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Book review: “The Rain” and “The Storm” by Virginia Bergin

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I read a lot, as you can imagine – astronomy, science reference and obviously a LOT of science fiction, too. Like any good SF reader I have my favourites, and am very loyal to Kim Stanley Robinson, Stephen Baxter and a handful of others, but I do try to stay open to new ideas, new genres and new authors. I also like a good YA novel too.

Hmmmm. “YA”… stands for “Young Adult”, obviously, but what do you think of when you see that term, in print, on a screen or on a bookshop shelf? In recent years the YA market has – I think – become saturated, and now the shelves in your local Waterstones, Borders or indie book shop will be groaning miserably under the weight of YA novels. Browse the covers and titles and you’ll probably come away with the idea that a lot of YA literature – and I do mean a LOT – is basically recycled versions of the “Twilight” or “Hunger Games” books; go take a look at the YA shelves in your local shop and marvel at the number of books written about lovesick teenagers pining for a werewolf, vampire, zombie or some other hunky, broody supernatural creature that hides a heart of gold beneath their soft fur/milk-white skin/disintegrating skin, which is itself hidden beneath a wardrobe of clothes One Direction would die to be photographed in. Personally I’m holding out for the story of a doomed love affair between a stroppy teenage girl and an undead unicorn prince, it can’t be long, surely…

And if a YA book isn’t about a doomed love affair between a mortal and an immortal, it is probably about a frustrated love affair between a boy and a girl living in a dystopian future where Adults Are Bad and only they can bring about a revolution. I came to “The Hunger Games” quite late, but read the whole series during a camping holiday, devouring each book like a hungry man let locked overnight in a chinese buffet, so thankfully I don’t have to read all the subsequent titles and series which were clearly “inspired” by those brilliant, brilliant books.

So, browsing the YA shelves can be a bit of a sigh-fest now, I think. Lots of the same.

But… every now and then you spot something on a shelf that looks… different, new, something shiny. And when you buy it, and read it, it’s so refreshing it’s like plunging your face into a bucket of cold water on a hot day. And that’s how I felt as I was reading “The Rain” by Virginia Bergin, after picking it up in a charity shop. I loved it so much I bought its sequel, “The Storm”, from my local Waterstones just two days after finishing it.

Without giving too much away – I HATE reviews which do that! – these two books are a post apocalypse tale, but with a unique and very, very clever twist. As the title of book 1 suggests, the end of the world isn’t brought about by plague, or nuclear war, but by something much more everyday and taken for granted – the rain. There’s something nasty in the rain, something very nasty, which causes the world to go to hell in an abandoned ALDI supermarket trolley.

And that is such a clever idea, worthy of Stephen Moffat himself. Think about it – what the hell are you supposed to do if the water falling from the sky is desperate to kill you? If your supply of water, which you’ve always taken for granted, is suddenly gone? The water in your kettle? Deadly. The water in your pipes? Death in liquid form. Those fluffy clouds starting to roll across the hills over there? Messengers of DEATH. What the hell do you do? You can fight zombies with well-placed head shots and kill a vampire (a proper vampire, not a Boy Band glitter-coated Cullenesque vampire). But how do you fight a shower?

And struggling to survive in that hell is a young girl, Ruby.

Now, let’s be honest, a lot of YA heroines are basically Katniss clones, kick-ass Mockingjay wannabes (and come on, there will only ever be one Katniss) who have almost superhuman powers, even if their hormone-soaked teenage hearts are just as fragile and confused as everyone else’s. Not our Ruby. Ruby is a real girl, and by that I mean a very believable, real person, with real faults, hang-ups and problems. I loved reading her and spending time with her. Virginia Bergin writes Ruby so sensitively, so accurately that she jumped off the page. And, refreshingly, Ruby speaks, and sounds, through her dialogue, like an actual teenager, not like an adult trying to fit in with kids.

You remember how all the “teenagers” in Dawson’s Creek (showing my age now, I know!) talked SO MUCH and used such clever, such oh so clever language that they could have been gifted interns in The West Wing instead of troubled kids in an achingly pretty American Town? Yeah, well Ruby is nothing like that. She’s a kid and talks like a kid, and acts like a kid too. She’s not always likeable – sometimes she really is that spoiled, moody, stroppy, hurtful, insensitive brat you see at a bus stop who seems destined to be on a Jeremy Kyle special one day – but then she makes you love her by doing something so nice, so sweet you feel guilty for being mad at/disappointed in her earlier.

