Sunday, May 25, 2014

Northumberland in late May

We've been away for a few days in Northumberland, staying at Alnmouth, north of Newcastle. Here are some pictures.

Nigel and Clare at Warkworth Castle

Seals on the Farne islands

Clare at Alnmouth beach

Another view of Alnmouth beach

At the Kielder Observatory
The Kielder Observatory visit was by degrees intriguing and infuriating. The audience - c. 40 members of the public (all of whom had paid £15 per head and had undertaken a long drive to get there) - appeared in the large to be uneducated in things astronomical. Our host was the observatory's Director, Gary Fildes who
"... did not have a University education, indeed he left school at 17. Before we go 'tut-tut' we remember that the First Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, did not do either. Nevertheless, he made rather a good job of running the Royal Greenwich Observatory from 1675 to 1719, when Edmond Halley took over.

Gary, at present a Fellow of The Royal Astronomical Society, started his working life as a builder and after serving his time became a site manager, before founding his own business, Orion Bricklaying Services, which is still trading.

Gary's hobby of Astronomy and his astonishment at the scientifically dark skies of Kielder led him to take the giant step of founding the Kielder Observatory in 2008, after a number of years of 'site testing' and fund raising. "

(excerpted from here, the occasion of Gary's honorary MSc from Durham University).
Gary started the evening with a half-hour talk on astronomy. In my opinion this was not a success as Gary doesn't appear to have a deep understanding of the science of astronomy (physics, cosmology). It was more the chat of someone who has read a bunch of popularisations. I was particularly unimpressed by the suggestion that the universe is teeming with intelligent life but we don't see the aliens because we're in quarantine due to our bad ways. I think it's fair to say that that plays better at Glastonbury than in circles scientific.

The telescopes are able to image the planets as discs, but they're quite small (we've all been spoilt, of course, by flyby imaging and the Hubble Space Telescope). Mercury was just a point of light; Mars was a featureless disc; Jupiter's bands were visible as well as three of the Galilean moons, while it was possible to see Saturn's rings.

It did, however, get me thinking about the first people (Galileo et al) who looked up at bright planetary pinpricks, then down to their telescope eye-pieces where suddenly they found astonishing shape and structure. The heavens would never be the same again.

This wow factor was undermined by the amateurish, half-baked and confused presentations but it's hard to see how things could improve. The sight is remote, the hours profoundly antisocial, the temperature cold and the number of public outreach events high. Apart from Gary's small team of dedicated, but amateur, volunteers it's hard to see how they could attract a more educated set of presenters. Perhaps Gary should get someone to write a better script for himself.

Here are some more pix.