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An Out Of This World Course

In this fascinating interview, new Back Garden Astronomy tutor Gavin James talks about his passion for space, astrophotography and (of course) Summer School. He also enlightens us on how he's going to teach astronomy during the daytime and his thoughts on extra-terrestrial life. Enjoy!

MCSS: Firstly, please tell us a bit about you Gavin.

GJ: I am a photographer and have been for many years having studied for a BA (Hons) degree in Photography, Film and Video at the University of Westminster, from where I graduated with a 2/1 in 1993. I am also an astronomer, having had an interest in the night sky since I was a child. My first real encounter with outer space was at prep school where the French master showed a small group of boys, including me, Saturn through his little telescope. I was hooked from that moment. I relished learning the constellations and have enjoyed discovering ever more about the Universe since that day. Photography has been my day job, running my own company since 2002 that specialised in horse racing until last year. I have now expanded my photographic horizons and have recently obtained my Drone Pilot's Licence, so am building up that side of my business. I have always wanted to combine photography and astronomy and have spent the last fifteen years or so trying to do just that. A few unsuccessful attempts didn't quash my enthusiasm and about five years ago, having won a cheque in a photographic competition with the day job, I decided to purchase a decent telescope and mount to really be able to take pictures of the night sky. I haven't looked back since and now have my own observatory in my back garden. I love exploring the night sky and am always amazed by the images that it is possible to create.

MCSS: Have you been to Summer School as a student? What are you most looking forward to about teaching here?

GJ: Yes, I must have been one of the first students at the Summer School as I did the Young Adventurers course back in the late seventies. I absolutely loved it and remember very well the trips to go abseiling, canoeing, scuba diving and pot-holing. What I remember most though, are the donuts at morning break. I think I held the record for the highest number consumed in one sitting. I don't remember the exact number, but it was certainly into double digits! The Summer School is very special as the atmosphere is just so beautiful and relaxed. Everyone is absorbed by something different, unusual and captivating. It is the epitome of 'Life Long Learning' and I very much look forward to being a tutor and contributing to the happy and stimulating holidays that my students will enjoy.

MCSS: Why should us earthlings take an interest in what's 'up there' in space, especially when it's so far away?

GJ: Well, my immediate reaction is that it isn't far away at all - we are right in the middle of it! Sure, some of the distances are pretty mind blowingly huge, but speeds in space are also incredibly fast, so distance is a very relative thing. It is just us humans that haven't managed to go very fast yet, so we think that space is far away from us. Fundamentally we are made of star dust, each one of us is made from the product of an exploding star. We live on a watery rock orbiting a star in a galaxy that is just one of many billions. It is simply natural to take an interest in where we are, what is around us and how it all works and fits together. The only drawback of that interest is that, while mankind has come up with explanations for many things, there are far more questions than answers. I love considering those questions and truly enjoy just bathing in the beauty of the Universe.

MCSS: What makes a good astronomer?

GJ: There are many things that contribute to the enjoyment of astronomy and being a good astronomer, but I think the most essential is patience. It is quite wrong to expect to know everything and see everything straight away. Our eyes take about twenty minutes or so to adapt to the dark, enabling us to see more and more of the night sky, whether with the naked eye or through a telescope. You simply can't see everything immediately. I think that applies to the whole of astronomy, it takes time to soak it up and really appreciate what it is all about. Another essential ingredient to being a good astronomer is persistence. My experience of astronomy and especially astrophotography is that it is not easy. It takes time and effort to get results and if you are easily frustrated and liable to give up quickly, you probably won't enjoy astronomy. Finally, preparation is everything. Clear dark nights are a rare commodity, so to make the most of them when they do come along, it is essential to have a plan and know what you are trying to achieve. If you have a list of targets to observe that you know will be well placed on that night and have practiced with the equipment you will be using, it saves some of the frustration and will give you a much higher chance of satisfaction. So, the three Ps make a good astronomer - Patience, Persistence and Preparation. I look forward to helping my students develop those three skills.

MCSS: Astrophotography sounds fascinating! Tell us more.

GJ: I thoroughly enjoy looking at the night sky with my eyes and through a telescope. There are some beautiful things to observe and the concepts involved are mind expanding. However, the eye ball has really evolved for daytime use, so what is possible to see with a camera is even more astounding. The detail and colours that emerge when you start taking long exposures are simply stunning. It is a very involved process to create the best images possible with the best equipment available today and it is a very technological discipline with everything being controlled by a computer, but it is also incredible what is achievable with fairly humble and ordinary photographic equipment. Simply capturing more and more light reveals the sheer beauty of the night sky. I hope to be able to give my students a great introduction to the world of astrophotography and start them on their own journey of discovery.

MCSS: How will you practice astronomy with your students when your course takes place during the day?

GJ: One of the problems with the night sky is that it is huge and packed full of things. If you just step out on a dark night and look up, it is almost overwhelming and it is very hard to know what you are looking at and what you could be looking at. So, really, the best place to start astronomy is in the class room. I mentioned earlier that preparation is a key element for the enjoyment of astronomy and that is exactly what the course will address. From equipment to targets, we will consider all the aspects that fit together to make it possible to step outside on a dark night and know where to start. It won't all be class room lectures though; the course will be very interactive and hands on with equipment, charts and apps. If the Sky Gods are kind to us, we will have a session studying our nearest star, The Sun, which is a stunning sight when observed with due caution. I also hope to be able to invite my students to a night sky observing session towards the end of the week, when we can start to put all the learning into practice. So, with a little patience, persistence and preparation, my students will be embarking on a fascinating journey that will not end until they disintegrate into star dust once again.

MCSS: Do you believe in extra-terrestrial life?

GJ: Arthur C Clarke said "Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying. I think that aptly sums it up, though I would add 'amazing' to 'terrifying'. Personally, I can't see how we are the only instance of life in the Universe. If chance enabled life to develop on Earth, then there is enough of the Universe for it to happen billions of times over. I would love to meet some of the other life forms that exist through the Universe, though I suspect that as the lyrics of the 1987 song 'Star Trekkin' said - 'It's life, Jim, but not as we know it'!

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