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Memoir set in UK (searching for asterisms*)

20th February 2020

Under the Stars by Matt Gaw, memoir set in UK.

“Most people live in places where the glow of artificial light will trespass into their lives…”

Memoir set in UK

A couple of weeks ago I spent the evening and some of the night at the Kielder Observatory and therefore was enchanted to be presented with Under the Stars (A Journey into Light) which built on my short learning of a couple of hours in the dark-sky park in Northumberland. It is quite an extraordinary experience, really. Sympathetically built cabins house massive telescopes (they are not as expensive as I thought they would be to buy, I did ask!) and through them you can see all kinds of constellations and stars and wondrous things. We were looking at the Owl and Dragonfly Clusters, navigating via the Plough and the Milky Way; that’s  about as much as my amateur brain could accommodate (Cassiopeia rings a bell).

But of course, this being Britain, the weather can be dodgy and star gazing is not guaranteed! But the darkness (and wind!) is unrivalled. It is black, the trees a mere smudge of an outline. Yes, it is a bit spooky, especially with the wind howling a gale. The glow of Newcastle could be seen in the distance (“a city’s illuminations are a proud marker of civilisation“) and as the author says there are 9 million streetlamps (one for every eight people). Light pollution is quite a thing when you think about it.

Matt Gaw chose to visit the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, and back in 2009 it was the first one established in the UK – now there are a few more dotted around the country.

He ponders the moon and its significance and influence on mankind and on the earth in general, both past and present (and I felt very worried when I discovered that each year the moon moves 3.87cm further away from us into space, which means that in billions of years time, the moon’s light will be invisible and the earth (abandoned by then) will spin slow and lifeless. Now that’s a big thought to keep me awake at night). We are just tiny specks, so insignificant. I have decided I could never be an astrophysicist because I cannot even begin to fathom the scale of space. So I had better just stick to the world of books.

He experiences what it means to be in the absolute dark and how we, as a culture, always seem to gravitate towards the light. Darkness is fear-inducing and prior to electric lights, ‘nightfall’ presaged a period of some hours when human senses (the reduction of vision) were diminished and vulnerability was ever present; and scary children’s stories certainly don’t help the fear of night-time beasties and ghouls, and criminals, who often use the cover of darkness for dodgy doings.

If the publishers and the Dark Sky Observatories have any nous, then they will seriously be considering stocking copies of this book in all their Observatories.  It would greatly enhance the visitor experience. The book is, in a way, an affirmation of what visitors have seen and gives just more breadth to a layman in the world of astrophysics and telescopes.

*asterism – a prominent pattern or group of stars that is smaller than a constellation

If you want to get to know the sky better, then you can download an App like SkySafari. Point your phone and it should tell what you are seeing.

This is a beautifully produced book, with thick quality paper and a book cover with the texture of handmade paper. It’s truly appreciated.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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