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The Comedy of Errors

The Nottingham Astronomical Society Have Been Scanning the Skies for Decades

18 March 19 words: Emily Thursfield

Anyone who casts their eyes skyward on the evening of Thursday 21 March might be treated with a view of the supermoon – a phenomenon whereby the moon appears especially large in the sky. One man guaranteed to be watching is John Hurst, chairman of the Nottingham Astronomical Society, a group dedicated to discovering the secrets of space...

Described on their website as “a friendly group of amateur astronomers from all walks of life”, the folk at Nottingham Astronomical Society are united by their love of observing the night sky. Gathering together on the first Thursday of every month at the Memorial Hall in Gotham, guest speakers from across the country are invited to address the collective on all things astronomical in an accessible way.

“Our speakers don't fill the screen with equations. It's not really a university lecture to people who are studying the mathematics of astronomy,” explains John. “They explain these complex ideas in much simpler terms, which does make things more interesting. Even the youngsters can understand.” Past guests have included Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who co-discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, and Dr Allan Chapman, presenter of Channel 4’s Gods in the Sky and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.  

While these monthly talks serve as the backbone for the society’s indoor activities, their primary endeavour is to observe the sky, regularly doing so from their Cotgrave observatory. Hand built by members back in the eighties, the observatory is home to the society’s pride and joy: a 24-inch Newtonian telescope.

Members can lock themselves away and scour the stars to their heart's content - weather permitting, of course. “The weather’s not too kind these days,” says John. “We don’t get many clear nights and, when we do, it’s often short notice. These days it tends to be cold and cloudy, which puts a dampener on it. Being up there in the cold and dark when it’s cloudy is a bit soul-destroying.”

Astronomy has been a lifelong pursuit for many of their members, including John, whose imagination was caught by a set of star charts in a library book he discovered at the age of twelve. Armed with a second-hand naval telescope, he set about learning his way around the night sky. While life as an electrical engineer consumed the majority of his adulthood, he joined the society in 2003 and quickly rose up the ranks. His role as chairman ensured he oversaw the society’s seventieth anniversary celebrations, back in 2016. Or so he thought. “The latest incarnation of the society began in 1946, but we’ve since discovered that, owing to a break because of World War Two, there was actually a Nottingham Astronomical Society started in 1921,” he says. “If we could join the two together, there’s a possibility that we could genuinely say that our society is one hundred years old.”

Being up there in the cold and the dark when it’s cloudy is a bit soul-destroying

The group also enjoy running an outreach programme, inspiring the next generation of astronomers. They’ve organised multiple stargazing nights in and around the city, and have partnered up with local Scout organisations to share their knowledge. “We’ve been to Attenborough Nature Reserve quite a few times, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham Castle, and not to forget our Stars in the Square event.” The latter, which took place in the Old Market Square, made for a surprisingly successful evening.

“When somebody first suggested it, I thought that’s the last place I’d want to go for looking at the sky, but in actual fact it’s the moon that people are most interested in seeing. Light pollution doesn’t bother you much when you’re looking at it because it’s so bright.” That brightness, John says, is one of biggest misconceptions amongst amateur astronomers. “The one time when astronomers don’t go out is during a full moon. People think it’s the best time, but it’s really the worst. The light from the moon actually pollutes the rest of the sky.”

With an eye on the future, the NAS wish to improve facilities at their observatory and expand their membership, which costs as little as £5 a year for under eighteens, or £30 otherwise. They even offer the first two sessions for free, so you can get a feel before you take the plunge. “Come along, listen to the talks and meet new people. If you like it, come and have another go.”

“You don’t need a degree,” John explains. “It’s the oldest science, and is available to everybody. We’re talking about the Universe and what’s out there. Sometimes you just look up on a dark night and think, ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ Once you get into it, it sparks an interest that doesn’t die… as long as you don’t mind the cold.”

Nottingham Astronomical Society’s next speaker meeting is on Thursday 7 March, where Paul Money will be presenting “Beyond Pluto: New Horizons in the Kuiper Belt.”

Nottingham Astronomical Society

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