Paul is one of the Zeiss Telescope volunteers at Stardome. On clear nights he gives tours of the night sky using the impressive Edith Winstone Blackwell telescope.
How long have you volunteered at Stardome?
Just a short twenty years now. In 1997 I was visiting the observatory, and I realised my children all had driving licenses and their vehicles, and I had my own time to become a volunteer. I began as a courtyard telescope volunteer, then in 2003 completed the Astronomical Society’s training program to use and demonstrate the large Edith Winstone Blackwell Zeiss Telescope. As soon as I completed my training, the Zeiss telescope was taken out of service for an upgrade of the dome, so I was not able to start my public sessions until 2004 when Mars made its closest approach with Earth.
There were stunning views of Mars through the half metre Zeiss, showing the polar cap and on one particularly fine night, clouds over Olympus Mons. Next year Mars again has a close approach to Earth, not quite as close as 2004, but I am looking forward to some stunning views again
What is the best part about being here?
Being here in a building where cutting edge research is taking place and meeting the people doing that research on exoplanets and gravitational microlensing events. Being in the Zeiss dome and knowing that researchers had used it to discover new asteroids, and others had been part of an international team to confirm that Pluto had an atmosphere in the 1970s. But the very best part is showing people faint fuzzy objects a long way away when they give out an “ahhh” when they see the actual photons from that object that has taken possibly thousands of years to reach just for them
Tells us about your favourite astronomical object?
Too many really to mention, but Mars for the above reasons although most years there is no surface detail to observe. Transits of the Galilean moons across Jupiter are great to show the public, then you tell them that is not the moon they can see, but the dark shadow on the cloud tops and this can lead to a better understanding of solar eclipses here on Earth. The rings of Saturn are as open as they will get this year in their fifteen-year cycle, after explaining the cycle to people I then tell them they must come back at least once every year until they have viewed the whole cycle of Saturn. The Sombrero Galaxy, 31 million light-years away, is one of my favourite faint fuzzy objects to view through the Zeiss telescope.
Telescope viewing is great, but nothing can beat naked eye viewing on a dark night from a back-country area in a national park. My favourite object is a large area of constellations known as Te Ra’ O Tainui (The Sail of Tainui) stretching from Matariki/ Pleiades through Taurus the Bull to Orion’s Belt. This depicts the Tainui waka and is best viewed in November when as the sun sets it appears to float on the horizon in the northeast.
I have written a small book called “Naked Eye Wonders” which can be borrowed from most libraries and contains more information on many other exciting objects such as Te Mangoroa, the long white shark of the milky way.
As I said at the beginning, too many to mention!
Who is your favourite science-fiction character and why?
Arthur Dent and there are 42 reasons, but mostly because it is very cool to sling a towel over your shoulder.
Zaphod Beeblebrox is pretty good too, but having two heads most likely has to visit the dentist twice as much which doesn’t appeal
From Neals Bohrs, “There is no underlying reality.”