An Astronomer’s Tale

fildesOn my own travels I’ve seen skies above the Libyan desert.  One night, sleeping among the dunes and rock outcrops of the Jebel Akakus, I woke up and was staring straight into the core of the Milky Way Galaxy. You get a shiver in your spine, you feel like you’re falling upwards into infinity. Your eyes range around the sky looking for patterns, to make meaning of it all.  A few years ago I spent a few days observing and photographing at the dark sky site in Galloway.  The star fields have to be seen to be truly appreciated. Until the last 150 years – really since the coming of artificial light, gas lamps then electric light – everywhere in the world was a dark sky site.  These stunning views were there for everyone.

The Kielder Forest in Northumberland is Europe’s largest protected Dark Sky park, and in the heart of it is the elegant work of art and science combined that is the Kielder Observatory. Its founder and lead astronomer, Gary Fildes, has written this really engaging and passionate book, which is now released in paperback, about the observatory, the sky and his life.

Gary grew up in Sunderland, left school at sixteen into the void left by the closing of the shipyards, and became a brickie by trade. But his heart has always been in the stars. The book is an interleaved mix of Gary’s life story and a seasonal guide to the sky. The seasonal guide bits are well written, clear, exciting and informative – you put down the chapter and want to go out there straight away to look. You can see that the exposition of the sky is something Gary has down to a fine art now, through his work at Kielder.

It’s the narrative of Gary’s life and the founding of the Kielder observatory that really made the book work for me. Gary’s life hasn’t always been perfect – he writes with honesty about his involvement with the fighting and hooliganism that dogged football in the 1980s. But even through those times –  and being a young father of four he soon got the wake-up call that he had to change – he never lost his fascination with astronomy, even though admitting it to his mates at the time might have got his head kicked in.

The revival of serious observing starts again for Gary in 1996, when he connects with a neighbour with a telescope. The dream of the Kielder observatory started properly in 2002, and finally reached fruition in 2008, with the help of dozens of people who shared the dream and no small help from the skills of his own trade. Kielder is now receiving upwards of 20,000 visitors a year and has ambitions to become the world’s biggest public observatory.  During the book Gary speaks with great affection for his father, and how he wishes he were here to see what he’s achieved at Kielder. He also reminds us that this is his passion long before his profession – he’s not a professional scientist, never took a degree. Well, so what – you’re in the company of Patrick Moore there Gary!

Anyway, Kielder is now on my ‘must visit’ list for when the dark nights return – and if I get chance Gary, I’ll buy you a drink. Thanks for this super book.

An Astronomer’s Tale – A Bricklayer’s Guide to the Galaxy, Gary Fildes, Century Publishing, 298pp

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Astronomy Photographer of the Year – Collection 2

Astronomy Photohrapher of the Year 2013 Collection 2

Astronomy Photohrapher of the Year 2013 Collection 2

We are all used to seeing in the newspapers and magazines, the stunning pictures of the heavens that come down from the professional observatories, planetary space probes and the orbiting Hubble telescope. What is not always widely recognized is that with advances in telescope, digital camera capabilities, and image processing software, the amateur astronomer community is capable of producing photographs that rival them and in artistic and creative merit, often surpass them. I even do a modest bit of astrophotography myself, whenever we get a clear night here up in the Pennines…

Physicist, Astronomer and occasional guitar player Brian May provides the foreword to this wonderful collection of images, which are drawn from the shortlisted and winning photographs from the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s annual Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition.

A coffee-table layout book, the nearly 200 images inside are grouped into themes, following the themes of the competition. So we have Solar System, People and Space, Young photographers, Earth and Space etc. All the images are taken by amateurs, and the book starts wonderfully with Earth and Space – views of the sky over spectacular earth landscapes. My personal favourites here are David Kingham’s stunning image of the Perseid meteor shower over Snowy Range, Wyoming, and the awesome view of the aurora over northern Norway by Tommy Richardsen. Alas, when I went to Norway in 2007, the sun was quiet and there was no aurora to be seen – well, there’s always a next time!

Each picture has two captions – an introduction by the photographer themselves, a personal anecdote of how they chose and took the picture and their feelings at the time, and then an additional scientific background caption.

The Deep Sky section of the book is really the Olympics of astrophotography, and it’s here the pictures for me lift from merely beautiful to absolutely mind-blowing.  To take the images of the Centaurus-A deep field, or the Fornax galaxy cluster, or the Horsehead nebula, it’s not enough to hold the camera shutter open for a few minutes – hooked up to a telescope, these comprise tens of hours of exposure time, over dozens of nights. Then dozens more nights processing them together in the digital darkroom, to create pictures that no human eye could ever see unaided, the light that set out on it’s journey to us millions of years ago.

This is followed by another lovely chapter called “People and Space” – where the photos include people in creative and original ways. So among many others we have Dinyan Fu’s image from Yunnan, China, of the Moon falling into a sea of clouds, watched by a lone silhouetted observer, looking like the last person on Earth.

The final chapter looks to the future by introducing the best work by young astrophotographers under 16 years of age, and from the showing here, the hobby is going to be in good hands long after I’ve hung my own camera up on the peg for good! This would make a great birthday or Christmas present book for anyone into photography or space.

Astronomy Photographer of the Year – Collection 2 (HarperCollins)