Astronomy: A new generation starts to reach for the stars
Telescope sales are rocketing because of Brian Cox's hit TV shows. Steve Connor on how things are looking up in amateur astronomy
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Saturday 19 March 2011
Amateur astronomy is experiencing a renaissance, with thousands of young people abandoning their computer games and taking to their telescopes at night to view the same heavenly objects that have fascinated and enthralled humanity for thousands of years.
Local societies of amateur astronomers are reporting a flood of interest in the quiet and patient art of watching the night sky after a series of high-profile television programmes about the visual wonders of the planets, stars and wider universe, fronted by Professor Brian Cox. Sales of telescopes have more than doubled over the past year and Scotland's Galloway Forest Park has enjoyed a surge in visitors since 2009 when it became Europe's first Dark Sky Park, judged to be the best place to view the stars and Milky Way with almost no interfering light pollution from nearby roads and towns.
When amateur astronomy societies have put on local observing events in back gardens or parks in the past, they would have been lucky to attract a few dozen people. Now they get hundreds of visitors all wanting to catch a glimpse of the sky through powerful amateur telescopes, said Mark Kukula, the public astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich.
"In the past month, I've given talks at two local astronomy societies which had organised stargazing events and both were absolutely swamped by members of the public," Dr Kukula said. "It's very different now, which is great. At the Observatory, we run telescope observing sessions and they've always been popular events but recently they have been sold out well in advance. We are running at full capacity. It's hard to say why something suddenly grabs the imagination of people but it must have something to do with Brian Cox and his BBC series. I also suspect that it's riding on a groundswell of wider interest in astronomy, which is so beautiful yet tackles the really big questions of the Universe, such as where do we come from."
Many important observations, such as the discovery of comets and asteroids, have been made by amateurs using equipment set up in their back gardens, said Nigel Henbest, who co-writes The Independent's monthly astronomy column. "A lot of exploding supernovas have been discovered by amateur astronomers and then followed up by professionals. They have also been important in finding variable stars that change in brightness for various reasons," Dr Henbest said. "It's absolutely true that amateur astronomy is experiencing a revival and I'm sure it can be put down to the wonders of Brian Cox."
David Selfe, secretary of the Derby and District Astronomical Society said: "The recent programmes presented by Brian Cox have definitely helped to raise the profile of astronomy. Our society has had quite a few new people turn up as a direct result of these programmes.I think quite often people have an interest but are not sure how to go about finding out more. In the the Stargazing Live programme, it was suggested that if people wanted to find out more, they should look for their local astronomy society" Anthony Southwell, the chairman of the society, said the interest in amateur astronomy tends to be cyclical, although it has always been more difficult to attract younger people, especially women. "We have definitely seen a surge again because of Stargazing Live. It's really kicked things off again."
Patrick Moore, who has just celebrated the 700th edition of the BBC's Sky at Night, is credited with attracting several generations of serious astronomers into their craft, including Professor Cox himself, and Brian May, the Queen guitarist who three years ago finished his PhD in astronomy. Mr Moore has has always proudly emphasised that he is an amateur.
Paul Roche, an astronomer at Cardiff University, said technical improvements in commercial astronomy equipment, especially the latest digital cameras, are allowing amateurs to match the sort of discoveries that could once be made only by professionals.
"My view is that there is an awful lot of sky out there, and not enough astronomers to keep an eye on it, so the more the merrier," Dr Roche said. "The amateurs tend to look at the beauty of the images, where we tend to look at the numbers and the astrophysics behind the discoveries."
Amateur star sleuths
* The comet discovered by Carolyn and Gene Shoemaker and David Levy in 1993 struck Jupiter in a collision observed around the world..
* In 1995 factory manager Thomas Bopp co-discovered, along with professional astronomer Alan Hale, the comet that became known as Hale-Bopp.
* In 2010, amateur British astronomer Nick Howes took the first pictures showing a split in the icy nucleus of Comet C2007 C3 using professional telescopes remote-controlled over the internet.
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