ASE logo The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh


No 52 - March 2007

Observing through the years

It's a little scary to think how long I've been passionate about astronomy. 'First Light' was probably not much under half a century ago, I can hardly believe it, when my parents took me Christmas shopping all the way from home in Dunfermline to Glasgow. I (think I) clearly remember watching the Moon in the sky from the back of the car, amazed that it was visible by day, throughout the hours of the journey - cars were slower in these days!

Fortuitous for me, or maybe it was 'in my stars', the Santa in residence at the big department store we were heading for somehow managed to find for me in his sack a book called 'A Child's Book of Stars'. All the way home I read every word of it several times, flicked back and forward through the colourful pictures and squinted out of the car windows at the real stars, trying to make the connections and wondering if anyone I or my parents knew could help me find the North Star. There were none! Fortunately for me the seed of my new interest was planted on that journey and by that book.

Fast-forwarding through more than a few decades, a few months ago I was browsing the Internet and came across the Annual Address of the Director of NASA. In it he referred to that very book as his introduction to astronomy and space. He also added that just about everything in it was 'wrong', but the seed was planted and his future course set. Fortunately I managed to find and buy a copy of that long out-of-print book on the Internet. Maybe I should contact NASA and suggest they invite me out to chat about our common origins ...

But enough of the nostalgia! Becoming a student at the University of Edinburgh in the mid-1960s I soon realised that while taking an astronomy/physics degree had seemed the obvious choice, I 'couldn't do the sums' and so switched to a less mathematical degree, ecological science, while The University Astro Soc kept me in touch with my 'first love'.

8 inch Newtonian
8 inch Newtonian on home-made equatorial fork mount.

At that time, while most of my fellow students were getting plastered at the University Union and, if they were really lucky, meeting young ladies - it was 'The 60s' after all - I was using ex-WW2 binoculars from a local junk shop and a 2 inch / 50 mm refractor, on a 'blancmange' mount, bought from Charles Frank, an instrument company in Glasgow. The 'blancmange' term was, I think, coined by Patrick Moore one night in the mid 1960s on the BBC's 'Sky at Night' - the connection is that both wobble! The Moon showed up quite well, but then I had nothing to compare it with. That's not quite true. My school pal, Terry, one of the few other people in our then very small world of amateur astronomy had a 3 inch 'genuine achromatic' telescope, on a pillar-and-claw mount. His 'astronomical' knowledge of the stars complemented my solar system focus and we moved on, still in the very small world - as we knew it - of amateur astronomy. In fact, neither of us knew any other person, school kid or adult, with an interest in the stars. Actually, there was one other - Ron - but he was already a real scientist, and he had a 6 and a half inch Newtonian. He had girlfriends too ... but I won't go into that. Anyway, I built my own telescope from scratch whereas he just bought his with the big salary that his employer Ferranti paid him. No, I wasn't jealous, not at all ...

The next step came when I discovered in the local library in Dunfermline, to my amazement, a three volume set of books called, 'Amateur Telescope Making' or 'ATM' as it became affectionately known by its founders at 'Stellafane', in Vermont. I was hooked! Here was the way a penniless student could acquire a 'big' telescope. I managed to find and buy - for a pittance - two porthole windows from Ward's ship-breaking yard in nearby Inverkeithing. Somehow I managed to find a supplier of the necessary carborundum in several grades to grind the mirror and within a few months a 6 inch / 150 mm Newtonian reflector began to take shape. Sort of! I managed to work through the grinding stages to achieve a spherical mirror. Achieving the parabolic stage took a little longer; in fact I don't think I ever achieved the mirror 'wave-length' or the level of 'perfection' I had planned, but it worked!

I made a fork equatorial mount with hardwood and scrap-yard car axles. The 'drive' was neither clockwork nor electrical ... the manual 'nudge-nudge' method was used to more or less counteract the Earth's rotation. While fine for visual observing, photography was another matter. However, if not examined too closely, short time-exposures on a camera piggyback mounted on the telescope resulted in surprisingly good night 'sky-scapes'. Re-visiting today some of those old black and white FP3 and Tri-X negatives (yes, there was life before digital) it's obvious that light pollution was far, far less of a problem in mid-1960s Dunfermline where I lived than it is now, and bears no comparison to the grossly light polluted skies that I now have, 'even in Morningside'. But more of that later.

8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain
8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain on German equatorial goto mount.

'Size matters' ... meaning of course that we astronomers, in our quest for knowledge of heavenly bodies, continually seek larger instruments. An 8 inch Newtonian was the logical, or at least the affordable, next step for me. (See first photograph). This time I bought a ready-made quality mirror and 'flat' from the acclaimed instrument maker, H. Wildey, recommended by the British Astronomical Association which I had recently joined. The resulting 'scope was mounted on another and slightly heavier home-made equatorial mount, using the established formula of car axle bits for the mount, angle-aluminium lengths for the telescope open-tube construction and wood. It was the best telescope I'd ever had and I used it extensively over the next few years, contributing in a small way to advancing our knowledge of, primarily, the Moon and planets, through observations and drawings (photography was still a few years in my future) via my membership of the BAA Lunar Section. By this time I was also active in our Astronomical Society of Edinburgh - I think my title was 'Acting Director of the Lunar Section' - for a year or so, and I had the honour of meeting Patrick Moore, V.A. Firsoff and other 'names' from the astronomy world. In 1970 I sold the telescope and left Edinburgh for Canada, specifically Vancouver and studied for a Master's at the University of British Columbia from 1970-72, with 'only' binoculars to maintain the astronomy interest.

