls with a room-mate and my own cooking (which was worse, I’ll leave to your imagination). Then moving from room to room for the four years of the degree with different room-mates, but always my cooking. UCL gave me access to lectures on different aspects of astronomy, well equipped laboratories for physics practicals (physics building pics here), access to broadband internet and even my first digital camera (free gift in 1999). Most importantly, it had in the first and third years of a degree, Mill Hill Observatory. To prepare us for Mill Hill, we were given a lecture in – London Planetarium.

Mill Hill Observatory (see my pics here) is partly the result of World War Two. During this conflict, telescopes which had been housed at UCL in domes in the college quad were shifted over to the University of London Observatory in Mill Hill, North London. The end of the conflict saw students but no telescopes return to UCL. Instead, UCL took increasing control over ULO until now when it seems more of an extension of UCL than part of the federal University of London. Queen Mary College in Mile End, for example, has domes on the roof of its own building rather than heading over to Mill Hill. On the way to Mill Hill, the nearest subway has a mural of stars and other heavenly bodies, created by local schoolchildren and the nearby newbuild flats are in ‘Observatory House’, nothing to do with ULO itself, though they did used to own another house opposite.

The observatory building houses a number of telescopes of varying sizes. Seven inch Maksutovs, through which I took my first astrophotographs (of the Moon and Jupiter) were there (now sold) along with ten inch equivalents. These stood free on their own tripods. When I first arrived, there was a clockwork solar telescope too, but the dome for this was destroyed to make way for three new domes. Surviving telescopes from this period include the Fry Telescope, an eight inch Cooke Refractor on a weight driven clockwork mount with solar observing filters, the ten inch Schmidt-Cassegrain LX200 Meade reflecting telescope, now mounted but originally free on a tripod, the Allen 24″ reflecting telescope, used for spectroscopy and the Radcliffe 18/24″ double refractor.

The telescopes used most were the Meade scopes, on their tripods with go to on the roof of the Wilson building. Quick observations and photography were the order of the day in the 1st year. Prime focus photography, where the lens was taken off the camera and replaced by the telescope, and eyepiece projection, where the same thing happened as before, but a telescope eyepiece was put in. The Radcliffe was the most potent force in the Observatory. Several tonnes worth of material, its length is such that the floor of the ten metre diameter dome it is in has to rise and fall to get astronomers to the eyepiece. It is a double refractor with an eighteen inch finder scope and a twenty four inch imaging telescope, originally with film plates but now using a CCD (though the film plates are still there). Originally clockwork like the Fry, the thing has been computerised with a wonderful seventies style computer cabinet. It was used on clear nights to do a bit of sketching when no-one else from more advanced years had booked to use it. The final instrument used in the first year was the theodolite. This device was used to take accurate altitude and azimuthal readings on the positions of three widely dispersed stars. They were then used along with some spherical trigonometry to determine our position on the Earth’s surface (done to within twenty-five metres or so). The rest of the time was spent on classwork, measuring shadow lengths in craters to determine their heights, identifying features in Palomar Sky Survey maps, how to use a CCD or using archival data to work out pulsar distances.

In the summer before the 2001/2002 academic year, an opportunity came up for me to join two trips. One was an Institute of Physics trip to the site of the electron-positron collider, LEP. That collider was being dug out the ground and slowly replaced with a new one, the Large Hadron Collider or LHC. The visit to CERN would show many old colliders and the site of the newest and, thanks to the media, most controversial of the colliders. We were based in a youth hostel in Geneva (see my pics here) and enjoyed some jaunts around there before seeing the visitor centre itself.

The other trip I went on in the summer of 2001 was to Zimbabwe with a group of UCL students (see pics here). Having made our own ways there, we met up in Harare. Due to an odd number of guests occupying double rooms, I found I was listed with the fictitious traveller ‘Mrs Stobbart’, though I never actually met my ‘wife’ whilst I was there. I did meet the England cricket team, who were in a hotel opposite a meeting point for my bus back to South Africa though. There were a couple of excursions to see the tobacco markets, the natural history museum and a safari park, as well as my own visit to central Harare, but the most important visit was to the greatest spectacle I have seen, the Total Solar Eclipse.