Anyway, enough about Ruby, if I say much more I’ll spoil her for you, and I want you to have the joy of meeting her properly for yourself. The books are the story of Ruby’s journey through a post apocalypse world in search of her father, and her adventures along the way. Well, when I say her “adventures”, what I really mean is her long catalogue of encounters with people and situations which are so dire and so horrible by the end of “The Rain” I wanted to reach into the book, pull her out and sit her down in a quiet corner of MacDonalds, with a burger and a large Coke, just so she could have a bit of peace and quiet without anyone trying to kill or rip her off for half an hour.

In “The Rain” we follow Ruby’s journey immediately after The End of The World, as she travels through a deserted southern England looking for her father, and Bergin brings the landscapes vividly to life, painting a very realistic – and very, very British – picture of what’s left after civilisation collapses. In the sequel, “The Storm” , we follow Ruby as she is forced to confront some awful truths as civilisation, at least in England. attempts to recover from its Fall. Like most YA heroines she is forced to grow up, quickly, as agencies and individuals alike try to thwart her plans and/or kill her, and by the end of the sequel I was quite breathless, so much had happened to the poor girl. There are lots of shocks and surprises along the way, but it’s shame that the biggest revelation in the whole book, the pivotal point of the whole story, is absolutely RUINED by the artwork on the front cover! Which numptie editor agreed to that image being used? Seriously, River Song would have taken one look at that cover and blasted it, shouting “Spoilers!!!”

“The Rain” (which I should probably tell you is called “H20″ in the US… hmmm, brave move that… just sayin’…) and “The Storm” feature a lot of the YA staples – teen romance, annoying friends, adult hate figures – but they’re not just items included for the sake of it, to be shoe-horned into the plot and ticked off a Must Use checklist once used, they actually sit comfortably in the story and have a right to be there. And ok, so the ending of “The Storm” is rushed, and everything seemed to wrap up very suddenly, but maybe that was just because I was hoping there would be a third book in the series, and when I got to the end of “The Storm” I had to accept that there wouldn’t be…

Great read. “The Road” for this generation of stroppy, growing-up-too-quickly iPhone-owning teens, and a roller-coaster ride for those of us who occasionally like to forget how old we are and, putting aside our hard science fiction, dive into something different.

 

A galaxy far, far away…

I think it’s common knowledge by now that I am head over heels about my iOptron star tracker. It’s a fantastic piece of kit, and I feel like it has somehow given me a whole new sky. Ok, so I’m kicking myself – hard – that I didn’t buy it a couple of months earlier, so I could have used it to photograph Comet Lovejoy at its best, but without a TARDIS or a DeLorean there’s nothing I can do about that. I have it now, and it’s brilliant, and it’s letting me take images I have dreamed of taking for a long time.

Last Thursday night I went up to a (reasonably) dark sky site just outside Kendal with my friend and observing buddy Carol, a fellow member of the Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal, and I got some really nice shots with the iOptron, like these…

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Comet Lovejoy, now drifting quietly through Cassiopeia as it heads back out into deep space… and it still has a pretty tail…

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The famous “Double Cluster”, not too far from Lovejoy and Cassiopeia actually…

And I took this image too – this is a crop from a stack of four images of varying exposures taken with my Canon 1100D, with my beloved 135mm “vintage” lens…

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That’s the spiral galaxy M101, which lies close to the end of the Great Bear’s tail and is a great favourite of many amateur and professional astrophotographers. I know, it doesn’t look much, just a small smudgy cloudy… thing… but that’s not the point. The point is, I took that image with my iOptron and my (below!) entry level DSLR and an old, battered 135mm M42 mount lens, from a car park beside a small church just outside Kendal, and I never thought I would. I am chuffed to bits with that image, because you can see the spiral arms quite clearly –

And again, many people reading this will be thinking “So what!” because a moment’s Google searching for images of M101 brings up literally thousands, taken from all around the world, and even the most basic “through a telescope” shot shows more detail than mine! But seriously, when that image popped into view when Deep Sky Stacker had done its thing, I was beyond chuffed. It really hit me that that little cream-in-coffee swirl glowing softly behind the curtain of glittering stars is a galaxy… a GALAXY for pity’s sake… and it’s a galaxy much bigger than our own Milky Way, perhaps as much as 70% bigger. That little smoky catherine wheel contains hundreds of billions of stars MORE than our own Milky Way…  Even more amazingly, it is over 21 million light years away… 21 MILLION… that means that the light which entered my humble little Canon that evening, moving down through my old faithful 135mm Soligor lens to register on the camera’s chip set off 21 million years earlier, when our ancestors were still shimmying up and down trees…

Looking at that image I can’t help but wonder… how many civilisations does that galaxy contain? How many of its stars are the “Sun” to a species that evolved to know its place in the universe? How many living, lush, green and blue worlds lie within those gracefully curving spiral arms? How advanced is the life there? Do empires spanning dozens of systems thrive there? Do gleaming starships plough through the epic voids between the scattered suns…? Do astronomers on its inhabited worlds, amateur and professional, see our own Milky Way as a tiny spiral smudge in the sky, and photograph it with their own telescopes, cameras and iOptrons, from their church car parks..?  I guess we’ll never know.

