To study and encourage popular interest in all branches of Science.

Newsletter December 2011


The President and Council wish all Members a
MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR

Well, another year has passed, at what to me at least seems an astonishing speed, and it has been another excellent year for the Society. Membership now stands at 140 – a record level and attendance at lecture meetings has been consistently high with capacity audiences on many occasions. All this is very gratifying to Council who work long and hard to ensure that our Society continues to thrive, and I take this opportunity to thank them on your behalf for their sterling efforts throughout the year.

I would also like to take this opportunity to thank all our visiting lecturers for their continued support in our mission to promote an interest in all branches of science to a wide audience.

It has also been another busy year for the Astronomy Section. Our participation in the BBC Stargazing Live programmes last January led to the Society being featured on peak time national television and this in turn led to record numbers of visitors to our Observatory which was opened throughout the week. Unfortunately, the weather failed to co-operate fully and we only managed two clear nights. We are now informed that the BBC is to run another Stargazing Live programme from January 16th – 20th 2012. Our participation is still at the planning stage, so check our web site for further details nearer to the event.

The Observatory was in the news again in November when the BBC Sky at Night team featured our Society in the November edition of the popular astronomy programme. All this has been excellent publicity for the Society, bringing our activities to a far wider audience. Most gratifying of all is the fact that this exposure has led to membership applications from younger people wishing to be involved. Let us hope that this trend continues; it is vital for the long term survival of the Society.

Towards the end of November we received the sad news that John Ellis had passed away on November 13th. John was Hon. Treasurer of the Richmond Scientific Society. We send our condolences to John's family and his many friends in both the Richmond and Hampstead Scientific Societies.

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The recent successful launch of the space probe 'Curiosity' to Mars and the fact that the planet will be in opposition in March, adds relevance to the talk at the December meeting at which Dr. Steven Cutts will discuss the possibility of LIFE ON MARS.

If the Curiosity probe makes a successful soft landing on the Red Planet next summer, we may at last resolve the enigma that has occupied the thoughts of astronomers since Mars was first systematically observed from the 18th century onwards – Is there, or was there ever life on Mars?

The first lecture meeting in the New Year will take place on Thursday January 19th 2012 when Professor Tony Watts from the department of Earth Sciences in the University of Oxford will talk on: MOUNTAINS UNDER THE SEA. I look forward to seeing you at the meeting.

Doug Daniels (HSS President) December 2011

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THE LAST HALF CENTURY

Once again we stand on the brink of a 'New Year' and following the accepted convention, pause to reflect upon past events and look forward hopefully to interesting times to come. Last year the HSS Observatory celebrated its Centenary and it came as something of a shock to discover that Julia and I had been closely involved with it for half of that time, Julia for 55 years and me for 47.

I became keenly interested in astronomy when I was thirteen years old; that was in 1953. Whilst at school, I came across a book which showed how to make a simple telescope and described what might be seen with it. Within a few days I had built my first telescope from an old spectacle lens, a microscope eyepiece and a cardboard tube. Painfully crude though it was, it revealed to me the craters on the Moon, Jupiter's four principal satellites, Saturn's rings and much more. These first glimpses of the wonders to be 'discovered' in our Universe inspired me to build bigger and better instruments, an activity that has continued for 58 years! I say 'build', because way back in the 1950's, if you wanted a half decent instrument and you were not very 'well off', building your own was the only real solution. Such instruments that were available for purchase were mainly small aperture refractors built at the turn of the century, resplendent in burnished brass and very expensive. The 1950's were a time of bleak austerity following World War 2 and there was a countrywide shortage of everything.

How different things are today! One only has to look at the advertisements in the numerous glossy magazines and publications devoted to amateur astronomy to see the amazing variety of high quality instruments and accessories available to the contemporary enthusiast. In the 1950's there were few glossy magazines and certainly fewer devoted to astronomy. Now, to paraphrase a certain famous politician, "You've never had it so good!" Today the amateur has at his/her disposal instruments, to quote yet another famous politician, "Forged in the white heat of technology." With their built in computers and electronic drives they can, at the touch of a button or the merest click of a 'mouse,' automatically find the Dumb-bell Nebula for you, without you even needing to know where Vulpecula is. A current magazine advertisement for such an instrument proudly proclaims: – "No knowledge of the night sky is required. One touch innovation turns anyone into an instant astronomer"! – Really?

