Saturday, 7 February 2009

Edinburgh at night

No luck with the star viewing last night (too much whimsical Scottish cloud), but I did get to point my camera from a place on high, onto the lights of Edinburgh below. At times this view included the gleaming tubes of passing aircraft.

Instead of a chance to gaze at the heavens, we were given a tour of the observatory, which houses Scotland's largest telescope, built in 1928 (it took two years to haul the thing up Blackford Hill piecemeal and assemble it). It has been out of service since the 1970s and sits sadly, staunchly immobilized for health and safety reasons. We were also shown an old astronomer's chair, complete with seat belt to keep the scientists from tipping over after hours of exhaustive observation.

Today's astronomers punch coordinates into a computer and receive images back from giant telescopes that can be located on the other side of the earth. No more sitting inside freezing domes, strapped to high-backed chairs that look like they could carry a hearty electric jolt. No more midnight hours with eyes glued to the spectrograph while the light of the stars is reflected off the telescope's (now considered meagre) 36-inch curved mirror. I always thought that some of the mystique of astronomy lay in the demanding isolation and subsequent burgeoning social eccentricities of the scientists themselves. It is sad when these traditional ways-of-the-weird fade away under the brightening glare of technology.

The evening ended with a slide show and talk to explain to us the various extravagancies of our galaxy. We learned that there are four ways to immediately die on Venus: be burnt by the heat (460 C!), flattened by the crush-you-like-a-crepe surface pressure, suffocated by toxic gases, or have your body eaten away by sulphuric acid. JP would love that, I thought to myself between details of various space horrors.

"This will probably be the oldest thing you will ever touch," said our guide, a bespectacled man with a great enthusiasm for repeated guttural throat clearing and sweeping the red beam of his laser pointer around the screen in quick circles. Several small meteorites were passed around. They were surprisingly heavy and they held the smell of magnets and burnt metal. Try as I might, my mind could not grapple with the magnitude of how old these tiny pieces of the universe were.
Despite my disappointment, I do love the night photos. They seem eerie and magical to me. I would definitely go back to to observatory, but only if guaranteed a clear night. I shall have to wait now until JP and I fly over to Canada in a couple of months. The night sky of the Cariboo Chilcotin. It is a wondrous thing.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

An interesting night nontheless.
I always wanted my own telescope...and a laser pointer come to think of it.
And you did get some great pics!

B.G. said...

mmm...nice last coupla posts. your writing and it makes me happy :)
the stars here are waiting...

C.S. Perry said...

If the circumstances of my life had been different...I suspect that you and I may have married.

My God...can you imagine the wordS we would have used?

Purest Green said...

Anonymous - Is that you, honey? Someone's getting a laser pointer next Christmas (wink). Just don't go around blinding Neds for kicks.

B.G. - Just 2.5 months or so to go. Trust me, my grandmother is counting down. :)

C.S. Probably all the words here: http://savethewords.org/ - tossing them out like snapping a towel. Good times.

Maggie May said...

oh sooo beautiful! so beautiful.