It’s been quiet around here lately, partly because I’ve been trying to hide from the various summer heatwaves, and partly because I’ve been beavering away at something else in the background. I’ve set up a YouTube channel, and have posted my first proper video, the start of a Lego build. It’s only small, and I’m still learning, but one thing I’ve already learned is that coming up with the idea, shooting all the footage, writing the narration, recording it, editing the whole thing together…well, it’s a lot more work than just writing a blog post.
It makes me think, actually: years and years and years ago, Radio Scotland had a documentary about blogging, and included posts from me, read by an actor. I wonder if the actor who played me found it as much effort.
Incidentally, after the previous post on the Perseids, I did go outside for a while each night last weekend, lie down on the grass, and watch for meteors. There were a few, each night, streaking across the sky; and lying on my back looking up seemed to be the best, most comfortable way to get a full view of as much of the sky as I could. The grass is much nicer for lying on, at this time of year, than it will be for the big meteor showers of winter.
Just as it was this time last year, it’s Astronomy News time because we’re coming into the season of the best and biggest meteor shower of the year, the Perseids, which reach their peak next weekend. This year the peak coincides roughly with the full moon, which is in the early hours of Friday morning, but hopefully the brightest meteors will still stand out—or you can always wait a few days into the following week, because the like most meteor showers you can still see plenty of meteors in the few days either side of the Perseids’ peak. Get a chair you can lean back in, sit outside on a clear night, and watch the sky until you see them flash across it.
Incidentally, Saturn is also the largest it gets in the sky at the moment, as we’re the closest that we will be to it this year. I might be tempted, if there’s a clear sky, to get the telescope out and have a look, to see how well I can spot its rings. Of course, annoyingly, it will also be close in the sky to the full moon next weekend just because that’s how the geometry of the solar system works. The moon is full when it’s directly opposite the sun from us. The outer planets are closest to us when we’re directly between them and the sun—which is the same thing. At least the moon moves relatively quickly in the sky, day to day, so even one day after the full moon it should be far enough away from Saturn to not be too much of a problem. I’ll just have to hope the skies are clear.
You might remember, if you’ve read back as far as last March or April, that I’d been trying some astrophotography but hadn’t got very far. I still haven’t got very far, largely because it’s summer, and we are only just out of the part of the year where it never gets properly dark at all here.
The other day, though, regular reader MdeC was grumbling on their social media that their attempt to take a gorgeous photo of the Milky Way—far better than anything I’ve produced—had been ruined by a meteor. And it reminded me: we’re just coming into one of the key meteor-spotting seasons of the year. August is the month of the Perseid meteor shower, one of the busiest and brightest showers in the calendar. The fact there are lots of meteors in the sky in August has been known since ancient times; in the 19th century the astronomer Schiaparelli calculated they were created by the trail of dust left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle in its orbit. Their peak will be next week, on Thursday night and Friday morning, but they are spread quite broadly, and any clear night over the next couple of weeks gives you a good chance of seeing some.
So, if there’s a clear night, I’ll be taking a deckchair outside, lying back and looking up at the sky. There’s no point really setting up the telescope or getting binoculars out: they move too fast and can be anywhere in the sky. Just relax, find a dark place if you can, let your eyes adapt, and watch them flash across the sky.
This is a slightly faded memory, from a few years ago now, from the last time I was in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a late night, two in the morning or so, in August. You can hardly make out a thing in the darkness. There’s a crowd of us sat around in deckchairs, in the front yard of the University farmhouse, heads leaning back. We’ve all just returned from the “local” pub, about six miles away, and we’re sitting outside to watch for the Perseids. Out there on the Atlantic coast, the sky seems, strangely, lighter than elsewhere, because of the number of stars scattered across it. The sky is filled with patterns of light, coming from millions of years ago; and leaning back in a deckchair, the age, complexity and size of it all fills me with a slightly dizzy awe.* Every thirty seconds or so, a meteor flashes across the dark sky, and everybody watching smiles.
* Not to mention that the rocks beneath us, the Lewisian Gneiss Complex, were themselves nearly three billion years old, older than the light from some of the stars.