Blissful ignorance

I know the expression ‘ignorance is bliss’ usually refers to the happy state of not knowing stuff, and not being aware that you don’t know stuff. But for me, it describes the state of excitement I’m feeling about taking my first few steps out of extreme ignorance, (where you actually think you know a thing or two), into realising that there’s a world, nay, a vast universe, of stuff out there waiting to be discovered.
It’s that feeling where one brave step into the unknown opens up a world of unbelievable possibilities, research, new thoughts and questions. Where things you didn’t realise existed are waiting to be viewed, but now you do because you looked up and started asking a few questions.

For example, a few nights ago I continued my futile and, as yet, thwarted attempt to glimpse what is the current astronomical stir of the month, the Pan-Starrs comet. Binoculars were at the ready (it turns out my father-in-law loved bird-watching and my husband had inherited his pair, Mark Scheffel 10-30 x 50). Now, while I’m absolutely delighted each time I read that someone else has spotted it, and relish the photos with a tinge of awe, I am nevertheless pretty envious and confess to more than a touch of sour grapes of which I am not entirely proud. Our UK skies, recently described by a great friend and experienced astronomer in his blog (10 Minute Astronomy) as ‘freaking amazing’, are nevertheless fraught with problems. Namely, clouds.
But the sense that it’s all still there is delicious. It doesn’t just go away because I can’t see it. It teases, it’s tantalising.
But the other evening the clouds had lifted a little so, dressed for sub-zero temperatures, I attempted to spot the comet (now affectionately re-named the ruddy comet). No sign of it. But I did notice a strange smudge to the left of the moon crescent. No, that can’t be it, I thought. I had read it would be more down and to the left on the night in question. It had no single bright point of light, just a smudge. And the smudge was more horizontal, so not a tail pointing away from the recently set sun.

So what was that then? My iPad app initially suggested NGC520, colliding galaxies about 100 million light-years away, and 100,000 light-years across. Awesome. What could be more spine-chilling? But now I’m not so sure. Maybe it was Andromeda. Isn’t that supposed to be visible to the naked eye?
The seasoned astronomer may now be chuckling to themselves Рwho  fails to know the difference between Andromeda and colliding galaxies when they see it? Thwarted by my own ignorance? Hardly. I delight in my new-found lack of knowledge. The flood-gates of exploration are now open, my journey of discovery is blissfully under way.
I might even give the ruddy comet another go tonight, the forecast is good. Wish me luck.


My garden shed, at night.


Can my new hobby survive the weather?

I’m one of those people who read the first few chapters of the Observer’s Book of Astronomy as a child and was immediately hooked…. for a few days at least. The very idea that the sun was 93 million miles away gripped me, and when I began to understand what a light year was and how very, very far away was our nearest star (after the sun), I felt humbled and broadened at the same time. Learning about astronomy made me feel more alive. And very inspired. But as a child, the interest didn’t last, and other passions have come and gone since then.

But I recently renewed my interest in things cosmological after building a cardboard orrery (another story). This time there is plenty to feed my newly re-awakened interest: I have books about astronomy, apps for the iPad, unpolluted countryside skies, and, most importantly, I have a telescope. Will things be different this time?

Last month, armed with star charts and a few quickly memorised constellations, I eagerly awaited the arrival of 2012 DA14, an asteroid due to fly by earth at the spine-tinglingly close distance of about 17,000 miles. I had learned to spot Ursa Minor and Ursa Major, and I’d read all about locking the telescope onto a nearby star and then waiting. I was ready to have a go at spotting this historic asteroid flyby, my first astronomical event. But I was thwarted by the complete cover of clouds we get here in Britain, darn it. So I watched it on NASA TV instead. Hey ho!

At least there was Comet Pan-Starrs coming along in March. Apparently, it has been possible to see it here in the northern hemisphere since last Thursday. It’s now Sunday and the clouds haven’t lifted. There have been evenings with so much fog I couldn’t even see the garden shed, let alone a comet. Ho hum. There are always back episodes of Stargazing LIVE to watch.

My garden shed.
My garden shed.

But I know myself. I need more encouragement than this. Will my desire to be broadened and deepened by contemplation of the universe be squashed once again, defeated by our British weather?