by ANDY FLEMING
BBC2's Stargazing Live presenters: Brian Cox and Dara O Briain. Photograph courtesy of the BBC
The late NASA astronomer and science populariser Dr Carl Sagan once wrote about his passion for science stating that when you’re in love with someone or something, you want to tell the world. And he was in love with science and astronomy.
To socialise is a strong human trait, we are after all perhaps the most social of animals; hence the popularity of internet social media such as Facebook and Twitter. And such media are a potent tool when it comes to inspiring others to become involved with our own interests and hobbies. It’s what the Chief Executive Officer of the Pasadena, California-based Planetary Society, the Science and Planetary Guy Bill Nye calls sharing the P, B and J; the Passion, Beauty and Joy of astronomy and space exploration.
So who inspired you into the subject of astronomy, space exploration and science? Was it one of the pioneering popularisers of the twentieth century using broadcast media to convey their interest and passion and to help inspire you into the hobby or perhaps scientific career? Perhaps it was Jacob Bronowski, David Attenborough, Carl Sagan or Sir Patrick Moore. Or perhaps it was one of the contemporary popularisers of science such as Dr Brian Cox or Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson. It could have been reading up on the lives and thoughts of the early Ancient Greek natural philosophers or indeed perhaps discovering the paradigm-shifting discoveries of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Einstein or Hubble. Or it could have been a friend or family member who shared and inspired you into their passion, perhaps even throwing in some optical equipment such as a pair of binoculars or a telescope!
Whoever it was, why not give something back to the subject and spread the word of science? If you’re enthralled by astronomy and have experienced the spiritual uplift of realising your place in space and time you quite possibly have a yearning to share your interest and lobby to support initiatives in science and space exploration. You’re obviously a member of your local astronomical society, but you’re possibly wondering what else can you do to promote your passion and hobby?
In the twenty first century there’s much you can do without even leaving the comfort of your own home. For starters, why not join an astronomy forum, or even better, join the blogosphere. You’ll soon be publishing by registering free for a service such as Google Blogger, or start a traditional website at one of the free web hosts such as http://www.webs.com/. If you can find objects in the night sky through a telescope and know how to switch a computer “on”, you’ll find publishing on the internet easier than A,B,C!
If you’re into astro-imaging then this is a great place to upload and showcase your images, videos or sketches. Alternatively you can publish your own astronomy posts on subjects of your choice. These may include your observing notes, articles and news from the world of astronomy and cosmology that you may wish to publicise. In addition to your own articles, guest bloggers can be engaged and of course press releases and photographs can be reproduced from organisations such as NASA, JPL, and ESA, Publicising your posts for free on social media and bookmarking sites such as Reddit, Stumbleupon, Facebook or Twitter will mean your blog will soon be attracting thousands of readers and subscribers, along with all of their comments (which you can moderate!).
In addition to the internet many local astronomical societies publish monthly magazines where you can share your experiences with other astro-folk. Or perhaps you could share your passion by producing a society meeting presentation on a subject of your choice. Of course, there’s also helping at a star party, perhaps at your local society, planetarium or as part of something bigger as I have done recently in connection with BBC2’s Stargazing LIVE at another venue such as the local Royal Society for the Protection of Birds centre and wildlife reserve just down the road.
If you have connections with the media then network and utilise your contacts and skills. Local newspaper editors particularly like ready-made articles about astronomy, cosmology and science in general. This particularly the case now as competition from the internet and new media means many newspaper groups no longer have the funds to employ dedicated science correspondents. Well-written press releases with succinct information and contact details are much appreciated. An example of what can be achieved is illustrated by a recent interview I had with Stuart Arnold at the Northern Echo my local newspaper. My input was part of a story that again was being published to celebrate BBC2’s Stargazing LIVE entitled Fresh Focus on the Night Sky.
Of course if one’s work and passion for astronomy can be included in the free-to-air broadcast media then a real sense of fulfilment can be achieved and you can literally have the attention of thousands of viewers or listeners for maximum impact! Astro-imagers with my local society have had their superb astrophotography regularly featured on the BBC1’s very popular Sky at Night programme, and indeed have been interviewed with their equipment for the programme. An inspiration indeed for all budding astro-imagers!
I’ve managed to dovetail my lifelong interest in radio, music and astronomy into a weekly five minute slot at approximately 1425h UTC each Sunday on my four-hour Solid Gold Sunday show on 102.4 Radio Hartlepool. The show can be listened to live on 102.4MHz in Hartlepool and surrounding areas and live online at www.radiohartlepool.co.uk. Once again, Jason Anderson, Radio Hartlepool’s Managing Director was quite literally “over the moon” to incorporate an astronomy strand into the station’s output and was well aware of the popularity of astronomy due in part to the success of Dr Brian Cox’s numerous BBC television series.
Recordings of the weekly segment have been edited and stored as a podcast download on this blog here! Each weekly feature has been tailored to be of inspiration and interest to the general public. Of course one is always open to the accusation of ‘dumbing down’ the subject, but since April, 2012 I’ve managed to cover subjects in an interesting and inspirational style as diverse as black holes, exoplanets orbiting Alpha Centauri B, astrophysics, numerous constellations, SETI along with a monthly ‘What’s Up?’ segment. It’s amazing what you can communicate in a few minutes on the radio, and hopefully through my sound bites, the seeds are being sown in the minds of some of our listeners to explore the subject further.
Popularising astronomy either via star parties and outreach or via the media is a very rewarding past time and one I can certainly recommend to all readers. Carl Sagan said many times that it is the birth-rite of every child to know their true co-ordinates in space and time, and by now you may think you can help in and enjoy the task of enlightening the public.
Your involvement will also bring one further massive benefit for astronomy and science I haven’t mentioned: the public are the ones who pay the bill via their taxes for much astronomical research and exploration either solely in the UK or as collaborative efforts with other countries via projects such as the European Space Agency or the Large Hadron Collider. It’s vitally important that amateur astronomers get as many of the public interested in science as possible to bring pressure to bear on elected politicians to save funding for science. When politicians and the electorate are confronted by cost-saving measures, it’s another field that’s cut rather than the scientific seed corn upon which our future technology, economy and ultimately the UK’s future success will be built.
Who knows, something may even be done about light pollution… now that would be a real result!!