Popular Astronomy

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Section Director

Graham Sparrow

Though my interest in astronomy dates back to my earliest childhood and I became an avid observer in the late 1960s and for most of the ‘70s this was followed by a fallow period of some two decades when astronomy went ‘on the back burner’.  It was as recent as 1993 when I ceased being an armchair astronomer and got back to observing, becoming, I suppose, a ‘born again astronomer’.

Early days

 

Back in my childhood in the 1950s quality telescopes were not as easily available as they are today and my very first attempts at viewing the night sky were made with a surveying instrument belonging to my father.  This had a magnification of round about 10X and was far from easy to use as it had never been intended to point skywards.  This could only be achieved by splaying out two of the tripod legs and getting the third as near to vertical as possible.  Getting my eye to the eyepiece involved contortions that I certainly couldn’t repeat nowadays!

Nevertheless this did not dampen my enthusiasm and I enthusiastically explored the limited area of the night sky that could be seen without risking permanent physical injury (anything near the zenith was a definite no go area!).  Happily the ecliptic was within the area that I could view and I was able to pick out and learn the names of the larger lunar craters, follow the phases of Venus, and I will never forget the thrill of seeing Jupiter and the Galilean moons for the first time.

Later I was given a ‘proper’ telescope, but it was of a type more suited to a budding buccaneer than to an aspiring astronomer!  It had an object lens of only 25mm, stopped down to about half of that, and  though capable of magnifications of 25X – 40X it was obviously not great at gathering photons!  Add to this the fact that the tripod that my dad made for it was about as steady as a blancmange and you will not be surprised that I didn’t do much observing with that scope.

A real telescope at last

I bought my first decent telescope in 1968 when I was a student.  It was a second hand Charles Frank 3” refractor which was mounted on a wooden alt-az tripod and came with three eyepieces, but no star diagonal – uncomfortable poses and stiff necks were therefore still part of the stargazing experience!  From the start I kept observing notes and made sketches, becoming quite confident at drawing the planets and star fields, though at that time I was less successful at drawing the Moon.

A bad decision

Towards the end of the ‘70s I found I was making less use of my telescope.  Working now as a primary school teacher and married with a young family I was finding less time for fitting in astronomy with my many other interests.  Sitting at the eyepiece into the small hours didn’t fit easily with facing a class of 35 youngsters the following morning and I came to the conclusion that active involvement in astronomy would have to cease – a stupid decision I now bitterly regret.

‘Born again’ 

Though I kept in touch by reading, watching The Sky at Night and occasionally using my 10X50 binocular it wasn’t until the early ‘90s that I really got back into astronomy.  At that time I was still in education but out of the classroom and working in Field Studies in the midlands.  Finding myself   based at a residential centre and being asked for ideas for new activities that the centre could offer, I naturally suggested stargazing nights.  A 250 mm Darkstar Dobsonian was purchased, and over the next couple of years I introduced hundreds of youngsters to the wonders of the night sky.  Naturally I made a point of taking the scope home with me at weekends, for ‘security reasons’!

In 1999, a couple of years after retirement, my wife and I moved to Norfolk where I joined the Norwich Astronomical Society, a group that Patrick Moore used to say was, ‘One of the best, one of the top three in the country, ’an opinion with which I heartily concur.  It was there that I attended two talks about astronomical sketching, the first given by Dale Holt, the second by Sally Russell and was encouraged to get into drawing the Moon’s features. 

Living in a village that has gradually become more and more light-polluted only the brighter celestial objects were possible targets for my telescopes and it was natural that I should turn my attention to the Moon, filling sketchbooks as I learn again the names and nature of its features.  Having come back into observational astronomy comparatively recently I feel very much the beginner.  I am no expert, but Patrick Moore maintained there was no better way of getting to know the Moon than drawing and doing that, and sharing the observations of fellow amateurs is immensely rewarding and I continue to increase my knowledge of our fascinating satellite.