Bertie and the Aliens

January 13, 2009

Back in the summer I bought a little plastic telescope for three dollars at a yardsale. I used it to look at Jupiter from the backyard. Seeing a disc appear was a very satisfying experience. I have a good pair of binoculars, but they are wide angle; good for getting the sparkled splendour of a field of stars, but no good for planets. Now, I am very far from being an expert amateur astronomer, but I do feel that some minimum level of concrete connection with the world outside the Earth is healthy for anyone claiming to understand the physical behaviour of the universe.

Many professional astronomers are dismissive of amateur knowledge and skill. There is a story of two well known senior astronomers gathering on the catwalk of the AAT waiting for twilight to run its course. Joe, an experienced Canadian observer, says “Hey, look at Canopus. That is a real sight.” “Oh”, says Bertie, an old fashioned loud upper class English type, “where’s that ?”. “What ?” says Joe. “You don’t know where Canopus is ?”. “Look,” says Bertie, “I’m an Astronomer not a bloody boy scout”.

As I tell that story, I can’t decide who I’m with. Some days it would definitely be Bertie. Professional astronomy is not train spotting. The point is to understand the physical processes in the Universe, not to collect pretty stars and memorise their co-ordinates. But if you are not careful, professional astronomy can be just a game in your head. That way lies string theory… Every so often its good to be reminded that what we work on is real.

Meteor storms are ideal for this. The cosmos comes to us. The best ever for me was the Leonids, just a few years back. Old seadog Mike Hawkins was holding a party out in the East Lothian countryside, and the sky just came alive. Streak after streak, bright, long, and coloured. I got a lift home with Eelco Van Kampen, and we watched them through the car windows, still bright enough to make your jaw stay open even as we got back to the Edinburgh city lights.

I have never seen a fireball come all the way to Earth. But as we live in the Age of YouTube, I can share the experience of others. Here is the video clip of the beast that fell to Earth in Canada just before Christmas, and here is a website with pictures of the whole slew of meteorites that Canadian scientists have collected since. (Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for posting the link.)

So I did one of those YouTube trail things, looking for more movies of fireballs. This had, umm, mixed results shall we say. But it turned up this gem … Just wait for the very last shot. You will love it.