One clear night in North Wales, after everyone else had retired to their tents, my friend and I stayed out with a flask of whisky to watch for shooting stars. The Leonids were passing over that weekend, and it was supposed to be quite a show.
Shooting stars are literal blink-and-you’ll-miss-them affairs, fleeting streaks of light across the sky that last less than a second, and leave you wondering if you really saw them, or whether it was just your imagination playing tricks. My friend saw a couple, and I saw one – and then we saw the same one together. Having my sighting corroborated was utterly thrilling. It might just have been that I was three sheets to the wind at the time, but I went back to my sleeping bag grinning all over my face.
I first began to stargaze in college, heading out to the back garden on clear nights, with a copy of the starchart programme Cartes du Ciel on my creaky old laptop, and my Dad’s birdwatching telescope. It wasn’t a fancy rig by any means, but it was still a revelation. The peak of excitement was catching sight of Saturn, because even through my underpowered telescope it was bright yellow and had distinctive rings. It looked like a child’s picture of Saturn someone has cut out of a book and pasted into the night sky. Mars looks a little reddish, and Jupiter has some distinctive moons, but Saturn is by far the most exciting of the planets. I also had fun observing the Orion nebula, the Pleiades, and once caught sigh of a faint, fuzzy blob I thought might be Andromeda. Rich pickings indeed, considering I hardly knew more than six constellations.
Serious astronomy fell by the wayside in University, but the knowledge never left me and proved handy on various night hikes, where I was astonished and disgusted by how many people believe that Polaris, the north star, is necessarily the brightest one in the sky. Most of the time they alighted on a planet, but at other points they ended up selecting Sirius, the dog star, which is in the south for most of the year! I wasn’t slow to set them right.
I got back into astronomy recently thanks to York University AstroSoc. Whenever there’s a clear night and the first year physics students haven’t been messing with the telescope, they’re my first port of call. Otherwise, I can be found standing stock still and gormless in some corner of the campus whenever there’s a break in the clouds, tracing the faint V-shape of Taurus where it lies beside the brilliant cluster of the Pleiades, or trying to spot the twins in Gemini. One thing I learnt only recently is that there’s not just shapes up there in the sky – there’s drama, too. Orion the hunter holds the two dog constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor on a leash as they chase the great and little bears (Ursas Major and Minor) across the night sky. Where Leo (the Lion) and Cygnus (the Swan) come into this schematic is anyone’s guess, but it’s a nice attempt at bringing a few of the age-old figures together in a narrative. As in my postgraduate researches, I penetrate deeper and deeper into realms of fiction and history, of theme and symbol, of abstracts and theories, it’s pleasant every now and again to learn something that brings you closer to the real world, where it be learning a new knot, or the name of a wildflower by the roadside, or being able to locate a new constellation in the clear night sky.