When I was a kid I had two academic passions – astronomy and palaeontology – neither of which were taught at school. I’d have to wait until I was 18 before anything like that would appear on a syllabus. In the meantime I devoured every book in the local library and when I was 14 I bought my first telescope. It was a 3½ inch reflector which, in 1969, cost me about £30. I bought it on hire purchase paying the sum off over a year with money from my paper round.
Most clear nights for the next two years would see me out observing the stars and planets. But my favourite celestial object was the sun. I started mapping sunspots and every sunny day would rush home from school – either at lunch or in the evening – to see how the current cluster was progressing. That was the fun of sunspots – they changed. The stars and planets were constants. Okay, Venus and the moon had phases, but the details didn’t change. And with a 3½ inch reflector I couldn’t make out much detail on the other planets at all.
But those sunspots… they changed from day to day. They grew, morphed and faded. Sometimes they appeared as a complex cluster – with a darker centre. But they didn’t last long. Some of the larger spots lasted two or three rotations – it takes about 27 days for the sun to rotate – and it was always fun to see the first signs of a returning spot – what would it look like this time? How had it changed? – as it appeared on the right-hand edge of the sun’s disc.
Yes, I was a sunspot geek.
And a little bit of a telescope geek too.
I dreamed of buying a larger telescope but… they were very expensive. The poor man’s way was to buy a mirror blank and various sachets of carborundum powder and polish, and make your own. I had all the leaflets and read them assiduously. But I never bought one. I came close several times. I’d decide to buy a six inch mirror blank, then dither – if I saved up a little longer I could buy an eight inch mirror, or a twelve. And then there was another problem – my practical skills. Could I really make my own mirror from scratch? What if I spent all that money and ruined the thing?
So I carried my 3½ inch reflector with me from house move to house move for more than 40 years. Over the years, the equatorial mount lost a lot of its grip, the counterbalance screw snapped, the targeting scope disappeared. But it was still there for a starry night when the inclination returned.
This year I decided to splash out on a new telescope and was amazed at how much the prices had dropped. If I’d wanted to buy an eight inch telescope in 1969 I would have expected to pay several hundred pounds. This year I found one on sale online for less than two hundred.
So I bought it. It uses a Dobsonian mount which makes it a lot cheaper. The various equatorial mounts – designed to match the rotation of the Earth and make viewing easier – are expensive and complicated. The Dobsonian is a simple left-right, up-down pivot which is ideal for me. I’m also impressed at how optical technology has advanced in the past 40 years. My old lenses were minuscule – almost pinholes. These new ones are much larger and easier to view through.
The only problem is the weather. Starry nights have been largely absent since I bought it.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Hands – a quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried – true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.