This year happens to be the 400th anniversary of the year that Galileo first used an astronomical telescope and foisted his new-fangled notions of the universe upon his fellow man (and, incidentally, fathered three children out of wedlock – see what I mean?). The South African Astronomical Observatory has been holding a series of public lectures to mark the occasion, and since it’s just down the road I thought I’d pop in and see if they were any good.
Now while stars are undoubtedly sexy, the received wisdom is that astrophysicists are not. But Amanda Gulbis, our lecturer for the evening, wasn’t even wearing glasses. She actually looked like Kim Basinger playing the part of an MIT graduate. And despite the relatively highbrow content she kept her audience enthralled throughout. From kids who could barely have known that the Earth revolves around the sun, to people who may have been silicon-based lifeforms sent to spy on the rest of us, we were swept up in her enthusiasm, and surfed along happily on phrases such as ‘galactic plane’ and ‘light curve’.
And occasionally, in between discussing the relative densities of objects in the Kuiper Belt as indicated by the refraction of light caused by passing centaurs, she would throw us a little biscuit of trivia. Who knew, for instance, of the uncanny resemblance of Mimas, one of Saturn’s moons, to the Death Star? The grey-haired lady sitting beside me had even brought a bag of popcorn.
Bursting with a new understanding of the universe we eagerly trotted off to the lawns, where a couple of digital telescopes had been set up for us to view Jupiter and its moons. But then came the biggest treat of all, the McClean telescope named, of course, after the man who donated it. Not after Don Maclean of Starry Starry Night fame. Obviously.
The McClean telescope was built in 1894, and corresponded exactly with my idea of what a grand telescope should be(my idea being based entirely, of course, on Tintin and the Shooting Star). It is so massive it has its own room with a revolving domed roof and, best of all, the entire floor can be lifted or lowered to suit the height of the viewer.
Somehow the moving floor was the cherry on the top of the whole evening. The observatory, it had been explained to us, was in the 19th century a melting pot of some of the best scientific minds in the world. Everyone who had even the slightest scientific leaning would make a beeline for the Royal Observatory when landing at the Cape. There they would discuss the latest discoveries and race to find more. These were the people at the cutting edge of science, to whom it seemed obvious to build a hydraulic floor rather than to stand on a chair to see through the telescope. Brilliant.
And I was able to confirm my theory that star-gazing tickles the parts other hobbies can’t reach. As the hydraulic floor was lowered and we stepped off, I heard one woman murmur breathily to her husband, “Did the Earth move for you too?”