FROM  THE  LATE  1970’S  TO  2005 



March 7th, 1980



   Some of you may remember my first talk, a year or more ago, dealing with home made telescopes. Well, this is the sequel, Home Made Observations !

   I recall some early observations, when still a child. The first was in 1953, a brilliant year for Britain. Rationing almost over, the 4 minute mile, the ascent of Everest, the Coronation, a superb summer, and a Solar Eclipse ! (London eclipse slide). It occurred on a cloudless day with some 70 - 80% of the Sun’s disc covered at the maximum. My first observation, using the classical glass blackened by candle soot.

   Then, in 1957, I saw a comet (Arend Roland). No optical equipment, drawings or notes. Just a shout of “Paul! Have a look outside, look at that comet” “Where?” “There, overhead!” “Oh, yes. That’s it, is it?”. It was quite pretty, but even then I expected comets to have tails stretching across three quarters of the sky, and heads so brilliant they’d be painful to look at. It was my first, and my last comet observation, despite desperate efforts to find Kahoutek much later. Yes, I was led up the Kahoutek path as well! At the end of the 1950’s I looked at the sky one night and saw some purplish wavy effects which didn’t really register. Later someone asked if I’d seen  the Aurora a week back. Well I had, but if I had been more awake I’d have observed it, not vaguely seen it.

   If astronomers can forecast oppositions, perihelions, eclipses, and crash landings of satellites to within minutes, years in advance, why not extend the forecasting service to Aurorae? 

   So my observations took a great leap forward in the 1960’s, when I acquired the optical equipment to make the giant refractor with a 7 inch diameter lens and a linoleum tube 200 inches long. Unfortunately I made no drawings at that time, and observations made at the large observatories seem to omit a lot of what I saw through my 200 inch refractor.

   Photographs in astronomy books never show the red interiors the green margins, nor the blue / violet haloes that I saw on each and every planet. ( 2 slides ). Also the pits I saw on Venus, and the craters in exactly the same position on Jupiter. It seemed that writers and readers of  “Sky and Telescope” must have had weak telescopes, where all the stars appeared as point sources. (Slide). I, however, was able to make a star fill the entire field simply by moving the hand held eyepiece (Odd green slide). And some objects had the tail of a comet combined with colours of the aurora and the unpredictability of a supernova. Alas, none of these observations were put on paper!

   On February 28th I joined B.A.S. as a result of attending a jumble sale they had held a few weeks earlier.(Jumble sale slide).

   Eventually I settled upon the 5.25inch refractor, and what I enjoyed most of all was a lightning trip round the observable universe whenever I felt like going farther out than usual. Plug in the 200 X eyepiece and look at the Andromeda  galaxy 2 million light years away, and in effect you get within 10,000 light years ( 1/200th distance). Cover a distance of 1,990,000 light years in about 10 seconds. If that is not moving I don’t know what is! And instantly back when you take your eye from the telescope.

   Look at the Moon ; all those mountains, millions of craters, valleys. And Jupiter, hmm - the stripes are pale.(Slide). And why is the Great Red Spot always on the other side of the planet when I want to observe it?. Still, the satellites show up nicely. (Satellite slide). Venus shows a crescent, otherwise permanently in cloud. (Slide). Now a look at Saturn and its rings (Slide). Golly, isn’t that superb, and a quick excursion to the Orion Nebula (Slide), to round off a successful evening’s viewing.


   It was in the autumn of 1977 that our Director of Observations, John Pedlar said, why not draw what you see?, and for me it was the beginning of organised projects. But it is only when one starts systematic observations that one realises how much the weather can disrupt operations. Never had I been such a weather watcher until I joined B.A.S. Yes I’ll get in a couple of observations for project X tonight. ”Here is the News….and tonight’s weather forecast” (Weather slides). And now a scientific look at the forecast…Oh, dear!!


   My first major project was the Path of Mars.(Mars slide), to be executed by plotting the course of Mars against the background of stars on a week by week basis, during the winter and spring of 1977 - 78. Easy, in theory. We are always being told of Mother Nature’s gifts, but in January 1978 there were just two clears, and it was similar in February (but that is a shorter month). Skies may have cleared by 3 or 4 in the morning, but I needed some sleep before work. I did manage to finish the project, but many observers who started it gave up half way through.

   January 3rd. 1978 was the Quadrantid Meteor watch. Although this, too, was curtailed by cloud, about an hour’s observation was carried out by the 10 to 12 members, including me, who took part. Results were not very productive, since between us all only one meteor was seen that night. We’d have done better by watching the Western on TV where there would have been at least a dozen shooting stars!

