“Oundelians are afforded a great opportunity to view the sky.”

If anyone was drawn to reading this article hoping it was about zodiac signs and horoscopes, I’m afraid you will be disappointed – that’s astrology. This is Astronomy, the study of celestial bodies and the physical universe; looking at science beyond Earth. You might know a few constellations already, such as the Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt, or know the order of the planets in our solar system through a mnemonic (I got taught My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, because my teacher refused to say that Pluto wasn’t a planet), but it goes so far beyond that. So far, in fact, that we don’t even know when it stops, because the universe is continuously expanding.

I may just be speaking for myself, but my knowledge and appreciation of space has been limited to the collection of well-known constellations and planets closest to us, occasionally saying “Oh, the moon is quite bright tonight”, and really wanting to see the Northern Lights. I thought it was time to move beyond that, but instead of going off and falling into a black hole on the internet about the consequences of black holes, I started closer to home and caught up with Mr Peverley.

What are some of the celestial highlights from the latest School year?

This year has been an excellent year for the amateur astronomer. The Green Comet (or Comet C/2022 E3) passed through our atmosphere in February, which hadn’t come past us for 50,000 years. It’s interesting to note that, because of how close the comet came to Earth, the gravitational pull of objects in our solar system may have altered its orbit enough to mean that it’s now on a one-way trip out of the solar system.

Another one was at the very end of March, when Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Uranus all came together to be aligned at the same time in the early night sky. If you think about the hugely differing lengths of time that it takes the planets to orbit our sun (Uranus takes around 84 years, for example), this is quite the statistical improbability.

What can you hope for Astronomy at Oundle?

We are so incredibly blessed to have such clear skies in Oundle, and the landscape being so flat allows a much greater view of the night sky without man-made or natural obstructions. The investment that the School made, through Dr Richard McKim, to buy one of the best mid-range optical telescopes, together with the foresight it had to build an observatory whilst SciTec was being constructed, mean that Oundelians are afforded a great opportunity to view the sky.

My aim is that, from September, there is a body of pupils who are interested in using the observatory on a regular basis. Links are being made with local amateur astronomy groups and I’m very excited that the new STEM Outreach Fellow, Miss Alice Perry, is someone who is fantastically knowledgeable about Astronomy; Mr Talbot and I hope she will be able to introduce a formal Astronomy course to the School. I’m very much looking forward to Oundle School being placed upon the local map as a place where both pupils and those from our OPEN partnership can get the opportunity to use the facilities that we have.

What draws you to Astronomy, or did in the first place?

I wouldn’t be able to give you a specific age when I became interested in the skies, but I would say that staring up at the night skies over my family home, as a young boy in rural Leicestershire, first piqued my excitement. Looking at that inky blackness, irradiated with pinpricks of light, fascinated me.

I’m too young to remember the Apollo missions, but I remember watching on TV one of NASA’s Space Shuttles launching from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. It was the awe of the power that the rockets produced that drew me to keep thinking about what those astronauts were wondering as they rose above the Earth and then looked out into the void of space (although it’s not really a void in any sense of the word).

Later on, it was the images that the Hubble telescope sent back to Earth that kept that passion alive. Now, the James Webb Space Telescope has revolutionised the bringing of space to the living room. I know it’s rather passé, but thinking about how small (and almost insignificant) we are compared to how big the universe is – something immortalised in Monty Python’s Galaxy Song – is a great way of putting things into context when perhaps things are not going quite the way that they should. I suppose, to paraphrase Stephen Hawking, “If, like me, you have looked at the stars and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist.”

Astronomy is something that I’m sure lots of people find cool, but few go beyond the basic appreciation. Maybe it’s because we know the moon will be there every night, and the stars are somewhere, although we might not see them, and so it’s all just another part of the natural world that we’ve accepted and moved on from. That’s perfectly logical; why always seek something out that we’ve learnt will always appear? I think it’s the anomalies that come from Astronomy that spark more attention; the supermoon, when a planet becomes visible, or if you actually spot a shooting star. They happen once in a blue moon, and so the possibility of something being outside of routine is so exciting, it’s worth our attention. When the anomaly is exciting, then the norm isn’t, right? This is where I think it goes wrong; the norm is so extraordinary in its own right that the anomaly only adds more to an already remarkable topic.

So, I guess, this may have just been a way for me to explore something that I’d been wanting to learn more about, but I think it has a lesson: if you’re walking at night, look up for a minute. See the moon and perhaps think of its consistent impact on our culture and history. Maybe you can see some stars, or spot some constellations, and think of their distance; how their light has travelled all this way to be visible to you. Consider the celestial bodies you can’t see; the ones far beyond our solar system and galaxy, the ones that have not been discovered yet, the ones that will be gone before we know them. But most importantly, acknowledge their existence at that point in time, because even if they’re always there, they may not get noticed enough.

Written by
Rachel Johnston (D U6)

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