We watched the eclipse from a valley to which buses hardly ever ventured. A hole in the ground toilet surrounded by a reed fence was the only permanent structure there. A refreshment tent handing out our packs of sandwiches, apples and water sprung up for the day. The valley allowed us to see the actual motion of the Moon’s shadow as totality approached and left us. But there are other aspects to an eclipse. The way that nothing really darkens until the last few minutes, when the cold sets in. The fact that twilight falls so suddenly without shadows lengthening. The sudden quietness. The twilight hues that come out along with the brighter stars and planets. The fact that these planets are all visible as lying on the ecliptic like a giant orerry standing in front of you, the realisation of the scale of the solar system from this and that you are standing on just one of the points of light. Then, of course, there’s the solar corona about the Moon. The size of that thing, six or seven times the size of the full Moon in the sky, is unexpected. The brightness, colours and details. Photographs never capture the scene as your eyes adjust to the varying light levels as you look around, but if you have never seen one, then be assured the fuss is worth it. Don’t be fooled by the damp squibs that are lunar eclipses.

Another event I saw, this time from the very room I’m working in, was a fireball. Sometimes unusually bright meteors are seen to outshine the planets, these are fireballs. Other times, meteors are seen that light up the sky like dawn. This is what I saw coming home from a friend’s house one night. It was dark outside when I went through the front door. By the time I’d arrived here, there was a brightness in the skies and something yellow and rippling. The image persisted for a moment or two and then faded. I dismissed it, but couldn’t think of what else it could be. The local paper then reported dozens of other witnesses. It had been a massive fireball that exploded over the town.

Mill Hill in the third year saw a change of classroom (there’s one either side of the Radcliffe dome – the first year classroom is above the offices, the third year one above the laboratories where clockwork and lens cleaning happen) and a change in the domes. The Fry dome had been demolished, the Fry itself was being refurbished and a new rectangle was being built, which would house three new domes. Observing in the third year took the form of spectra from the Allen telescope. These were used to look for things such as stellar winds, unusual chemistry and the like. Reduction of data by taking the spectra, taking a flat field (which determines how the telescope has warped the image), taking dark frames (to remove thermal noise from the images) and taking the spectrum of a dark bit of sky near the image. Thermal noise is then removed from the data, sky spectrum and flat field images to rid them of interference through a process called dark subtraction. Then flat fielding is applied to the target and sky spectra by dividing each by the amounts of light in each part of the field (it removes vignetting). Finally, the sky spectrum is removed from data spectrum to provide the signal from the target, which can then be worked on. Much closer to professional work. The Allen telescope didn’t have any tracking equipment working at the time, so the only way to get the signal was to look down an eyepiece with a cross on it and shout down to colleagues in the control room (over a radio) to move left, right up or down… Not quite as professional…

My final year project looked at creating a computer model for particle interactions in the upper atmosphere, of the sort that create emissions we call the aurora. This meant using a model of the upper atmosphere and learning to code in FORTRAN 77 in a couple of weeks. This was all done and despite writing the entire final report up overnight and walking straight into the printer’s that morning in order to hand it in on the deadline, I managed a good result.

The Interim Years

A degree in astronomy doesn’t do much for employment concerns for someone back in a small town in the Lake District. Various job applications all over the place failed to get me anywhere, but one injustice from the past that still niggled me allowed me to get somewhere with something – there still wasn’t an astronomy society in the town.

One person I’d heard a lot about whilst studying for the degree was Arthur Eddington, who was born in Kendal. I took his name for the society in order to provide a bit of a local connection. I looked for an event that could be used to promote the start of the society and soon found one – the Transit of Venus of 8th of June 2004. This was the first time since the 6th of December 1882, 22 days before the birth of Eddington, that the planet Venus had moved between the Earth and the Sun, the inclinations of their orbits normally meaning Venus is just above or below the Sun when it normally passes (see some pics of the society’s events here).

I created an event at Kendal Rugby Club (potentially another institution soon to be closed), bought a refracting telescope with a solar projection screen and created information panels. The clubhouse was used to stick up the information panels, hold raffles, games and the rest as well as a live feed from news channels carrying the event from elsewhere. Outside, the telescope gave projected views of the sight, and others borrowed cards to do the same with binoculars they had brought. Low haze meant the Sun came in and out of view, but every now and again (amid shouts from the crowd), the heavy black dot would be seen making its way across the solar disc.

The event brought the media, a few members of other societies and had been advertised far and wide. The next event also needed to be relatively large to attract interest. I knew I couldn’t hope to get Patrick Moore off the Sky at Night to talk to us at short notice, but I noticed a young copresenter had also made his mark, so I sent an email to him. Chris Lintott replied with an immediate yes.