But I do know that I am very pleased with that image, and I think I can feel a bit of a quest coming on now… a quest to capture the Spring’s galaxies with my iOptron. I can’t compete with the Hubble, or with accomplished astrophotographers like the legendary Robert Gendler, but I can hopefully make some pretty pictures of my own :-)

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Looking back at the eclipse…

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( Image: Carol Grayson, Eddington Astronomical Society of Kendal )

So, that’s it then, after all the build-up and anticipation, the eclipse is over, it’s history, the long-awaited Big Day came and went. Here in Kendal, somewhat disappointingly, we only caught brief glimpses of the eclipsed Sun through the clouds, but that’s more than many people saw, and as you can see from Carol Grayson’s photo at the top there it did look gorgeous when we were allowed to see it by the Cumbrian weather. Of course, the day before the eclipse the Sun was splitting the trees, it was so sunny and hot, and the day after the eclipse was glorious too, as is today. In fact, not half an hour after the eclipse finished the clouds above Kendal tore open and the Sun blazed above The Auld Grey Town for the rest of the day… Not fair, just not fair.

But that’s astronomy for you, at least, astronomy in Cumbria. You get used to it –

Actually no, you don’t. Every meteor shower missed, every naked eye comet that slips away without being enjoyed, every display of the northern lights which rages unseen behind the thick, foul grey hurts. It hurts. It feels like a cruel injustice, especially when you see everyone else’s glorious images on Spaceweather.com. You never get used to it.

Seeing anything exciting “up there” in the Cumbrian Sky is such a challenge, and we beat the weather so rarely, that if you don’t want to go mad, or turn into a twisted, bitter astronomical Gollum, hating others for their better lives, you learn to take pleasure – or to try and take pleasure – in the success of others, so I am genuinely pleased that such a large number of people across the UK were able to see the eclipse, or at least some part of it –

– and I am absolutely furious that some children were actually banned from watching it from their schools, and were instead forced to “enjoy” the spectacle inside, on TV.

No, I’m not joking. In 2015, when eclipse-watching safety advice is available to anyone, for free, with a moment’s searching on Google, when most towns and cities have at least one astronomical society, some children were actually banned from watching the eclipse outside. It beggars belief.

Think I’m making this up? Think this is just one of those “urban myths” which pop up at times like this? Unfortunately, no.

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You might expect such a thing in countries or in societies which are more superstitious or religious. You might expect such a thing in places where religious zealots and science-hating, black flag-waving fanatics rule the population with guns and knives. You absolutely wouldn’t expect it in a country that is science savvy, the country of Patrick Moore, Brian Cox, Sir Isaac Newton, the Royal Observatory and Jodrell Bank.

I know schools have to be very careful with their pupils’ safety, they have an extremely serious responsibility to ensure it. And maybe, being charitable, some of the people involved did believe they were doing the right thing. But they were wrong. Preventing kids from viewing this eclipse was a huge mistake.

Here in Kendal we lost count of how many kids were brought down to watch the eclipse by their parents, and there were even groups FROM schools which were brought along by their teachers to ensure they were able to enjoy it safely. One Kendal school basically emptied, and dozens of its pupils walked down to watch the eclipse with us. Another school, from faraway Carlisle, packed a coach with kids and sent them down to Kendal to watch it with us.

However, elsewhere – and I’ve read reports of this happening in Devon, Wales, London and elsewhere – idiotic bloody Council pen-pushers and School Governers stopped excited, curious kids from watching the amazing eclipse, and locked them indoors and made them watch it on TV. One headmaster did it because he was panicking about “cultural and religious problems”. Other teachers clearly were just too bone effing idle to do a *little* research about safe ways to watch it, or couldn’t be arsed to contact their local astronomical society to ask them for help and advise. Shame on all of them. They stopped those poor kids from experiencing something magical, something which they would have remembered for the rest of their lives. It’s disgusting.

girl looking at computer monitor

For pity’s sake, we’re always being told by talking heads on TV how kids spend too *much* time staring at screens, how they’re living their lives staring at phone, tablet and TV screens instead of getting out into the real world to enjoy real life, and then when one of nature’s most wonderful events came along, and dropped on our doorstep, with not weeks or even months but YEARS of notice, offering schools and teachers a golden opportunity to show kids the mechanical workings of the solar system, to engage with science, to unplug from the Matrix and get out into the real world, some stupid idiots wasted it.

