Babe Among The Stars

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Galaxy Babe's column banner, showing a full moon and some little folk looking up at the sky

Mortal as I am, I know that I am born for a day. But when I follow at my pleasure the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth - Ptolemy

How it all began

I remember well when I fell in love with astronomy - although I couldn't tell you my exact age, it was definitely a single figure. My sister Y was born when I was three, which promoted me from baby of the family to piggy in the middle. She was a particularly fractious baby who demanded a lot of attention, and as she grew into a toddler it seemed that she learned quickly how to get her own way. By the time I was eight and she was five, our little brother joined the family, relegating me down the ladder even further, although Y never relinquished her demands, no longer the baby but still the baby girl.

During half-terms I was shipped off to my grandmother's home in a small village 11 miles away, though it seemed in the middle of nowhere. There, I was treated as an only child, plus there was the added bonus of dark sky. Even at that tender age I could tell the difference between the night sky at home living in a road with a streetlight shining through my bedroom window every night, and my grandma's garden after sunset. I got into the habit of laying down on the grass to look up, transfixed by the arm of the Milky Way and trying to count the stars. I never knew then that some stars had names, or even planets, and that I'd be writing about them in the hope that others would learn and grow to love them too. I worked out that every night was different, thanks to the Moon. Shooting stars were magic and something that couldn't be predicted, no matter what the astronomy people tell you, because you can see them anytime, you just have to keep looking.

My grandma bought me a float, a plastic inflatable which was just big enough for me to lay on, as she was worried I'd catch my death laid on her lawn until way after dark. I spent many an evening on that: I felt like I owned that particular patch of sky above my grandma's home. A few years passed and my grandma bought me The Observer's Book of Astronomy for my 12th birthday - it's been in my possession now for over 40 years. Written by Patrick Moore, it was understandable even to my pre-teen eyes, and I will never forget gasping at the awesome pictures within, every page was like expanding a treasure chest. I never knew such wonders existed in the Universe and I was determined to find out more.

I asked at school if we could have astronomy lessons. The teacher included one lesson on our Solar System during science that term. He asked who knew how many planets there were and I was the only one. Not only that, I could name them in order. It astonished me that none of the other pupils seemed bothered, nor, when I tried to talk about the subject to my friends, did they show any interest whatsoever. I could talk to my Dad, but he didn't know the subject at all and just encouraged me to learn as much as I could.

I remember coming home from school one day and seeing the Moon, low, huge, orange, seemingly parked at the end of our road just hanging there for me to gaze at. I ran in and told Mum to come out and see the huge Moon. She was too busy, she said, but she washed her hands and followed me outside after I begged her to come see. It didn't occur to me that it wouldn't have the same effect, I thought she'd fall in love too, and I'd have someone to talk to about the wonderful chameleon Moon that changes every night. But Cupid's arrow didn't strike her, she just smiled and said: 'That's nice, dear', then went back inside.

I was 14 when I stayed up all night with my Dad and older brother to watch the Moon landing. They thought it was history in the making, but that was their reason for watching; they weren't part of it, they were witnesses. I was there, hearing Neil Armstrong's words, holding my breath as he stepped off that last rung, kicking up the moondust. And then we were back in the studio with Patrick Moore, who by now was as familiar to me as my own father. His unmistakable voice was talking us through everything that was going on, yet my brother headed off for bed! I felt so privileged to be alive at that moment in time. Patrick was beside himself with excitement and I think my father was enjoying the quality time with me, perhaps some of my interest rubbed off on him, because he seemed to appreciate my 'hobby' after that. I never thought of astronomy as a hobby, it's either in your soul or not, it's not something you can do until you move on to something else.

When I grew up and had my own children, I taught them about the planets and the stars and the ever-changing Moon. I thought my heart would burst with pride one day when #1 daughter came home from Junior school and told me her teacher praised her for knowing all the planets before their one astronomy lesson even began. I shared an experience with daughter #2 HFH that is etched on our memories; by the time she was 17 I was a member of the Cleethorpes and District Astronomy Society and there was a dark-sky viewing arranged that year for the Perseid meteor shower. HFH announced she wanted to attend so off we went with our lift.

We were the only two girls. The society had rented a field for the night and it was pitch black. The field had been recently ploughed and the ground was rock hard, so it was difficult to walk in the dark without stumbling. After about an hour both of us needed the loo, so we borrowed a torch and set off for the nearest tree. Neither of us could wait for the other so we both squatted and peed at the same time, HFH giggling at the synchronicity and me trying not to laugh and fall over. What a delightful memory for us both, particularly as we saw over 20 meteors after we rejoined the group!

Up to date

On Friday 26 Sept 08 I was subbing Deke's astronomy article on Puppis when I went to the BBC constellation site to add the link to the Entry. What a shock to find it 'deleted because they were becoming out of date', so I asked Gnomon what he thought I should do. He suggested posting at EF to ask the Eds, which I did. While I was awaiting a reply, I browsed the rest of the BBC Science/Space area, and found the URL had changed for The Sky At Night from my bookmark, although it was still there after a search brought up the new link. On a whim I rang Patrick, who keeps his telephone number in the directory 'in case anyone has any questions' according to his autobiography, which I've read.

The phone was answered by a young woman who asked who I was and what I wanted. I had just started to explain that I was a volunteer writer for the Hitchhiker's Guide at the BBC, and she asked me to hold on. Then I heard her conversing with Sir Patrick himself, then his unmistakable voice sounded in my ear and I was star-struck! I couldn't believe who I was talking to, and I must have sounded like a gibbering idiot, but he was very kind. I told him about the disappearing constellation pages on the BBC website and he apologised but said it was nothing to do with him. Then he asked me where I was, and he knew Cleethorpes was in Lincolnshire so we had a little chat about my wonderful dark sky back garden.

He asked what I do and I said I was a carer, then there was a pregnant pause so I told him how my grandma had bought me his book for my 12th birthday, and he chuckled. I then told him I had written his bio for the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and he laughed out loud. I told him I was kind! He said 'Good show' or something similar, and then I said I had enjoyed this month's Sky At Night because he had interviewed Hanny who discovered the Voorwerp, who was known to me as I am also a member of Galaxy Zoo (which he has covered before on his programme because his co-presenter Dr Chris Lintott co-founded it). He told me what a delightful person Hanny was and what a pleasure it was to meet her.

He appeared in no rush to end our conversation and kept bringing the subject around to other things. He seemed genuinely interested in me and was happy to learn that he had inspired me through his early book. I could have talked to him all day but I wouldn't have wanted to outstay my welcome so I said what an honour and a privilege it had been for me to chat with him and thanked him for his time. He said thank you to me for passing a pleasant ten minutes (it felt like just moments to me) and I said goodbye and rang off - I think he was too gentlemanly to put the phone down first.

To say Sir Patrick Moore is my god is putting it a little OTT. To be able to say I chatted on the phone with him and he enjoyed our conversation fills me with pride, and has provided me with a fantastic memory I'll take to my grave. No matter how old or jaded you get there is always something new to be discovered and a new memory to share and store.

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