His talk was given at Kendal Masonic Hall and was relatively well attended (for a new group linked only by my occasional emails about this month in the night sky). Afterward, the group met monthly in the Rifleman’s Arms. I got speakers in and had occasional observing nights, but sadly I never heard any of them talk as after Chris’ talk I went down to join him back at UCL to study for a PhD…

Back at UCL

Returning to London was as refreshing as arriving for the first time. The bustle and the size of the place a tonic to where I had just been. The time brought challenges (how was I supposed to run the Eddington Society from London) and solutions (twist Stuart Atkinson’s arm until he agreed to take on the society and build it into something proper).

My final year project from undergraduate days had become a real life project for a PhD, constructing a new Monte Carlo model of proton and electron interactions in the atmospheres of various planets at the Atmospheric Physics Laboratory. Starting out in Riding House Street (pics here), I found my office moved to the top of the physics building, then to the newly designated astronomy corridor (pics here), then to the depths of that building over the time I was there.

The group conducts observations of planetary atmospheres using infrared astronomy and observations of Earth’s atmospheres, using radar (to map the ionosphere, which reflects radio waves), Fabry-Perot Interferometers, which measure very small Doppler shifts, allowing upper atmospheric winds to be measured, and spectroscopic views of auroral emissions, all of which help inform models of atmospheres of the Earth, Jupiter, Mars, Titan, Saturn and latterly various exoplanets. The work also involved a few conferences (pics of one to Finland here).

During this time, I earned money through teaching in the department and getting occasional grants from here and there. I taught in the laboratories, problem classes, did marking and also taught at the finished Mill Hill Observatory. My first memory is arriving there, only to be dragged outside again by a breathless Francisco Diego, who wanted to show us the point of light that was the International Space Station passing overhead.

ULO had changed. The three domes they had started building were complete and telescopes assigned. The ten inch Meade joined the Fry and a new Celestron-14″ telescope. The domes read like an introduction to astronomy with a large amateur telescope (the Meade) with computer hand control closest to the gate. In the middle, the elegant black tube and brass fittings of the Fry telescope, with its clockwork mount and hand set directional controls exposes how astronomical coordinate systems relate to the sky itself. Finally, closest to the Radcliffe dome there is the C-14, controlled by a click on a computer screen, much like a professional telescope (indeed Mill Hill has used it as such to break back into the professional world with the help of a member of my group). The future will see the C-14 take the place of the Meade 10″ and its own place being taken by an actual professional level 1 metre telescope, for which that dome was built.

I helped teach the evening students there and at their computer programing classes, this meant a lot of use of the Fry and the Radcliffe, but it wasn’t the only astronomy I did. I also helped with the Society for Popular Astronomy solar eclipse watches in Hyde Park, the second of which led to the memorable policeman in eclipse glasses photo amongst others (pics here). The first attempt saw a bank of cloud defeat us and non of the arranged media meet us. The second attempt saw clear skies and a flood of media coverage, despite non being arranged. Nick Thatcher of ITN turned up as did various photographers. A police car appeared and the sergeant leapt out to do some rigorous questioning (along the lines of “is the bubbling on the solar surface real or just an effect of my eyes?” and such like, extremely enthusiastic) as the PC with him tried to wait it out (at which point he tried on some glasses and ended up posing for the photos).

An unarranged event was a total lunar eclipse, which turned the Moon blood red over London. I took a few photos near where I lived, then walked over to UCL and took more over there. There were groups of people all over the place standing in the street watching and also taking snaps, a surreal view of the city watching and talking astronomy.

Back in the town

Even the money earned through teaching wasn’t quite sufficient to keep me in the middle of London, so I find myself back in Kendal again to write up my thesis and finish this thing off. In the meantime, I have rejoined the reinvigorated Eddington Society. EAS has just seen Chris Lintott back to speak and as well as holding an exhibition I helped a little with (pics here), has a robust series of monthly meetings at Kendal Museum and additional observing events (eg pics here), a few of which coincide with the International Year of Astronomy, 2009, including the Spring Moonwatch held at the Brewery Arts Centre.

As for me, when not blogging or tweeting, I’ve carried on observing with a new Celestron 130SLT and a CCD with camera lenses whenever the weather allows, including lots of Noctilucent Clouds (pics here and here). Twitter has brought me into public online observing with Newbury Astronomy Society, such as the Twitter Moonwatch and Meteorwatch held earlier this year. Further events like those should keep me going until whatever the next stage of this life begins…


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