Tag Archives: stars


Some months back I wrote about how I’d been given a mini telescope. I had visions of packing my new toy into its snazzy little backpack and taking off for exotic climes where I’d view the stars on hot summer nights. I certainly never imagined I’d be able to see anything at all in central London. But then, after much fiddling, I discovered how to focus it. And, wow, it’s incredible what you can see above one of the most light-polluted cities on earth.

Hampstead observatory

The observatory at Hampstead, open to the public on cloudless Friday and Saturday winter nights.

I started off with the moon and learnt that you need to view it when it’s half full and illuminated at an angle, when the craters show. Then, with my iPad moon app glowing at my side, I started to identify features such as the Sea of Tranquillity. Now, on those rare, clear evenings I shoot up to my office/observatory to see the four moons of Jupiter circling the yellow planet—just like Galileo who discovered them 400 years ago!

Now that I’ve got the bit between my teeth, a few evenings ago, after dinner, I took off for the Hampstead Observatory. Arriving at Hampstead Ponds, I found a dark pathway leading up a hillock to a Victorian domed hut. It was really spooky climbing through the leafy gloom, but at the top an animated crowd was clustered around the large, 100-year-old telescope.

Roger, one of the astronomy society’s demonstrators, soon had us oohing and aahing over the Orion nebula and 12 of the Pleiades’ 30,000 stars. He told us that his father was one of the few people to have seen Halley’s Comet on both of its 20th century visits. Comets, he said, are the most whimsical of celestial phenomena: seemingly sure-fire stunners can turn out to be damp squibs and vice versa. So he, for one, is not getting over-excited about the projected visit of ISON later this year (unlike me!).

The one thing we visitors should try to witness, Roger said, was the rings of Saturn. Unfortunately the planet rises at awkward times for viewing in 2013. However the observatory may be having special late-night sessions in May and I really hope I can catch one. They’ll be listed on the observatory website where as it said when I last visited, without apparent irony, “Watch this space”.

* The observatory, run by the Hampstead Scientific Society, opens to the general public during the winter on cloudless Friday and Saturday nights. It’s one of the few, if not the only, such places in London where you can just turn up. There’s no charge, but visitors will surely want to slip a note into the donation box.


London’s Piccadilly circus is heaving with shoppers, struggling with armloads of bags. It’s dark, it’s wet, it’s noisy. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to suddenly turn a corner and drift into a world of pure, white, softly-lit calm, where all the hassle has stopped and you sit in blissed-out peace.

Yesterday, that’s just what I did.

Leaving behind the crush encircling Eros, in five minutes I was floating into the Royal Academy‘s new exhibition, Rebirth. A meditation on the death and life of a star by Japanese artist Mariko Mori, it was like stepping inside a minimalist spa, minus the eucalyptus smells.

But as I took up position in front of the first exhibit, Tom Na H-iu, it became clear that this was no mere chill-out zone. Before me was a translucent glass megalith that wouldn’t have been out of place at Stonehenge except that it was pulsing with light. I discovered that it was hooked up to an observatory in Japan that detects emissions from the sun which are transmitted to the work in real time and appear as constantly shifting luminous shapes. So while meditating on the bursting patterns it was also a moment to consider time, space and how ancient peoples might once have contemplated similar forms.

Other exhibits were equally magical and challenging. In one room, a circle of nine smaller “standing stones” called to mind the planets. As I sat, each almost imperceptibly changed colour to suggest the varying tones of the planets as they move around the sun. I was also intrigued by exquisite photographs of Sun Pillar, a translucent column erected on an island off the Japanese coast. This will cast a shadow on a circular Moonstone in the sea, which, once installed, will change colour according to the lunar cycle.

The shadow of this last work will be in perfect alignment on the day of the winter solstice. So I considered it highly appropriate that I visited the show on December 21st. Maybe the auspicious timing gave the exhibition an extra glow. If so, it was one that stayed with me as I plunged back in among the Regent Street crowds.

Rebirth by Mariko Mori. At Burlington Gardens (not the main Royal Academy building) until 17 February.


It’s a long time since I’ve been given a children’s-style present for my birthday—the sort that comes in a big cardboard box covered with shiny photos and excited words. But this year I travelled back in time as I pulled the paper off a large package. Inside lay my new Celestron, a telescope in a backpack—a totally unexpected thrill.

I’m hoping it’s going to reveal untold heavenly wonders,  even though London is probably the worst place in the world to see stars of the night sky kind. Just being outside and trying to set it up was fun, with cats on the prowl and street sounds heightened by the dark. And as I sat I became aware of just how many bright stars there are, even though I know so many more were obscured by the street light glow.

I’m really looking forward to taking my new gadget with me on trips outside the city. And hopefully by then I’ll have learned how to focus the lens!