This post is by way of being a thank you letter to someone. I first met this person just over three years ago and have only seen her once more since then, but she was responsible for introducing me to something which has been a source of joy and fascination to me ever since. Anyone who follows me on Twitter will probably know that I love star-gazing. Despite the depressing level of light pollution in most areas, it is still possible to see some of the best-known constellations on clear nights and being able to recognise and identify them is immensely satisfying. But even more than this, the fact that we are able to see these celestial objects here on Earth, with the naked eye, despite them being millions and millions of light years away, fills me with a sense of awe and wonder – something which I am very keen to share with other people.
In November 2008 I went on a two-week trek in India with a charity called ActionAid. One evening we were sat around the campfire, quite high up in the foothills, where there was practically zero light pollution, and Liz began pointing out some of the constellations that she could see. I didn’t know any of the constellations at all, not even the most well-known ones like the Plough, so I was absolutely fascinated. Because the skies were so clear, there was an enormous number of stars visible – so many that it was actually difficult for us to find some of the major constellations. We couldn’t see Orion at all, until someone found that it was on the other side of the hut we were staying in, having been blocked from view by the building. Considering how bad I am at recognising people’s faces, even those of people I know well, I was astonished at how easy it was to spot the constellations for myself when I returned home. I got a book from the library called Philips’ Guide to the Night Sky by Sir Patrick Moore and later bought a copy because I found it so useful. Once I had an iPhone, however, everything suddenly became almost absurdly simple. No longer do I have to take a torch and the book out with me and keep switching my attention from the book to the sky whilst trying to adjust my eyes to the differing lights levels of bright torchlight and near-darkness. With the Star Walk app, I can simply open the app, point the phone at the constellation I wish to identify or know more about and it will tell me what I’m looking at, the names of the individual stars, how far away they are, how old, what type of star etc etc.
I have also now got a telescope, although I haven’t used it properly as yet because the instruction manual is not as helpful as I would have liked. One of my New Year’s resolutions for this year is to work out how to use it properly.
But you don’t need to buy expensive pieces of astronomical equipment, or even possess a smartphone to enjoy star-gazing People have been fascinated and inspired by the stars for almost as long as humankind has existed – and that is something else which adds to the delight of it: the fact that you are looking at the same stars that the ancients used for navigation, tracking the seasons and predicting the future.
I was particularly pleased about the Star-gazing Live extravaganza that Professor Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain presented over three nights recently, because I love the idea of introducing as many people as possible to the wonders of the universe. Apart from anything else, the programmes were a reminder that astronomy is something that anyone can enjoy, because you don’t need to be a scientist (or even be able to read!) in order to stand next to someone outside one night and learn to spot the different patterns of stars in the sky.
I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone could fail to be interested in learning more about our universe in such a fun and undemanding way, but sadly there are those who don’t seem to particularly bothered, which seems a great shame to me. I remember one particularly disappointing moment last year when someone I was working with asked me which apps I had on my phone. I immediately started singing the praises of StarWalk, saying that it could tell you the names of the constellations and where they were in the sky etc…and she said:
“Does it tell you what’s going to happen though?” I stared at her blankly.
“You know, like what’s going to happen next week, in your love-life and stuff?”
She meant astrology. She wanted to read some inane nonsense about whether next Tuesday was going to be a good day for financial transactions, or whatever bullshit it is they make up in astrology columns.
How can that possibly be more interesting than learning about the stars and planets in our night sky? How?? I have no idea.
Thankfully, the Star-gazing Live programme showed that there are in fact many other people who are curious about the universe and want to know more, so all is not lost.
The point I wanted to make, really, is that if it hadn’t been for Liz taking the time to show me all the constellations that she could recognise when we were in India three years ago, I would not be writing this right now. One of the most precious gifts we can give someone (after love and time) is knowledge and one of my favourite ever lines is from a film called The History Boys. It is simply “pass it on”.
Thank you Liz for passing your knowledge of astronomy on to me. I will now try to pass it on to as many people as possible.