Standing on a spinning rock

December 27, 2012

Another sixties icon passes beyond the veil : Gerry Anderson has gone to join Joe 90 and Torchy the Battery Boy in the sky. Guardian obituary here. First ever episode of Supercar here, and if you want to check out the purple page-boy haircuts and metallic mini-skirts, try Episode 1 of UFO here.

Meanwhile, an update on my Patrick Moore nostalgia post. The mysterious “Gareth” turned out to be my own nineteen year old son, who for Christmas bought me that a 1964 edition of The Observers Book of Astronomy, just as I remembered it!! What a nice boy. His sister bought me a very steam-punk sextant so it was a rather nice antique astronomical christmas.

Concrete experience is very important in science. (Bear with me, there shall be A Link). Theory has to be constantly checked and re-rooted in observed fact. But the concrete is also important at a simple human level. Its good to be reminded we are doing something real; science is not an abstract game. Its wonderful when you show people Saturn through a small telescope. Suddenly its really there – its not on TV, you can see it with your own eyes. Its right there, in that direction.

The Observers Book has a chapter about equipment, and stresses the importance of a good mounting, and preferably some kind of manual or clockwork drive. As Patrick says, when people first look through a reasonably high powered telescope, they never fail to be struck by how fast the stars are moving. Indeed. Then suddenly you realise – you actually physically feel – that you are standing on a huge rock which is spinning in space.

Count one, two. That spot you occupied one second ago – its now three hundred metres over there.

Well…. maybe now we need to think about the Earth’s orbit; the local solar motion; the orbit of the Local Standard of Rest around the Galactic Centre; the motion of the Galaxy with respect to the CMB; Mach’s Principle maybe … or maybe not. That will do. We stand on a spinning rock. And you can see it with your own eyes.

Farewell Patrick

December 10, 2012

Just flew back in from Texas to find that Patrick Moore died.  Here is Brian May’s very nice obituary. I am not one of the many astronomers who knew him personally, but I am one of the even larger number who was originally inspired by him. Here is the book in question :


Observers Book of Astronomy, 1964. Got it out of the library in Victoria Road, Margate. Its not there now. The library, not the book. I think its turned into flats.

A few years later I was a founder member of the Thanet Astronomical Society for Youth, along with the Sun Spaceman, aka Suthers, aka Mr Skymania. For some time meetings consisted of about five and a half spotty yoofs. Then somebody – probably Suthers himself – wrote to Patrick Moore and asked if he’d talk to us. He said yes, and our next meeting had two hundred people!

I remember this well, but what I never knew until today is that he stayed at Suthers house !! Its all explained in the Sun.  Scroll down to the bottom.

Hubble versus Peach

November 29, 2009

Last weekend I talked at a special meeting of the British Astronomical Association, celebrating 75 years since Patrick Moore joined. It was a fun day. I’d never been to the Royal Institution before. It has nice looking but horribly uncomfortable seats, and is very atmospheric. Paul Murdin and myself were the token professionals in a vast sea of keen amateurs. Some of them really do wear anoraks, but golly gosh they do some impressive stuff these days. Not only do they use CCD cameras, but they employ what IOA wizard Craig Mackay calls Lucky Imaging; they take thousands of short images, keep the best ones, and re-align them with Regi-Stax software.

The results, from small telescopes in people’s back gardens in the UK, are stunning. Possibly the two best known practitioners are Damian Peach and Nick Szymanek.

So … which of these pictures was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and which from Damian Peach’s telescope in Buckinghamshire ? Vote now. Results later.