Vancouver suffered its own levels of light pollution, but escape into semi-wilderness mountain country was comparatively easy. Travelling a little further into magnificent 'alpine' country such as Garibaldi Provincial Park, I saw, for the first time in my life, the Milky Way as it deserves to be seen - 7th magnitude stars were visible to the naked eye - even mine, just a little damaged by over-long Moon gazing! That magnitude limit has been achieved by me only a few times since. On one occasion I equalled it - this was in the Pyrenees while staying at a Spanish friend's cabin - and again on a very rare 'night to die for' in the Cairngorms, while camping in Glenmore Campsite, near Aviemore. I recall my young son stepping out of the camper van door and visibly recoiling in shock at the 'black hole' he had stepped into! Once we had both dark-adapted, that memorable line from my favourite film, '2001 Space Odyssey', came to mind ... 'My God it's filled with stars'.

My personal wish list for the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh

An ASE interactive website

Develop an interactive website alongside or within the existing ASE website. This is a great means of communication with other members - sharing observing notes, equipment reviews, observing alerts etc.


Digital astro-imagers, as indicated by the number of active websites dedicated to it, seem to be so much more active than I'm aware of amongst ASE members. I hope I'm wrong! Why do these astro-imagers in Edinburgh and nearby not consider joining ASE? I only know of a handful of active astro-imagers in our society whereas the astro-imaging sites appear to have many more members actively communicating on their websites.

Education and learning

The Society should develop relevant teaching modules - possibly credit-earning, though not necessarily. As a competent photographer and now a digital photographer I look forward to making a 'great leap forward' into digital astro photography. I can make the images, but practical sessions in image processing using software such as 'Registax', under the informal tutoring of more advanced fellow members, would be great! I'd even pay real money for such assistance. Even if only in the form of buying a few drinks for the 'demonstrators'!

Evening/weekend classes

I'd like to see the Society develop more evening or weekend classes. Studying for a distance learning module is OK, but I'd prefer an interactive, face to face approach. Getting my head around contemporary astronomy and cosmology, for example is something I'd like to tackle and maybe even achieve. To maintain a friendly, informal manner, I'd suggest these sessions might be held in a local pub ... I know of one with a where we'd be very welcome - since my son is the proprietor! in Buccleuch Street.

Field trips / excursions

Some members already do this individually and collectively e.g. eclipse chasing. Might this be possible on a group basis, e.g. for spectaculars such as eclipses via package flights to more distant locations at group rates, maybe?

Practical observing - a dark skies site

It's great news that the Society may be acquiring shared use of a dark skies site. I certainly look forward to making use of it and hope that it can be a place for individual, and also co-operative observing and learning. The bonus of a 'warm hut' will be great! To maximise use I hope keys can be issued to signed-up members, if necessary for a fee, so we can make use of it whenever nature - i.e. clear skies - calls.

Social occasions

Star parties / star camps / Stellafanes etc. can be great social and learning experiences. Participants can get to know other amateur astronomers' interests and expertise and can greatly benefit from chatting face to face. I hope we can organise such things. At least one per year, or preferably more, e.g. every 'season'. I recently went to a star camp at Kielder Forest. The weather was atrocious - continuous heavy rain - but the atmosphere was great, pushing each others cars out of the mud etc! These events could perhaps be advertised to non-members/the general public and might lead to new members joining us.

Widening membership

Last year I helped 'that other place' on Blackford Hill, the Royal Observatory, with its concept of 'Roving Astronomers'. On a cold winter's night some 30-plus passers-by turned up and every one of them said to Us-Three-Astronomers that they had a great experience. It received coverage in local papers.

Links with the Royal Observatory Edinburgh

ROE holds well-attended talks (for a fee), runs evening viewing sessions (for a fee), has a visitor centre, campaigns for 'Dark Skies' etc., quite apart from its priority commitments to professional astronomy. Can we collaborate with ROE? Can we complement ROE?

Pub nights

Especially while our premises at Calton Hill are partially out of use, could we consider meeting in a convivial pub (or other) premises? The Meadow Bar on Buccleuch Street has a pleasant upstairs bar that can be booked for free (!) and as my son is the proprietor, that would be easy to arrange! He would expect some fine beverages and maybe the odd packet of crisps (or better food) to be consumed.

A network of observing sites

My City back garden is flooded with light, most of the time I probably won't be able to dash out to our (prospective) dark skies site. I'd like to know if any fellow members have secret observing sites in and around the City that they'd be prepared to share with others. Yes, I know we astronomers are solitary, contemplative creatures of the night, but getting together occasionally might be pleasant and productive.

'Clear Skies' and a 'New Dawn' to all fellow members of ASE!

Frank Howie
< frankhowie @ >


Cover page

From the editor

Recent observations

Annual General Meeting - March 16th 2007

Minutes of the Annual General Meeting held on March 17th 2006

Astronomical Society of Edinburgh - Annual Report for 2006

Observing through the years

ROE in new research council

Forthcoming events

About the ASE Journal

This journal as a single web page

This journal as PDF file (310 kByte)

AGM agenda as PDF file (43 kByte)
AGM minutes as PDF file (19 kByte)
Annual Report as PDF file (35 kByte)

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