Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Old Observatory

This is one of my favourite places in the whole world and I got to visit it earlier tonight.  I have so many memories of standing in this dome with the telescope.  The lights would be off so we were all dark adjusted, someone would be up the ladder looking at whatever we had the telescope trained on, the rest of us would be talking a bit, but usually quietly, and eagerly, waiting for our turn to look.

Occasionally, discussion would break out as to how much detail we could all see - how many bands on Jupiter?  Was that a shadow transit of one of the moons?  Can you see the Cassini Division in Saturn's rings?  Is that a star or Titan?  A face would glow in the cold blue-white light of a phone screen as they consulted a star map or transit times.  Many, many times a sigh of "woooooww" would be heard as someone looked through the eyepiece, some for the first time, some having looked through it dozens of times before.

I remember the smell of the room, the feeling of the curved wood panelling at your back, the smooth wood of the steps up to the telescope, the feeling of the old smooth rope used to turn the dome and the rough scrape of the new, replacement rope.  The squeak and quiet rumble of the ladder as it was wheeled round to a new position under the eyepiece of the telescope, the slap of one of the steps as someone caught and lifted it with their foot and it fell back into place, the creak of the floorboards as we moved around the room, the whir of the electric motor, the clank of the metal rods adjusting the telescope.

It was always cold, sometimes you could see your breath, feel the cool night air coming in the aperture of the dome and lightly brushing your face, the only light coming from the moon and stars outside that you could just see through the aperture.  Sounds from the astronomers downstairs would quietly float up the stairs and the only other noises were the distant noise of the city floating into the dome on the breeze - voices, laughter, traffic and sirens - all quiet, as if coming from very far away.

The loud rumble and vibration you could feel as the dome was moved never failed to impress me.  The click of the light switch, groan of pain as light hit eyes used to the dark, and the metallic clank of the aperture closing was always sad as it signalled the end of a night's observing.

Always, there was a great sense of history, a link with the past.  The knowledge that people had been gazing through that same telescope for a hundred years, admiring the same beautiful objects we admire today, and that astronomy had been going on in that place for many, many more years before that.  With any luck, it won't be too far in the future that astronomy is regularly undertaken again in that wonderful setting, and new people can appreciate this place that I love so much.


  1. Wow, fishy. What a beautiful tribute! I really enjoyed reading that -- you made me feel the love you have for that place. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. great to see you back Fishy, I look forward to seeing your pics when you dip in. Loved the commentary you really set the scene.

  3. Just perfect! It brings it all back, all the forgotten details.

    Thank you