   The weather could not be blamed for two other items in which I and others were involved. Project Cameo was to be an observable experiment whereby a rocket would release lithium vapour into the ionosphere and present a red glow, visible for many hundreds of miles in the sky. It was postponed time and again, and I presume it was ultimately abandoned. The other ‘also ran’ was comet Kahoutek, which I was going to observe, but never saw it.(Blank slide). Bit of an anti-climax really.

   Meanwhile, I was making drawings of Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn. They consisted of outlines, infilled with whatever faint detail I could see, (and they are displayed on the bench).

   The most recent Society project I took part in was the one year Star Colour Project. (Star colour Constellation slide). This was a survey of the colours of as many stars as possible, constellation by constellation. I thought I was doing jolly well when, towards the end of the year I had examined 315 stars, only to find myself overtaken by the meteoric progress of John Nash, who had examined 480. And I wonder why he can recognise 88 constellations, while I can only manage 12. But if nothing else, it taught me to recognise some constellations - I only knew Ursa Major and Orion before! Cloud was the usual menace (Fuzzy Moon slide). It didn’t just cover the spot of sky you wanted to see, but remained there while making itself look as if it was shifting.

    In October ,1979, I acquired a splendid piece of high technology ; isn’t all astro. stuff high technology, I hear you ask. Well,  this item is an observing machine ; it does all the work, leaving your hands free to do the washing-up. It is, of course, this camera, now an almost indispensable tool.

  Good home made observations depend upon a suitable place to make them from, and it must be away from street lights. For those who have not seen it, this slide shows my dwelling place, an impressive building, but I do not have a garden. However, I can climb onto the roof with camera and turntable mount an d take quite passable shots. (Slide of mount on roof). The turntable is an equatorial camera fork driven by a 24 hour motor, which can be bought for only £1. For reasons that may be apparent, it was impossible to get my principal camera into the frame, no matter how I moved it about, so the mount has my cheap camera on it. (Slide showing star fields, & chimney!).Besides star fields I got some good Moon photos, using prime focus of the 5.25 inch (Mag X 25) and a few using the method of eyepiece and camera set to infinity. Much better magnification, but one really needs a telescope drive. I tried to motorise the 5.25 inch once, but the motor gearing system tried to turn and not the telescope.

    I took  some photos of the Sun with the appropriate precautions of using a card, not viewing through the telescope / camera. (Slide). If you view directly this is what you’ll see (a blank slide, and a doctor’s view of the retina) a mistake even slow learners only make once.

    Here are a few interesting observations of the sky, the planets, Orion, Andromeda, .etc, and a few star fields. One, with the Moon clearly seen near the bowl of the plough, took me a long time to get. (3 slides of planets, Andromeda, Leo & Orion, & the Moon in Ursa Major. The last 4 by John Nash.).

   Now for the ‘it will be all right on the night’ section ; some spectacular and less spectacular failures resulting from observations with the camera. (A series of duds of Mars, Jupiter etc.).

   Most of you will have heard of the green flash, when the Sun sets over water and a common sight in the tropics. How many of you have seen the much rarer red flash? Actually, a lot. Remember it now? ( Red Flash slide). For those who never saw it , it was a working model of a supernova demonstrated by John Nash to conclude his talk on the Four Forces in cosmology.


 To conclude, here is a frightfully bad jokey tale with a somewhat astronomic flavour.

                                                      (Hotel Slide)

    Generally, times were hard. When we went on holiday we stopped for one night vat a 5 Star hotel which had offered cheap accommodation. Horrible draughty, damp rooms, nasty meals and virtually no service. Cold baths only, and those had to be shared. And the walls were so thin you not only heard the neighbours radio, you could almost see their television.

    So, I decided to Take Courage, and said to the manager “How can you describe this dump as a 5 Star hotel ?”  He took me upstairs and into a dark room. ”Now”, he said  

“Look through that hole in the ceiling, and what do you see?”

    Looking, I said  “Aldebaran (Taurus), Arcturus (Bootes), Antares (Scorpio), Procton (Canis Minor), Rigel (Orion).”  “ There’s your 5 Star service!” he said.

   Overcome with shock and surprise I said, “Sirius?” He replied “Altair, are they not?”

Whereupon I had to say, “You’re a Mizar, but I Vega get going since I’ve spent all our money at the Plough.

  Good Night.

           [ Can’t think how he got away with such a terrible bit of rubbish ]