“Not having enough time to prepare” is nonsense – the exact date and time of this eclipse had been known about for many years, and many astronomical societies were organising and promoting observing events for weeks, even months beforehand. Likewise,  “no safety advice was available” is rubbish too – many astronomical bodies put safety advice online months in advice, as did well known astronomers, professional science writers and bloggers. Any teacher who could be bothered to do a Google search for “Eclipse+safety” would have been shown a list of web pages full of excellent advice. Try it for yourself, now, and you’ll see what I mean. The Society for Popular Astronomy produced fantastic FREE resources, including information sheets, web pages and even videos, explaining exactly how to watch the eclipse safely. Up and down the many country astronomical societies did the same, and/or organised public viewing events. Any that didn’t, and didn’t have a really good excuse, should be ashamed of themselves too; it was our responsibility to ensure as many people as possible saw and enjoyed the event. Seriously, get out of your chairs, step away from the projector and Get Out There And Show People Stuff!!

I know countless schools went to great lengths to make sure their kids were able to watch and enjoy the eclipse, and congratulations to them, because many of those kids will have had an existing interest in science deepened, and other kids will have been excited by science for the first time. Who knows how many of the children who watched Friday morning’s eclipse will go on to pursue astronomy as a hobby, or become involved in some other branch of science?

But others were denied that. And as the rest of the country celebrated a wonderful event they were locked inside, watching it on TV. That makes me furious, it really does.

There won’t be another solar eclipse visible in the UK until 2026, by which time all the kids who missed Friday’s spectacle will have left school, so they really did miss a once in a lifetime opportunity. But although there aren’t any more eclipses for many years, on May 9th next year there will be another event, involving the Sun, which will be observable from across the UK – a Transit of Mercury.

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(Image: Wikipedia)

On that day Mercury will appear to cross the face of the Sun as seen from Earth, which is known as a “Transit”. Silhouetted against the Sun, Mercury will appear as a tiny black dot on projected images of the Sun, or through telescopes fitted with filters. (It will be too small to see through eclipse glasses or with pinhole projectors – or colanders!) The event will take many hours, most of the day in fact beginning at 11am and ending at 5pm, so there will be no “maximum moment” to see or miss, as there was with the eclipse.

We have more than a year to prepare for this; more than a year to make sure that no schoolkids miss it; more than a year to ensure that parents, teachers, Governors, Council officials and everyone else knows how to help the kids under their care to watch the Transit safely and enjoy it.

Let’s make sure that next May no boy or girl who wants to see something amazing in the sky is forced to watch it on TV.

ROSETTA update

I’ve had a few people asking me why I’ve stopped blogging about ROSETTA and Comet 67P. Well, it’s mainly because I’ve been horrendously busy getting ready for the solar eclipse on March 20th – we held a big event here in Kendal for that, and although cloud meant we only got a few brief glimpses of the Sun it was still a very enjoyable morning – and have been snowed under with editing work too, but also, to be honest, because I’ve just grown sick and weary of waiting for new images, or at least new images worth sitting down and writing about.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m still a huge fan and supporter of the mission, and am very grateful to the NAVCAM team for continuing to release images of the nucleus of Comet 67 waking up. Every day they release into the wild a new image showing jets and plumes and streamers of material shooting off the thawing nucleus, and it’s a privilege to be able to see and show others breathtaking pictures like these most recent ones…

Comet_on_14_March_2015_b_NavCam b Comet_on_14_March_2015_NavCam

As I’ve said here before, the NAVCAM images essentially *are* the ROSETTA mission for the public, and for Outreachers and educators like me, so, again, thank you NAVCAM team, your tireless efforts to promote and support the ROSETTA mission are greatly appreciated.

But where are the OSIRIS images? The OSIRIS team is still holding those pictures hostage, and it’s getting a bit pathetic now to be honest. There have been a few big science conferences recently, at which OSIRIS images have been shown, but none have been released to the public for ages. It’s now over a month since the Feb 14th 6km fly-past of 67P by ROSETTA and although one image was released after that by the OSIRIS team it was just one image, out of how many that were taken? I really had thought we would have seen some more images taken during that close encounter by the OSIRIS camera by now, but no, like so many others they’re still being kept under lock and key by the OSIRIS team and its PI.

feb 14 osiris

Their worries about having their scientific results stolen by others are well known and well-documented now, and I understand their concerns, but come on… if they’re showing images at conferences, to roomfuls of their competition and to journalists, are they really right to be so paranoid about releasing images to the public? I don’t buy it, not for a moment. I have no doubt that they could release a few choice images without risking their science, none at all. They just don’t want to.

