Direction of Travel

Pooley Bridge, Ullswater

A different wander today. 

If your hobby is astronomy, as mine has been since I was ten years old, expect to wander in all sorts of directions. Why? Because astronomy touches many areas, and you can as a result acquire many other interests as well.

Here are some examples. Astronomy is fundamentally linked to many aspects of science and mathematics. Astronomy and geometry led the ancient Greeks to understanding that the Earth was a sphere, and they got a decent approximation for the circumference of the Earth. Astronomy is linked to early definitions of time and is key to how we measure time. The year is based on how long it takes to complete an orbit of the Sun; the month is linked to the Lunar cycle in its origins.

Mapping and geography required accurately measuring the position of the Sun and stars and the ability to make accurate timekeepers (the nautical chronometer).

Milky Way

Much of the early development of chemistry in the C19th arose from analysing sunlight and starlight and discovering unknown elements, such as the noble gases Helium, Argon, Neon, Xenon, and Krypton.

Astronomy infiltrates almost all branches of science. But it affects ‘arts’ areas as well. Astronomical events are often portrayed in art and have been since ancient times. Even in literature and historical texts. It can reasonably be inferred that the ‘red spears in the sky’ in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is a description of an aurora. It’s highly likely that Constantine’s “cross in the sky” was an example of an atmospheric phenomenon involving ice crystals and more commonly seen in polar regions. This can consist of many parts, but the main one would be the 22 degree halo, a vertical solar pillar and the parhelic circle, which would seem to form a cross in a circle, probably with parhelia where the parhelic circles intercepts the halo.

If like me as a youngster you did some basic astronomy exams (O Level, what is now known as GCSE) you will have had to get to grips with the basics of spherical astronomy. This is a key basis of how time is measured or conversely how your location is determined. 

If you measure the altitude of a known star as it transits your meridian, you can determine your latitude and longitude. This is the basis of celestial navigation.

Navigation took a huge step forward when John Harrison invented the chronometer. This was a marine chronometer that was able to set and would then keep time accurately for an extended period. This was a major reason for the supremacy of the Royal Navy in the C19th – they knew where they were, accurately. This leads to improvements in cartography. 

I saw Harrison’s clocks (there were several prototypes) at Greenwich Observatory way back around 1977. I’ve had a ‘sideways’ interest in clocks and watches ever since. 

Astronomy is like that and it’s why I have interest in so many subjects. Ancient history, because of how the Sumerians devised the sexagesimal system (which we still use 5,000 years later); or how the Egyptians mapped the sky; the Greeks determined the Earth was a sphere and measured it, music theory was devised based on ‘cosmological principles’. Cartography because mapping the skies was key to mapping the Earth. Timekeeping from the devising of calendars, the measuring of time, creating devices to measure time, then using them to time astronomical events. It touches geography, geology, chemistry, and physics. The list is endless.

For me, the big one for many years was probably photography. Once I’d joined an astronomical society, I as exposed to astrophotography. Compared to now, what was going on in the mid-1970s was primitive. I had a basic 35mm fixed lens camera, a contraption made of plumbing parts to track the sky, and grainy ISO 400 B&W film (Kodak’s Tri-X).

I took photos and got some basic results. I did move onto colour slide film as I got older and could afford it. Results were still primitive. However, it got me into photography. By the time I was working I could at least afford to buy an SLR film camera. I at least had a decent understanding of optics and how cameras worked as that came from all the reading about telescopes and optics.

Whilst over the years my interest in photography persisted, it never went far as I was too busy with other things. As I got into hill walking, taking a camera was an obvious thing to do. It’s difficult though to take decent images when your main focus, especially when with others, is completing the route. 

It’s only been in recent years that I’ve been able to spend the time to move my landscape photography on to a higher level.

This obviously changed dramatically when I started doing a bachelor’s degree in digital imaging and photography. Suddenly I was working with B&W film cameras in all formats: 35mm, medium and large formats, in addition to digital.  I was shooting genres I wasn’t used to – street, location, portrait, documentary, still life…

I was also shooting a lot of images – over 10,000 in my first year of the course. My final graduation project amounted to over 3,700 images, admittedly taken over many months. The final output only used about 60 of them though. But, as one of my tutors said, you have to take photographs to be able to whittle down to what you want. I found that out in a good way when I randomly photographed a railway station and realised afterwards that I had a nice ‘sequence and series.’

My final project was a large photobook in a hybrid documentary/social style – not something I expected. 

I hope to focus on the fine art end of landscape photography in the coming months. 

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