19 July 2008

Astronomy

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Why am I interested in astronomy? I think it's because I'm fascinated by the vastness of the Universe and the amazing variety of objects it contains - including, of course, the Earth.

I don't remember when I developed this interest. I do remember being 14 or 15 years old and saving my pocket money to buy 'The Observer's Book of Astronomy' (I still have it), and around the same time I remember watching 'The Sky At Night', a monthly TV program that is one of the longest running series ever. It was (and still is) presented by Patrick Moore whose enthusiasm was intense and exciting. That was in the days when TV was only available in black and white.

I remember being even younger and looking at a nearly total eclipse of the Sun through heavily smoked glass, it was 30th June 1954, just a few weeks before my sixth birthday. Dad wanted me to see the eclipse because there wasn't going to be another like it in the UK until 1999!

I also remember projecting an image of the sun with an old telescope, and drawing the sunspots when there were any to be seen. I used the same telescope at night to look at Jupiter and the four Galilean moons.

The fascination has never left me. The more you learn about distant objects, the more you understand about the structure of the Universe, the more amazing it all seems. When I was a small child space exploration was the stuff of science fiction, but when I was nine the Russians launched Sputnik and space became a real place that could be visited. The world had changed, and so did astronomy.

To me it seems an immense priviledge to have witnessed the beginning of spaceflight and the blossoming of modern astronomy. Astronomy had blossomed once before with the invention of the telescope in the early 17th century, but the flow of new information slowed to a crawl once resolution of the instruments reached the limits imposed by the Earth's shimmering atmosphere. But now we could image and measure from outside the atmosphere and a whole new series of possibilities opened up. I drank it all in.

For me, astronomy is special amongst the sciences. It's special because it reveals how vast and how old the Universe is; it gives a better perspective of our own smallness. So there is a tangible link with my Christian beliefs, astronomy helps me to understand that bringing the Universe into existence was a task requiring unimaginable authority and imagination.

Then there are links with photography because imaging is such an important technique in astronomy. Many astronomical images are breathtakingly beautiful, if you want to enjoy some you can do much worse than visit the 'Astronomy Picture Of The Day' (APOD).

Computing is essential in modern astronomy, and computer simulations of the night sky are interesting and instructive. There are clear links between astronomy and other sciences such as physics, chemistry, and even biology. And there are links with technology too, how would you do astronomy without a spacecraft, a telescope, a camera - it's a long list.

There are powerful links with history and archaeology, astronomy allows dates to be tied to recorded events like solar eclipses and planetary conjunctions. If a Chinese, Egyptian or Sumerian record says there was an eclipse on the 12 day of the eighth month of the third year of so-and-so's reign we may be able to lock the ancient calendar onto a date in our own calendar.

I could continue, but I think you get the idea. We live in an amazing place, so big that this Earth of ours is just a tiny speck. Astronomy shows us how small we truly are. It gives us a sense of proportion. And it's connected with almost everything we are and do.

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