Popular Astronomy

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Section Directors

Director: Tracie Heywood

I was born in 1960 and lived on my father's farm in the village of Aike in East Yorkshire until I was aged 18.  I have always been interested in astronomy but didn't start observing until age 15 - after checking the cows on one foggy early autumn night, I struggled to find my way back across a large field to the farmhouse and realised that being able to identify the constellations visible above the fog would have been helpful. Aided by astronomy books borrowed from a local library and a pair of 10x50 binoculars I had been given by my uncle, I steadily built up my knowledge of the night sky. However, I didn't start reporting my observations until being encouraged to do so by Neil Bone, who I met when starting at Edinburgh University in 1978.

My first "meteor watch" involved watching the 1977 Geminids from my bedroom window.  My first "proper" meteor watch was for the 1978 Taurids from Blackford Hill in Edinburgh, as part of an Edinburgh University A S group watch, organised by Neil.  One of my most unusual experiences while meteor observing came during the 1979 Geminids - at around 5am, I was briefly mistaken for a dead body when I was caught in a police car's headlights while observing from near the ROE's car park - a location I had chosen in order to be sheltered from strong winds. 

My main observing interests are Meteors and Variable Stars.  I am one of only 4 UK based observers (and around 40 worldwide) to have made over 100,000 visual variable star estimates. I received the Steavenson Award from the BAA in 2009 and the Fred Best Award from the SPA in 2010 in recognition of my observing. 

Since late 1989 I have lived in Leek in Staffordshire - which isn't an ideal location for meteor observing, being on the western edge of higher ground and also affected by cloud getting through the Cheshire Gap (between the Pennines and the Welsh mountains). However, I still manage to carry out several meteor watches each year - the most memorable being during the Leonid "fireball storm" of Nov 17 1998 when I saw 279 meteors in less than 3 hours, despite severe cloud interference.

I have been Meteor sub-editor for The Astronomer magazine since 1980, was Director of the SPA Variable Star section from 1992 to 2000, resuming the role again in January 2015.  I was Assistant Director of the SPA Meteor section from late 2010 until taking over as Director from Alastair McBeath in April 2012.

Assistant Director: Alastair McBeath

Born to scientifically-interested parents, late in the year Gagarin first orbited the Earth and the NASA Moon-landing programme was announced, some of Alastair's earliest memories are being introduced to Orion and The Plough in Ursa Major by his mother, Esme (who died in 1979). Through his mother's encouragement especially, he later followed the Apollo lunar landings closely on TV and in magazines, and still recalls first seeing 'live' that fuzzy picture of Armstrong stepping onto the Moon, on the family's black-and-white TV set of the time. By the mid 1970s, he had taught himself to find the constellations, observing a wide variety of objects with binoculars or small telescopes along the way. Thanks to his father's chance discovery of it, he joined the Junior Astronomical Society (as the SPA then was) in 1975-76. 

Enthused by the Meteor Director of the time, Robert McNaught (who was to become a professional astronomer at Siding Spring in Australia), Alastair's first meteor watch was in the summer of 1977. In 1983, he became more involved with the Section's administration, and in October that year, took over as Meteor Director from George Spalding. Unofficially supported by his father Peter (until his death in early 2004), and officially by Assistant Director Shelagh Godwin from 1994 to 2012, Alastair continued as Director until April 2012 and was also International Meteor Organization (IMO) Vice-President from 1989 to 2009.

Alastair remains heavily involved with meteor astronomy as an observer and continues to produce the IMO Meteor Shower Calendar each year. His other astronomical interests include naked-eye and binocular observation of transient phenomena of all kinds, the eye's perception of colour and motion at night, and the history and mythology associated with the stars, planets and constellations. In 2002, with Romanian colleague Andrei Gheorghe, he established the Meteor Beliefs Project, to examine past and present beliefs about meteors and meteorites, which Project continues to publish regular articles in the IMO's journal