The other day I mentioned The Children have just turned seven. As The Child Who Likes Animals has spent quite a lot of time in recent months liking space instead, watching Brian Cox’s The Planets innumerable times, memorising lists of dwarf planets, Kuiper Belt objects, centaurs and so on, and learning the difference between a red dwarf, a white dwarf and a brown dwarf. We decided, therefore, that it might be a nice idea for The Mother to get him a telescope, as a suitably grandmothery sort of present. Not trusting The Mother to judge what might be suitable, I reached out to a few astronomers I know for recommendations, and found something that both fell into The Mother’s budget and had a reasonable chance of imaging the rings of Saturn. The number of times I’ve looked down a telescope myself before can be counted on the fingers of one hand; but if I was age seven, was given a telescope, and found that it couldn’t show the rings of Saturn I’d be terribly disappointed.
Of course, I messed up to a certain extent. I’m sure I achieved my objectives, but there’s no way really that The Child Who Likes Animals would be able to actually point the telescope at something himself. So, this is going to be the sort of present that one of his mums sets up in the garden on dark nights; find out what he wants to point it at; try to point it; and then he looks down the eyepiece. Naturally, it becomes a family event, with The Child Who Likes Fairies also wanting to get involved.
As I said, I’ve hardly ever been near a telescope before, despite having books and books on astronomy when I was that age myself. So, on the few nights we’ve had so far when the cloud has at least been broken rather than blanketing, it has gone something like this: I set up the telescope outside. A child asks to point it at something, in a brief pause for breath whilst running around with crazed excitement. If it is an easy thing—the moon, say—I contort myself to the right angle to try to see through the finder, point the telescope and roughly nudge it about until we can see what we’re looking for, all the time with said thing bouncing up and down in the eyepiece as children bounce up and down on the decking. A child then steps up, instinctively grabs the telescope and knocks it out of alignment, and we go back to square one.
Eventually everyone has seen what we’re looking at, and one of them will name something else. I try to work out how to find it, with my laptop and a copy of Stellarium. I fail to find it, and end up sawing the telescope back and forth across the sky desperately trying to find the thing they have asked for. I try again with the finder, drape myself over the telescope and twist it around until the red finder dot is in just the right place; then look through the eyepiece and see nothing but haze. I look up at the sky again, and my target patch of sky, clear a few moments before, is suddenly covered in thick cloud. This cycle repeats a few times, until we either look at the moon again instead, or The Children get bored and go back into the house.
So far, we’ve successfully looked at the moon, Mars, and some random patches of sky that have lots of stars in but nothing I can actually put a name to. Oh well. I’m sure at some point we will get the hang of it, even if I end up becoming the main telescope user myself. It certainly has shown me just how non-empty an empty-looking patch of sky actually is, even living in a hazy, foggy, light-polluted city like this one. I’ll let you know if I manage to find anything less easy to spot. Or, indeed, if we do ever see the rings of Saturn.