Talks to astronomical societies are almost invariably – and rather pleasurably – followed by a trip to the pub. There, the conversation usually touches on my luck in visiting some of the world’s great observing sites. I’m still getting stick, for example, for the evening in Chile when we were on the hill next to the Very Large Telescope which is now home to the European survey telescope, Vista. I confidently declared to camera – through chattering teeth – that it was 2am, and time for bed. It was freezing, I was tired and we were filming early the next day, but apparently wasting such good skies is sacrilege.
I walk away from these conversations realising how lucky I am. But as I’ve written each column for the Times over the last year, describing a city dweller’s sky, I’ve begun to realise that part of the joy of being an amateur astronomer (and I’m definitely still that, too) lies in simply noticing the sky. How many of London’s 8 million people noticed Venus in the evening sky in the past week, knew what it was and saw how its position changed from night to night? Not many.
I’m transcribing this from a notebook I was scribbling in some 10 km above the Earth’s surface, flying home from my share of the observing run described on the Galaxy Zoo blog. (Don’t ever fly Iberia, by the way – it’s been rather eventful). The observing was conducted almost entirely under cloud, but now, out of the window, my notebook records one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever seen.
The horizon is a perfect rainbow; red at the bottom, and then passing through the sequence of colours, their boundaries distinct and yet not sharp. At the top, indigo and violet appear as separate colours, and above them, about ten degrees above the horizon, is the deep black of the still-night sky. That will soon vanish, but for now it’s sparkling with jewels, with Antares and the rest of Scorpius hanging there.
I was the only person on the entire flight, as far as I could see, paying any attention to the view from the window. That’s why this year – the International Year of Astronomy (more about which on Monday) – my resolution is to long just a little less to be back under the starlit skies of the Atacama, and to make sure that I – and anyone I talk to – doesn’t miss the glory of the sky above them, wherever they are.
Happy New Year.