Yesterday I joined other stargazers in creating a new Guinness World Record for the most people stargazing at multiple venues. We broke the world record, 30,000 (some say 40,000 as the record counting is still underway) of us. It is official and will soon be in the Guinness Book of World Records. The previous record created by 7,960 people in 2015 was shattered by us.
Doing this at the Perth Observatory was fun, educative and awesome. The Perth Observatory, currently located in Bickley, is Western Australia’s oldest observatory. It has been in operation for more than 120 years. To show its age, on display at its entrance, is the Transit Circle Meridian Telescope, manufactured in 1897 by Troughton & Simms of London. Its sole use was to accurately determine Perth’s longitudinal positon. To navigators of those days, this must have been a big problem. Not anymore nowadays.
One of the very important functions of the observatory, in its hay days, was to accurately determine the time and communicate this to locations around the city. Existing clocks in those days could vary by up to half an hour! The importance of this may be lost to many but this resounded well with me, having visited the Royal Observatory Greenwich in 2009 and watched a presentation about Ruth Belville, the Greenwich Time Lady. Believe it or not, between 1890 and 1930 Ruth went around the city of London selling time. Yes, time. She wasn’t the only one, in fact she was the third time seller in her family!
Looking through the old 12-inch reflector Calver Telescope procured in 1910, I was able to see the moon surface and its craters. This amazing telescope had seen many things in the night sky in its 108 years of existence but not the single thing for which it was procured to see – the Halley’s Comet, a short-period comet visible from Earth every 74–79 years. The volunteer that manned the telescope lamented that as at April 1910 when the comet approached, the Calver telescope had been procured but not yet put in use while at the last approach of the comet in 1986, the telescope was in storage and has not been restored. So on the two occasions that the comet had appeared, the telescope did not get to be used to see it. It was restored and put back to use in 1996.
Talking about Halley’s Comet, its 1835 and 1910 appearances were important because of their association with the life and death of the American satirist and writer Mark Twain. He predicted his death to coincide with the 1910 appearance of the comet. Having been born with the comet appearance in 1835, he has noted in his autobiography published in 1909 that he expected to leave this earth with the comet’s appearance in 1910. He did. I remembered the sayings of Calpurnia, Julius Caesar’s wife “When beggars die there are no comets seen; the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
Earlier, I had examined the Astrographic Telescope and its dome. This telescope, like the Calver, has a lot of history behind it. It was built in Ireland by Howard Grubb and arrived Perth, along with its dome, in 1898. Installation was in 1901 at the old Perth Observatory then on Mount Eliza. Though still in working order, the last scientific observation with the telescope was in 1999. It contributed in no small measure to the Perth section of the Astrographic Catalogues containing the positions of 229,000 stars.
It was while at the Astrographic telescope dome that I came to understand another meaning of the word computers and the significant contributions made by several full time staff who were women. It happened that the complex mathematical calculations, to determine the position of each star, were assigned to only women because they were deemed to be extremely more patient than their male colleagues. They were the “Computers”.
Standing alone and towering above everything else around it, is the Lowell Dome. It houses the Lowell Telescope which was installed in the 1970s as a valued part of the International Planetary Patrol. The Perth/Lowell Telescope had sister telescopes in New South Wales, Chile, the USA, South Africa and Hawaii – all deliberately placed and spaced so that the Solar system could be monitored extensively throughout the 24 hours in a day. While the dome and the 9 meter tower that houses the telescope were built in Western Australia, the 61cm Lowell telescope belongs to the Lowell Observatory in the USA and was funded by a NASA grant
The icing on the cake, for me, was looking at the night sky and seeing Jupiter and four of its moons through the lens of a telescope set up by Clive, another stargazer that partook in the record breaking event. For the event, people were assigned to colour coded sectors, I was assigned to the Green sector. As I took my seat, I exchanged pleasantries with my neighbour (forgotten his name), a middle aged Australian bloke. We agreed at how amazing space was and probably could have continued the conversation more in-depth. He then said that one thing was certain, there was no God out there. It was a test of my faith. My mind wandered between keeping quiet and responding. I quickly remembered Mathew 10: 33 where the good Lord said that “But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven”. I responded and told him I believe there is God out there as well as here in Bickerly, where we were. He remained unconvinced stating the only place God was, was in our minds. We agreed to differ.
At about 6:35pm Perth time, the world record attempt started at the Perth Observatory Stargazing party. We were one of the 285 stargazing parties across Australia. The 400 or so stargazers that we were pointed our telescopes directly at the moon and kept observing it for 10 uninterrupted minutes. It goes without saying that there were some discomforts – neck pains and the cold chilly night. Did someone say “No pain, no gain”?
At the end of it all, we cheered loudly and congratulated ourselves. Now all that needs to happen is for the Guinness World Records to update its records.
Congratulations to all my fellow stargazers and more importantly to the marvellous Francesca Flynn, the amiable Operations Manager of the Perth Observatory. When I showed up earlier in the morning, she was swamped with preparing for the stargazers that would be arriving in the evening. Notwithstanding all the work she was managing, she still had her smiles on and was very friendly in attending to me. Same attribute was displayed by all the volunteers that work with her to keep the Perth observatory functioning, having lost state government funding since early 2015. I met them around the various telescopes and buildings in the observatory, their willingness to help and knowledge about the telescopes’ history and functions were amazing.