(based on an article in 'Astronomy' July 2000)
I volunteered to give a talk at this year's Member's Night as we were a bit low on speakers with one week to go! I had no idea what I was going to talk about but I was sure I'd think of something.and then I remembered an article in Astronomy magazine (July 2000 issue), entitled "Re-Energising Your Astro Club". "I know," I thought "I'll just plagiarise that article, I bet no-one has read it." (and I was right...I checked on Member's Night!). But I didn't just choose this article at random, I chose it because it struck a chord with my view at least, of the current status of the ASE. Allow me to elaborate...
Briefly, my experience of the ASE of the last 9 years or so (I joined in 1991) has comprised turning up for (excellent) talks on diverse astronomical topics on the first Friday of the month, perhaps followed by a squint at the Moon or a bright planet through the 6" Cooke refractor and very little else. Most of my observing was done outwith the ASE, usually alone, either with binoculars or with a 6" reflector I built during 1993. I no longer have that telescope (I am currently working on a portable 10" replacement `scope), however probably the best night's observing I ever had with the 6" was during an ASE Observation Group meeting at Portmore Loch (not far from Earlyburn) on 10th November 1996. I remember the 20 km drive south through patches of freezing fog was quite atmospheric in itself and I wasn't convinced that the sky would be clear when I got to Portmore. I needn't have worried, the sky was jet black, crystal clear and saturated with stars! I don't have room here to go into details but the observing list included M1, M27, M31, M32, M33, M57, M110 - several of which were `first time' objects for me. Sadly, Orion was just rising when we had to stop due to iced-over mirrors & lenses!
So that was a great night in 1996, enjoyed by some ten or so members. Unfortunately, for one reason or another, as far as I know there was no follow-up meeting.
Things aren't that bad but...
Also around this time, work began on the renovation of the Cox 13" reflector. Although good progress was made over the summer, the lack of power inside the `Cox Drum' meant shelving the project over the winter. We were also stymied by the Millennium proposals for Calton Hill, particularly the infamous `glass box' project. This was one of many topics which occupied the ASE Council's time to the detriment of (you guessed it) astronomical matters. In fact, the burden (financial & otherwise) of running the observatory was becoming so great that in July this year that the ASE Council decided that an alternative meeting venue should be sought if the situation did not improve, particularly since the dark-sky site at Earlyburn was becoming available.
Thankfully, we do seem to have reached a new and more favourable understanding with Edinburgh City Council regarding our mutual needs on Calton Hill. We have been assured that the City Council is keen to maintain the ASE's astronomical presence at the City Observatory and provided we secure a better `financial package', I am optimistic that we can now make some longer-term plans for astronomy on Calton Hill. Of course not everyone wants to stand outside in the cold observing at Earlyburn, however I don't see why we couldn't develop the Calton Hill site as a good (albeit light-polluted) city-centre observing site. We can potentially operate several high-quality telescopes on Calton Hill and with a little imagination we could organise interesting observing programmes...if that's what members want!
Some suggestions #1
If this article seems biased towards practical astronomy, that's because it is & there are 3 reasons for this:
I know that many members (including myself) `do their own thing' observing-wise but my perception is that as a Society, the ASE's focus has moved away from `practical astronomy' for various reasons.
In the space I have left here, I don't want to go through all the points on the slides I used for Member's Night in great detail. I think most of them are self- explanatory but a few points are worth highlighting (I'd also recommend the article in Astronomy for further reading).
I think we could do more to improve public awareness - it's a sobering thought that during the `glass box' stooshie it emerged that some members of Edinburgh City Council were not even aware that the City Observatory was active! Public awareness and public support has to be good for the ASE in the long run.
Some suggestions #2
It is important that we find out what our members want from the ASE and make sure we engage new members in our activities. Delegating means encouraging members to develop any new ideas they have and perhaps dispelling the view that "the ASE Council will/should be doing that.". The Council is keen to encourage members to talk/write about their hobby.
Teach & inspire....hmm, I read recently that 27% of adults in the USA think that the Sun orbits the Earth and 50% don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun in one year! This article (Sky & Telescope, September 2000) was all about motivating youngsters to get into astronomy and it also noted that the average age of astronomy society members in the USA was 40+ years old. While the statistics above were blamed in part on the education curriculum in the States (which, from memory, does not require any astronomical content), it seems that this is a trend which is seen globally. My generation (I'm 40 in January 2001) grew up in the midst of the `space race' and had darker skies - mind you, telescopes were still expensive then! Computer games & the Internet were predictably blamed for the lack of interest in being outside under the stars. That said, the article also noted that children around the age of 10-11, are still fascinated by the stars & planets and any encouragement received then can lead to a lifelong love of astronomy.
Again, this subject has been discussed at ASE Council meetings (in response to applications for junior membership), however the general feeling has been that the subject matter in monthly meetings might overwhelm younger members and prove a disincentive(!).
The other points on the above slide are there as thought-provokers - again feedback is most welcome.
And finally ... what next?
My last slide from Member's Night lists some of the wealth of resources that the ASE is fortunate in having and offers a couple of suggestions for increased interaction within the society and with the wider public (although our press-releases don't have to be as dramatic as the examples I've used here). Given our healthy, diverse membership, I'm sure there are a lot more `resources' (in terms of specialised astronomical know-how), that I don't even know about.
Strictly on the instrumentation front, of course there is the Cooke 6" refractor, which for a Society as large as the ASE, is definitely under-used. One comment I received immediately after the talk was that most members have never been instructed in its use and it was suggested that we hold some `telescope training sessions'; we intend to address this problem soon. We also have a 4.25" equatorial reflector and our `Leviathan' 13" Cox equatorial reflector which will hopefully be restored to working order before the end of the year in the Crawford Dome. Then there's the 4" refractor which currently provides a nice backdrop for the tea-room. Plans are also afoot to restore this instrument too! The Earlyburn site is already being used by the Society's Astrophotography & Imaging Group. As the nights draw in, I would encourage more members to make the trip to enjoy the dark sky views, using their own instruments and/or the Society's 8.75" Dobsonian telescope.
In conclusion, I think this is an exciting time for the ASE, with plenty of opportunity for members to engage in `hands-on' astronomy. And remember, the ASE Council is always pleased to hear your suggestions and comments.