Do you look up into the sky on a clear night and gaze in wonder at the countless constellations that you can see? Do you mutter something unsatisfactory when your child asks, with genuine interest, which is a star and which is a planet? Do you think at that moment that you really ought to know more about the night sky and then forget all about it until the next time you see the stars twinkling? Well so do I.
There really is little more spectacular than the sky at night when all the stars are out and the clouds are at bay. In Ilkley we are relatively lucky that the light pollution is such that you can still see the stars without too much difficulty and if you go a little bit further up the valley in to the Dales then the show can be incredible.
I am not totally without knowledge. I can recognise Orion with his shining belt and the plough and I can usually locate the Pole star fairly reliably. But there my knowledge stops. All that huge expanse of space before me and next to no information.
So, when I saw that my local adult education college was running a course helpfully entitled “Astronomy for Beginners” my interest was piqued. I have to confess that when I initially saw the details, I did a brief calculation in my head of knowledge gained verses pain of leaving house for two hours in the dark and cold of January. But then I discovered that a friend, who shared no such scruples, had already signed up and that was the catalyst that I needed to spur me on and so I put my name down too.
And then the cold, dark January night was upon us. The snow had just started to melt but it was seriously cold. So I wrapped up warm and set out with my pen and pad ready to learn something. The sky was ominously cloudy. No chance of any star gazing that night but plenty you can learn in the warmth of the class room I thought.
My experience of adult education classes is that they tend to fold in the first couple of weeks through lack of numbers. As we walked into the room we quickly calculated that there was not much danger of that. There must have been 20 people of various ages and sexes sitting and looking expectantly at a beach ball with a map of the earth printed on it. We quickly found ourselves a couple of chairs at the front and then chatted in hushed tones, waiting for something to happen.
The lecturer arrived. He looked like someone who might enjoy studying astronomy and after handing out a brief outline of the course he set about to try and infect us with his enthusiasm for his subject. It didn’t take long. By the end of the two hours my head was buzzing with celestial spheres and gassy planets.
And so for the next nine weeks my friend and I shall scratch at the surface of the sky at night and hopefully learn enough to pass on to our children so that they can stand with their children and point out Mars, low in the sky on January night.