Well, you know what? Whatever. If they want to drag ESA’s image –  which has made such huge strides recently – back to the Dark Ages, when every image taken by an ESA probe was jealously horded like a dragon’s gold, that’s up to them. If they want to reinforce the public’s opinion that scientists are cold boffins who think their work is too complicated for “normal” people to understand, or even be shared with, that’s up to them. If they want people to compare and contrast NASA’s image release policy with theirs, that’s up to them. If they want to hide behind their closed doors, looking at their precious images in private, knowing but not caring that people out here who paid for those images to be taken in the first place are desperate to see them, that’s up to them.

For me now, as for many people I’m sure, the NAVCAM images are the ROSETTA mission, and the OSIRIS images are anomalies which sometimes crop up, cause a brief flurry of excitement, and are then gone again.

I used to get angry about this, but not any more.I just think it’s sad that in this amazing year, at this thrilling time, when we are seeing Ceres close-up for the first time, and when we are preparing to fly past Pluto for the first time, when the public are more engaged with space exploration, more excited by it than they have been for years, when Europe has a beyond-incredible mission to explore a comet, the OSIRIS team is refusing to join the party.

Oh well, it’s their loss.

Meanwhile, 67P is warming up nicely, so keep checking back here for more of those gorgeous NAVCAM images :-)

Book review: “Living Among Giants” by Michael Carroll

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Take even a quick look at my higgledypiggledy book shelves over there and you’ll realise I’m a big fan of books which combine good, hard science with speculation about the future. I have lots of them, probably dozens of them, some new, some old, and time and time again I find myself leafing through them and, through their fascinating text and beautiful space art, exploring the fantastic worlds Out There in our solar system and beyond. I have books containing the space art of such masters as Don Davis, David Hardy, William Hartmann and Pamela Lee, to name just a few, and cherish them.

Most of the books I have are, to be fair, pretty similar, and they show, mostly, the same places. They are full of gorgeous artists impressions of future astronauts exploring or settling the worlds closest to us, The Moon, Mars, maybe the moons of Jupiter at a stretch, which makes sense as they’re the places we have a chance of getting to in the relatively near future. So I have grown up with seeing astronauts standing on the edge of Valles Marineris and peering down at the clouds rolling across its floor far below, or kneeling beside antique 20th century landers covered in dust; I have drooled over countless paintings of settlements and research outposts on the Moon; I have smiled wistfully at paintings of men and women standing on Io and watching one of its sulphur volcanoes vomiting into the sky… I love them all, and when a new book comes out I devour that too, but even I have to admit that, sometimes, just sometimes, it would be nice to “go” somewhere new, somewhere different…

So when I read that one of my very favourite space artists, Michael Carroll, had written a book which offered readers a travel guide to the worlds and moons of the outer solar system, the off the beaten track worlds and moons which lie beyond Jupiter, I was intrigued and knew I had to read it. It struck me as quite a brave and challenging thing to do because, I think it’s fair to say, many… most, perhaps… space enthusiasts and amateur astronomers think that once you get past Saturn it’s all a bit, well, boring out there. They have their fans, of course – people who find beauty in their rushing winds and fish tank grit rings – but to the rest of us Uranus and Neptune are, basically, just big bland blue-green balls, with a few fairly interesting moons going around them –

Oh come on now, don’t look at me like that. Spare me your indignation and be honest with yourself: that’s how many of us think of them. We think so little of them that even when they’re in the sky we don’t swing our telescopes towards them but look at other things in the sky again, for the gazillionth time…

But the truth is the outer solar system is, effectively, a neglected second solar system. Once you fly past Jupiter and Saturn, and set out across that enormous gulf of space beyond them, you are heading towards a host of worlds and moons of incredible variety and a beauty all of their own, and in his new book Michael Carroll takes us by the hand on a tour of many of them, boldly suggesting that in the future human explorers will call them home, and find their landscapes, features and scenery every bit as fascinating and beautiful as those on Mars, the Moon and the Galilean Satellites.

And so, in this book we are thrust far into the future – an optimistic future with no budget constraints or idiot, short-sighted politicians strangling the spirit of human endeavour or the drive to explore – when there are brave, wide-eyed men and women living and working far, far beyond the often yawningly-familiar worn-down mountains of the Moon and the rust-red plains of Mars. Dipping into their history and the literature they have inspired Carroll explains in detail the science behind the atmospheres of the gas and ice giants, and the startlingly varied landscapes and geology of their moons, but in such an approachable way reading this book is like listening to a series of lectures by a scientist who is also a great communicator and public speaker. I learned a lot as I read this book, and it gave me a much deeper appreciation of the work of the planetary geologists

