Seeing stars

London Essays – Issue 6: Night

Seeing stars

There are more possibilities for astronomy in London than you might think.

By Robert Massey

A glance upwards at a typical evening view of orange clouds might be enough to dissuade most Londoners from thinking about the night sky. That brightly-lit cloud cover doesn’t look very promising – and in June this year, the Campaign for Rural England (CPRE) released its latest batch of satellite maps of England at night, 2 showing the major conurbations as stains of bright light.

Greater London in particular has the dubious honour of hosting 19 of the 20 most light-polluted boroughs in the country. The city’s inhabitants are simply unable to see most of the stars their ancestors took for granted. CPRE and organisations like the Commission for Dark Skies (CfDS) 3 have tracked the changes in light pollution over the last two decades, and lament its intrusive effects on the natural ‘landscape’ of the sky above our heads.

Bob Mizon, who helped set up CfDS, has been a tenacious campaigner against stray light for many years. He points out that there have been some improvements in the capital, with better LED road lights that direct light where it should go, i.e. downwards. In 2003, MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee 4 recommended action – not least on the basis of evidence from the Royal Astronomical Society – and highway and railway engineers seem to have taken note. (Buildings now tend to be the most wasteful with light, and there are relatively few controls on this once their construction is complete.)

Sadiq Khan is rightly taking action against the blight of air pollution in the city. 5 Wasteful lighting, with its effects not only on the sky but also on wildlife and possibly on human health 6 – and, in its generation, on the carbon footprint of the capital – needs renewed political attention. Perhaps it is time for policymakers in general to look again at the regulatory framework that allows such routine profligacy.

The modest progress that has been made on getting a decent view of the sky leaves even enthusiasts like me occasionally disheartened; yet, despite that, the capital turns out to be something of a hub for space and astronomy.

The Royal Observatory Greenwich, 7 which is approaching its 350th anniversary, is a good place to start – and nearly 800,000 people pass through its doors each year. Nowadays partly a museum tracking the work of astronomers who have worked on the site since 1675, it also boasts a large lens telescope (a so-called refractor), which is open to the public in the winter months, and London’s only planetarium.

Greenwich is also a centre for education and public engagement, and runs courses, teacher training, and workshops for schoolchildren and families. The Observatory and the adjacent National Maritime Museum host many space-related exhibitions, including the remarkable Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year, which showcases the best images from photographers from all over the world. 8

Across town, the Science Museum has a space gallery, exhibiting the UK-built Black Arrow rocket, the Apollo 10 command module that carried three astronauts to within 10 miles of the surface of the Moon, and a full-size model of the Beagle lander. Upstairs, the ‘Cosmos and Culture’ exhibition features historic telescopes, drawings, photographs and astronomical artefacts from around the world.

For those who prefer to experience astronomy directly, ‘Evenings with the stars’ run at the University of London Observatory  9 in Mill Hill and at the astronomical societies in Orpington, 10 west London 11 and Croydon. 12 The societies’ events depend on volunteers who give up their time to local astronomy clubs. Perhaps unfairly seen in the past as the preserve of middle-aged and older men, they are now much more outward-looking.

Their newer and more inclusive approach to stargazing is epitomised by the Baker Street Irregular Astronomers, 13 one of astronomy’s more surprising success stories, who meet every month by the Hub in Regent’s Park. Largely run via social media, the Baker Street Irregulars are a genuinely diverse and welcoming group and regularly host gatherings of up to 300 people. The Irregulars also organise for big events like last year’s solar eclipse, during which a substantial crowd watched the skies dim, albeit under cloud.

Three other places to look at the stars in the capital are the designated Dark Sky Discovery 14 sites, which, despite their name, need not be completely dark. The sites, pioneered in Scotland by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and now found across the UK, are centres for casual astronomy and organised events and are intended for the curious and dedicated alike. Regent’s Park, Grove Park in Lewisham, and the Waterworks Nature Reserve in Lee Valley all have this status and are ‘Orion-class’ sites, meaning the brighter stars and planets can be seen.

All this grassroots activity has not gone unnoticed by professional scientists and the funding bodies that support their work. Both the Science and Technologies Facilities Council and the Royal Astronomical Society 15 back projects that enable charities, universities and educators to collaborate to foster an increase in public engagement with the ‘big science’ of astronomy.

2020 will mark the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Astronomical Society – which, from its first incarnation as the Astronomical Society of London, has become an international science organisation, although one that keeps its HQ in the capital (we are in a building on the left hand side of the courtyard in front of the Royal Academy, just off Piccadilly). The Society will be celebrating by introducing its own funding programme: for example, one of our grants enabled the Prince’s Trust to include astronomy in their work with marginalised and vulnerable young people, taking them out to wilderness settings.

The attraction of astronomy both to young people and to those who are in charge of their education is understandable. Astronomy and space are so-called ‘STEM attractors’, encouraging an appreciation of science, engineering, technology and mathematics. They pose – and attempt to answer – the big questions about the universe we live in. It is not difficult to interest people in the mix of hard science, philosophy, romance and religion that characterises any discussion on the origins of the cosmos, the existence of extraterrestrial life or the prospect of travel to other worlds.

That most traditional model for bringing science to the public, the lecture series, is variously run by Greenwich, the Science Museum, the universities and the RAS. The opportunity to hear leading astronomers and space scientists describe their work draws large crowds for topics ranging from the tough physics of cosmology and black holes to the results from Martian landers.

This year we paid particular attention to the 100th anniversary of the formal admission of women to Fellowship (all members are ‘Fellows’) of the RAS, a key milestone in the development of professional astronomy; and to the achievements of women space scientists and astronomers more generally.

In London, two of these women had a major impact on science in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Living and working in Tulse Hill, Lady Margaret Huggins 16 and her husband William were pioneers who analysed stars and nebulae by dispersing their light into its constituent colours, a technique known as spectroscopy. Solar physicist Annie Russell Maunder 17 took up employment as a human ‘computer’ at Greenwich, taking daily photographs of the Sun and its spots, and jointly discovered the cycle of sunspot activity that sees their numbers rise and fall over 11 years; she also took part in five expeditions to study solar eclipses. Both Maunder and Huggins received little formal recognition in their lifetime but made crucial contributions and deserve more prominence in the history of science.

In the present day, six universities in London have vibrant research programmes. Scientists at UCL were the first to find water in the atmosphere of a planet around another star, while an Imperial team are part of the global effort to detect and analyse the distortions in the space-time fabric of the universe – gravitational waves – generated when black holes merge together. (The highly-skilled people who develop their skills by working on these projects often go on to pursue careers elsewhere, not least in the burgeoning data science and space technology sectors.)

At a time when London and the whole of the UK are struggling to find a way forward after the EU referendum vote, astronomers are resolutely outward-looking. Like that of the overwhelming majority of our scientific peers (a survey by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that 93 per cent of scientists see major benefits from EU membership 18), our work depends on the flow of talent to and from Europe and beyond, and on participation in international projects beyond the scope of any single nation. We live in a country and a capital city with an enviable record in ‘curiosity-driven’ research in areas like astronomy, 19 and where the public have many opportunities to not only find out more, but to become directly involved. It would be a pity if the UK allows this success story to be constrained by an over-reaction to anti-immigrant prejudice.

That worry, though, sits alongside a more positive outlook. Surely we all gain from not always thinking about political and economic woes, but on ideas that at first sight may have little immediate benefit for wider society. Astronomy and space science are fitting ways to step back, reflect on the place of the Earth in the cosmos, and be the better for it.

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