Bertie and the Aliens

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.

13 Responses to Bertie and the Aliens

  1. Nick Cross says:

    I was fortunate growing up to live a few miles outside Canterbury in the countryside and we had some pretty dark nights. From about 11 onwards I learned to recognise different stars and even got a small telescope and would often go out. However, my passion over the years developed as I became more fascinated with Physics and Mathematics. I do still enjoy going out on a dark night, but I do it quite rarely these days. I did enjoy my trip out to the AAT – there were a lot of southern stars that were not very familiar to me, but in the end it is the science that fascinates me more.

  2. Hey, are we ALL from East Kent? But let’s remember that many amateur astronomers are doing real science too. When Andy was still in short trousers, I was out regularly keeping logs of meteor activity. Thousands of amateurs are monitoring countless variable stars. Such work provides valuable data that the professionals could never collect themselves but which they can process.

  3. andyxl says:

    Paul, I should add that you were in short trousers too at about the same time.

    I think my most regular contributor, Mike Merrifield, is a mere Kentish Man.

  4. mirmilant says:

    I have extreme admiration for people like “Joe”, but I’m definitely a “Bertie”.

  5. David says:

    I wonder how many professional astronomers there would be without the amateurs. How much public support would there be for astro-research were it not for the man in the street”s fascination with the stars, with rockets – with Star Trek and Einstein’s funny haircut, even? Does this lead to a better funding of astronomy than, say, chemistry, due to a voting public who are inherently more interested or better disposed to (the public perception of) the subject?

    Should I find a chemist”s blog and ask the same question to get the view from the other side of the fence?

  6. Nick Cross says:

    While the public may not be so interested in chemistry (and I did like messing around with chemicals when I was younger too so I am not sure if the argument is correct), chemistry has a much more practical aspect to peoples’ lives than astronomy so that may have a stronger impact on the funding side.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Afraid so, Andy — definitely from the wrong side of the (somewhat watery) tracks.

    I am always embarrassed on visits to astronomical societies that my command of the constellations is limited to Ursa Major, Orion and Casseiopia. On my first trip to a real observatory (the MMT), I also reported to my PhD supervisor an irritating cloud running right across the sky…

  8. andyxl says:

    David – amateur astronomers and the general public are VERY different animals ! There is absolutely no doubt that astronomy benefits enormously from the fascination of the general public. But Joe Public knows even fewer constellations than I do, for sure. It is also true I guess that amateur astronomy is more popular than amateur chemistry, and in some statistical way these things must be connected I guess. Its not obvious that amateur astronomy either helps or hinders our popularity with the government …

    Mirmilant – your pictures are GREAT.

  9. Perry Petia says:

    I’m submitting this under a pseudonym, because it’s sooooo embarrassing…

    I was working at a university as a new lecturer in astrophysics and needed to get some publicity shots done for the prospectus. I went with a photographer to our on-campus telescopes one lunchtime, and we took a bunch of pictures in the (closed) dome with dramatic lighting with me looking through the telescopes. Quite pleased, I went back and -luckily as it turned out- sooner or later I showed the pictures to an undergraduate who was also an amateur astronomer. Her only comment: “You might find the telescope works even better with an eyepiece.”

  10. Megan says:

    Amateur astronomers always seem surprised that a lot of professionals don’t know their way around the sky. It surprised me when I discovered this at the start of my PhD. For me, it’s that fascination with the stars from an early age that has been the driving force behind studying astronomy and continuing professionally. And I’ll still take any chance I get to take my binoculars somewhere dark and just look up. The day I lose that fascination, I will probably give up and do something else with my life.

    Incidentally, I remember my first trip to the AAT (also my first trip south of the equator) – going out on the catwalk to check the weather at 2am with the night assistant and being surprised that he didn’t know the constellations. Later, I met another night assistant, Steve Lee, who is an avid amateur and has his own observatory in his garden!

  11. andyxl says:

    Steve is a legend. Years back, I used various telescopes to collect hundreds of IRAS galaxy redshifts; most operators found it hard to keep up with how fast our team worked. But Steve … a third of the way through our first night on the AAT, I handed him the next co-ordinate and he said “already there”. He had looked over my shoulder and prepped the ATT to zip the second the last exposure finished. These days of course one automates one’s observing sequence at any respectable telescope, but in the 1980s it was only semi-automated. But Steve was as quick as any OB system I have seen since…

  12. Tony says:

    Couple of weeks ago we were staying at Mt Cook in NZ and went out about 11pm to look at the sky (had been an overcast day so hadn’t signed up for the observing session). Absolutely stunning sight – only the second time I’d really seen the Milky Way. Couldn’t name any of the constellations though.

  13. Stephen says:

    I picked up one of those $20 refractors from a vendor on eBay. I was careful to get one that doesn’t advertise 675x. For a cheap 50 mm scope, 75x is pushing it. But the mount is so aweful, that it was all i could do to find Venus in it. You know, Venus, mag -4, brightest thing in the night sky except the Moon?

    If you need to rotate this scope, it’s easier to pick the whole thing up off the ground and set it down in the direction you want it. Every time you touch it, there’s a 10 second settling time. It does a lot of bouncing around. So you have to set it down, not where the object is, but where it will be by the time it settles down. And i managed to see the phase of Venus.

    But i have a real scope also. It’s also non-tracking, but it has sub second settle time. And it stays where you put it in gale force winds.

    It’s unfortunate. They call this $20 scope a “beginner” scope. And my 10″ dob is “advanced”. But the $700 dob is much easier to use. The labels are backwards.

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