But for me the main appeal of the book is its beautiful illustrations. (I know, I’m shallow, guilty as charged!) As I said before Michael Carroll is one of my favourite space artists, and has been ever since I first came across his work in the pages of the astronomy magazines I bought when I was just starting out in the hobby, and so any book which features new paintings by him is always going to be forced into one of the few remaining gaps on those shelves, but this one is there by merit, not through loyalty, because some of the illustrations in it are wonderfully evocative and inspiring. P102 – a holiday resort cluster of domes on the equatorial ride of Iapetus; P128 – an astronaut standing on the shore of Kraken Mare, one of Titan’s methane seas, watching surf-edged waves creeping slowly up the shore; P152 – tourists posing for photos on the “steep walled cliffs at the junction of Korrigan and Pixie Chasmas” on Uranus’ moon Ariel…

My favourite of all is probably this one, showing a futuristic spacecraft skimming over Saturn’s glittering rings, heading for the tall, icy structures which jut up from it…

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…but look what they did with it! They split it between two pages!! Which numptie thought THAT was a good idea???

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One thing I really love about Carroll’s art is it is natural, and human and warm. He is an artist, not an illustrator. In one of the prefaces he states, proudly, that although a few incorporated modern digital techniques, he actually painted most of his illustrations in the book the old fashioned way, on canvas, with paint, and that is a joy. It makes such a difference. For example, today, just by coincidence, as I was killing time in my local bookstore I came across a new Star Trek book, an update of the old “Ships of The Line” book which features many of the beloved starships and spaceships from Star Trek’s series and films. And yes the pictures in it were all very striking, but they were almost all digital creations, and as clever as they were, many of them were just so artificial-looking, so cold, that they could have been created by robots. Too clean, too sharp, too artificial. But when you look at paintings like this, in “Living Among Giants”…

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…you can tell a person, a living, breathing human being made it. He paints with the same love and human touch as people like Pamela Lee and the vastly under-rated Lucy West-Binnall (not heard of her? Google her right now, you can thank me later!). I have no doubt that if Michael Carroll went into space he would take an easel, a canvas and a box of paints with him and would be out of the airlock, set up and painting something before his lander’s engines had even turned off.

And you know what? I don’t care that it’s unlikely the future shown in the book will ever materialise, that’s not the point. The point is, this book will lift you off the face of our troubled home planet and lead you by the hand to some of the incredible worlds which lie out there, opening your eyes, and your mind, to the wonder and beauty which exist far from home.

Ok, so, to summarise, why should you buy this book? Well, here’s a contents checklist… Serious science? Check. Useful and educational diagrams? Check. History of astronomy and space exploration? Check. Beginners course in geology and comparative planetology? Check. Gorgeous space art? Check.

Another winner, Mr Carroll.

What’s next? :-)

——————————————

LIVING AMONG GIANTS

“Exploring and Settling The Outer Solar System”

Springer

ISBN: 978-3-319-10673-1

In Eddington’s footsteps…

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The great astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington – famous for his work on stellar evolution and for supporting Einstein’s work on Relativity – was born in Kendal, and I’m very proud to be the (current) Secretary of the town’s astronomical society, which is fittingly named after him and features him on its logo…

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Eddington’s father was the Headmaster at Kendal’s Stramongate School for a time, and although Eddington moved away from Kendal at an early age, in the summer of 1930, not long after the historic discovery of Pluto, he returned to Kendal, as a famous “celebrity” astronomer, to give a lecture at Stramongate School, which was, it was later reported in the school magazine, attended by the Mayor and local figures as well as pupils of the school. Eddington took his enthralled audience on a “tour of the universe”, using the “school lantern” which was brought out especially for the occasion,

Yesterday I was extremely proud to follow in Eddington’s footsteps, literally, by going to Stramongate School myself and giving a talk in (I think…) the same hall the great astronomer lectured in 85 years ago. No Mayor this time, no “local figures” in the audience, but a very enthusiastic group of 50 pupils and their teachers. Like Eddington I took them on a “tour of the universe”, but my ‘magic lantern’ was a state of the art computer and projector, and my ‘slides’ were jpgs put into a Powerpoint and run off an 8Gb USB stick.