But I do have some concerns. A few years ago I took a group from the HSS on a visit to Mill Hill Observatory. It was on one of those very rare occasions when such a visit coincided with a clear night. Their newly restored 6-inch Cooke telescope was aimed at a first quarter moon. When one of our party asked if we could look at the Orion Nebula, the request was considered with some consternation. Unfortunately, we were told, the library was locked and they couldn't get an atlas to look up the co-ordinates! When I unclamped the telescope and aimed it at M42, the young chap 'on duty' seemed to regard me as if I had performed some form of 'sleight of hand'! I sometimes worry that computerised 'GoTo' telescopes could actually decrease today's amateur's familiarity with the night sky and that is surely totally missing the point.

There can be little doubt that the average amateur has to work a lot harder today to make any significant contributions to astronomy. The planets, once the domain of amateur observers, have been largely taken over by space probes and the Hubble Space Telescope. The Moon has been thoroughly mapped down to the last crater and the amateur comet hunter now has to compete with satellites such as LINEAR, NEAR and IRAS. CCD cameras have now overtaken conventional photography and fewer observers are tempted to put pencil to paper and make observational drawings. Many serious amateurs today would be quite lost without their CCD's, Digital cameras, computer controlled mountings and automatic guiders. Such equipment is beyond the scope of most make-it-yourself enthusiasts and acquiring it represents a considerable capital investment.

I also worry that the very availability of all this sophisticated kit will ultimately lead to a loss of the amateur's skill at making telescopes. There can be few pursuits more rewarding than skilfully shaping a piece of glass to produce a lens or mirror that can literally 'open a window on the Universe' to you. From where, in the future, I wonder, will come the Henry Wildeys, the Ron Irvings, Jim Hysoms and Terry Pearces of this world? Thank heavens for our continuing affiliation with CATS – the Camden Amateur Telescope makers, who still soldier on building their own instruments from scratch, developing optical and mechanical skills in the process and without a computer in sight!

There are times when I think we are becoming just too dependant on the computer and we are too easily seduced by what it tells us. Let us not forget that believing the results of a faulty computer programme saw a badly figured mirror put into the Hubble Space Telescope. A skilful amateur mirror maker could have detected that fault armed with just a pin point light source and a knife edge!

There is no doubt that amateur astronomy has changed dramatically in the last half century. When I first joined the Junior Astronomical Society, as it was then called in 1958 – now the SPA, the local groups were mainly populated by enthusiastic teenagers. We held inter-group quizzes, and members of the North East London and Golders Green groups regularly pitted their wits against the likes of, Paul Murdin, Keith Brackenborough, John Murray and Rossie Atwell, the young 'alumni' of the Croydon group. Now local societies seem to attract fewer young people. I am a member of two local scientific societies and the average age of the membership is now above 50 years! If societies like ours are to survive in the new millennium, we must encourage young members to join in and help them to develop all the skills that our science demands.

The last half century has seen the most amazing discoveries in the science of astronomy. When I joined the B.A.A. in 1956, the Big Bang Theory was just 'having its fuse lit' but many preferred Fred Hoyle's elegant and far less violent Steady State Theory. Few people had ever heard of Dark Matter, no one had heard of WIMPS or MACHO's and if anyone ever mentioned 'Dark Energy,' they were probably describing a pint of Guinness! Arguments raged as to whether the lunar craters were caused by meteor impact or were volcanic in origin - the latter theory favoured by the then youthful Patrick Moore, and Sputnik 1 was still at the 'blueprint' stage. I remember attending an HSS lecture by one famous astronomer Dr. J.G. Porter, who proved conclusively to his audience that 'space travel would be 'an impossibility' as the navigational computer would need to be 'the size of the Albert Hall' and it 'would consume the electrical power of a town the size of Milton Keynes.' Little did he or we realise what was just lurking around the corner! There is no doubt that the microprocessor and the personal computer have added another dimension to both professional and amateur astronomy and some of today's amateurs are producing images that professionals could only have dreamed of two decades ago.

These past fifty years have utterly changed our conception of the Universe and the way we observe it. I feel very fortunate to have lived during this era but I believe that as far as astronomical discovery is concerned, "we ain't seen nothin' yet." It is gratifying to know that organisations like the HSS, the BAA and the S.P.A continue to thrive and I am certain that amateurs have a continuing significant role to play in the 'Queen of Sciences.'

Doug Daniels

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