When Eddington stood in front of his audience Pluto has only just been found, and there was no information known about it, or very little. I was able to show my group Hubble images of Pluto, and tel them how New Horizons will race past it in July. When Eddington gave his lecture he no doubt thrilled his audience with an account of his historic eclipse-chasing expedition eleven years earlier. I was able to tell my audience about the forthcoming March 20th solar eclipse, and invite them along to the EAS “Eclipse Watch” being held here in Kendal, where observing instruments and tools Eddington would have considered science fantasy will be on hand to show the public the Moon passing in front of the Sun in absolute safety. I stood there, in that hall, showing the kids more than a hundred stunning images – Earth shining as a sapphire blue ‘Evening Star’ in the twilight martian sky, the cliffs and jets of Comet 67P, the geysers of Enceladus, and more – and couldn’t help wondering what Eddington would have said if he’d seen them…

After the talk there were lots of wonderful questions from the kids – kids who are growing up in a world, and at a time, when robot explorers are scattered through the solar system, when we know planets orbit other stars, and when we have mapped the spiral arms of our galaxy. And as I left the school, and started the walk home, I wondered what an astronomer visiting the school in a further 85 years time would tell their audience about. It’s frustrating not knowing, but that’s how astronomy and how science works – there are always incredible discoveries for the next generation to make, new wonders for them to see and show others.

Back home I had half an hour of browsing Rosetta and MER images with the cat fast asleep and purring like a motor boat on my lap before heading out to work.

Not a bad day. Not a bad day at all. :-)

Kielder Spring Starcamp 2015

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Enthusiastic astronomers or gluttons for punishment, take your pic, but Stella and I headed up to the wilds of Kielder again last week to attend the 2015 Spring Starcamp at Kielder Campsite. If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that our previous trips to Kielder have involved a lot of squelching about in mud and surviving rain and snow – it’s famously the Glastonbury of starcamps – but this year, thankfully, the weather was very kind until the morning we packed up, and we came home without trench foot or frostbite! This year, in fact, we had one of our most enjoyable starcamps at Kielder yet.

It helped that this time we pitched our tent “down the bottom end”, down by the static caravans which serve as the command post and nerve centre of the Starcamp. Down there it was lovely and quiet, and a lot less muddy – though recent improvement work on the campsite’s drainage on other parts of the site has really helped – and we really enjoyed being there. Our pitch had the added bonus of being just a minute’s walk from the toilets/showers and warm room, and 5mins walk from the Anglers Arms Pub and Kielder Castle up on the hilltop, so it was a win win all round.

This time, after doing very convincing impressions of Linda Blair vomiting explosively in the Exorcist before we’d even got half way, Peggy – our cat – almost made it to the campsite entrance before throwing up, and somehow managed to splash her sick onto my leg *through* the side of her box, meaning that when I got out of the car I looked like I’d wet myself, a very dignified way of arriving. But soon we were saying hi to the wonderful Lynn and the other organisers and started to set-up our tent, without getting soaked to the skin for a change, as we managed to dodge the showers, and by teatime we had made ourselves at home, ready to face whatever the weekend threw at us.

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(That’s our tent right in the middle, the blue one)

And Peggy soon made herself right at home…

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The thing is with Kielder, for us, at least, it’s a camping holiday first, and a Starcamp second. It’s so wild up there, so exposed, and the weather is so changeable that if you go there expecting to see stars every night, or somehow feel you are entitled to see and photograph them every night, you are setting yourself up for a huge disappointment, so we always go up there “on holiday” and I always say that if I get just one clear night, just one, I’ll be happy. And this year the first night we were there was magnificently clear…

As darkness fell there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and soon I was outside setting up my new iOptron star tracker. In a previous post I described my first night with the tracker, and how successful it had been at letting me take photos of an average sky, so you can imagine how excited I was at the prospect of setting it loose on the truly dark skies of Kielder! And it didn’t let me down. Here are some of the pictures I took that first night…

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M42 STACK best

(I am **so** chuffed with that one!!!)

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Yes, that’s right, I managed to capture the famous Horsehead nebula using just a 135mm lens on my iOptron tracker. It was probably worth going to Kielder just for that photo…!

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Eventually, in the wee small hours, cloud rolled in, but I didn’t mind, I’d managed to get some gorgeous photos, and I pulled the duvet over me a very happy man…

Next morning was beautiful and sunny, and Stella and I made the first of many pilgrimages up to the Castle for a lovely full breakfast – one of the highlights of the starcamp, to be honest…

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…and then had a nice chill-out day just wandering around to the shop and back, saying hi to old friends, chatting to new faces, and “bedding in” to the starcamp.

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The field began to fill up and by nightfall was probably half full. I think numbers were down this time because of the date change – the event had been moved forwards so it didn’t clash with the travel plans of people wanting to head north to see the solar eclipse – and maybe because people had had such disappointing experiences with the mud and weather recently, but the die-hards, like us, and the Kielder regulars, were all there, and had a great time.

Friday night wasn’t as clear as Thursday, clouds came and went, but inbetween those clouds the sky was sprayed with stars and I managed to get some more good pictures…

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Jupiter

That’s a tracked shot of Jupiter, over-exposed, I know, I just liked the dramatic look of it :-)

It was great to be joined later in the evening by our fellow “Kielder veterans” Carol and Simon, who are also members of the Eddington AS, which brought the total number of EAS members at the event to 5, as Moira was there too, trying her hand at astrophotography for the first time that night.When I finally called it a night and headed back into the tent, Stella was fast asleep and being guarded…

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Saturday dawned a bit drizzly, but we felt fine after another big breakfast, and in the afternoon headed up to the Castle to browse the wares being offered for sale by Grovers Optics and to listen to the talks which are always put on on the Saturday afternoons at Kielder Starcamps. After a fascinating talk on the history of the study if galaxies I gave a talk giving the audience a guide to our place in the universe, which seemed to go down very well, I had some very nice comments afterwards, though it was a shame there was such a big gap between the talks as many people who drifted away at the interval didn’t bother to come back again. The talks afternoon ended with a look at NASA’s Maven mission to Mars, then it was time for Stella and I to head down to the Anglers for dinner, booked – we thought – early enough to give us plenty of time to get back to the tent and set up the camera and telescope for photographs and views of Venus, the Moon and Mars all gathered together in the twilight. But it didn’t quite work out that way, and because, unusually for the Anglers, our food arrived rather later than planned I ended up having to wolf down my meal and race back to get ready, leaving Stella to finish off her food on her own, which wasn’t what we had in mind, but she hooked up with some mates, Neil and Karen, after  left anyway, so it worked out okay in the end.

And before clouds rolled in I managed to get all my gear set up in time to get some pretty decent (I think!) photos of the Moon and planets glowing serenely in the western twilight…

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Unfortunately after that the weather decided to torment and frustrate us, and all night clouds rolled and swam over the campsite, clearing, in places, occasionally, to allow brief tantalising glimpses of the southern starry sky, and overhead. It was very frustrating that the whole northern sky was obscured by a wall of cloud that just refused to budge – someone said it was as “a ruddy big planet had just parked next to Earth, blocking everything in that direction” and I had to agree. I tried some pictures but to no avail, what clear sky there was was actually hazy and misty, and the stars of Orion all had haloes around them, so I put my camera back in the tent and just went for a wander, looking through various telescopes at various things, and even after retiring to the tent I kept checking the sky, ever the optimist, hoping it would clear, but I eventually gave up at around 4am and surrendered to sleep…

By Sunday morning it was clear that poor weather had set in, so after another big breakfast (hey, we were on holiday!) Stella and I settled down with Peggy to watch DVDs in the tent.

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Last time we were at Kielder the Sunday was marked by gale force winds which threatened to carry our tent away, they were so strong, but this time wasn’t as bad, nowhere near, but with the weather forecasts all agreeing that we had seen our last starry sky the Great Exodus began, and by mid-evening the previously busy campsite was almost deserted, just a few tents and caravans scattered across it. With no prospects of any stargazing that evening Stella and I headed back down to the Anglers for a meal, and had every intention of just having a snack there until we bumped into Robin and Antoinette, who gushed about how lovely a HUGE Sunday roast they had just enjoyed in the pub, so we gave in and treated ourselves to one of those, and it was spectacularly tasty… and I treated Stella to this rather magnificent desert, too…

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Of course, when we emerged from the tent we saw stars! None of the weather forecasts had suggested that would happen, so we raced back to the tent to get my camera gear set up… but it was a “sucker sky”, and the gaps closed over again soon, and although other gaps appeared and disappeared through the evening it never really got clear enough to do any serious photography so I just admitted defeat, took my gear back inside, and got under the quilt at about 1am.

Monday morning… time to go home… and we woke to the sound of lashing rain. Great. Another soaking seemed inevitable as we took down the tent. Taking advantage of occasional gaps in the rain, and then the snow, we managed to get most things packed away into the car without getting too wet, but by mid-morning it was clear that the weather just wasn’t going to let up so we had to take the tent down in the snow and wind, and were both freezing cold by the time we had dragged the sorry-looking, soaked canvas under a shelter to mop it off before cramming it into its bag and stuffing it into the car…

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…and then, finally, we were on our way, soaked and cold, even after a lovely hot shower, waving and beeping our farewells to the last few people on the campsite. Another Kielder was over. Time to go home.

So, another great time at Kielder! Two good photographic nights, which was wonderful, and I am very happy with the photos I took. Many thanks to the organisers, Lynn and Richard and everyone else for staging another hugely enjoyable event and for all their hard work behind the scenes. It was great to catch up with old friends, and to make some new ones too, and we came away thinking, again, that going to Kielder Starcamp is one of the best decisions we ever made, ad one of the best parts of our year now. We’re already booked to go back in October, and I can’t wait to get my iOptron tracking the Milky Way and its glittering star-clouds then..!

 

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