I originally wrote this one back in May last year and since it is time of the year relevant it make sense to post now. This one has a slightly nostalgic tinge to the usual mix of pop culture references and dubious facts wrapped around a vaguely astronomical theme.
As we enjoy the longer days and the slightly warmer winter weather that here in the British Isles we optimistically call summer, it inevitably signals the end of what many would consider the astronomical observing season. Living so far north on our home world means we are fast approaching that period in our orbit when we don’t experience astronomical darkness and our view of many deep sky objects is denied to us. Oh, I know you can still spot the planets and in particular Saturn becomes visible at a less unsociable hour but many people choose to pack away their telescopes for the summer. Instead we spend our money on holidays in the sun, tasty bedding plants for slugs to consume and the obligatory barbeque whenever the temperature hits the high teens and Sol puts in a brief appearance. The other thing we do of course is look back on the winter recently passed and wonder (as we did last year) why we've invested many hundreds if not thousands of pounds on equipment that we've only managed to use a handful of times in the previous six months.
The weather must surely be the most common frustration amongst the UK’s astronomy enthusiasts. Nothing seems to guarantee cloud like a once in a lifetime solar eclipse or a particularly spectacular meteor shower. Oddly enough given our national preoccupation with the weather it also seems to be the one thing we fail to consider when deciding that astronomy is the hobby for us. Much like we all remember long, golden summers from our youth we also only seem to recall winters being crammed full of cold and frosty clear nights. The reality of course is that for most of the year our seasons are a constantly disappointing temperature variation on a dreary grey theme of cloud and drizzle. Yet in the UK we have an uncanny optimism about the weather that flies in the face of all observable evidence and a lifetime of experience. Every year we imagine that this time we’ll have textbook seasons; a gently warming spring giving way to a glorious summer of warmth and activity before easing into a colourful autumn and a cold winter of frost and snow. For a nation that is so cynical about many things our unreasoned optimism about the weather is difficult to understand. Yet the evidence is everywhere from the sales of convertible cars to the popularity of golf. Let’s face it the only reason they recently put a roof on Wimbledon wasn't because of the weather stopping play but because the tennis was being overshadowed by what was fast becoming Cliff Richard’s annual London gig when it did inevitably rain.
It is no wonder then that there comes a time for every astronomer when they seriously consider selling their equipment to fund a new hobby that doesn't involve a dependency on our unpredictable weather. Arguably the most famous example of this is Brian May who clearly got so fed up with his PHD taking so long to complete due to cloud and rain that he learned to play the guitar and became a rock star instead. There’s a good chance you too may harbour thoughts of musicianship being a more entertaining way to spend hundreds of pounds on equipment. Maybe you can picture yourself at family birthday parties standing on your garage roof playing a Hendrix style version of ‘happy birthday’ on a Stratocaster with a full Marshall stack turned up to 11. The reality of course with this being the UK is it will obviously be raining on any given birthday, particularly if some sort of outdoor activity is planned so fortunately for your neighbours that scenario is unlikely to happen. Not only will the weather put a dent in your rock star dreams but you’ll also quickly discover that your coordination isn't what it was when you were a teenager and more crucially you don’t have the uncounted hours of free time that you actually need to learn how to play a guitar with any degree of competency. Sure when you first buy that old six string you may very well play until your fingers bled but you’ll realise that you should really have learned to play in the summer of ’69 not when you are rapidly approaching that age.
If it’s not music then you may decide that you've always wanted to make things out of wood and your sky at night magazine will be replaced by the screwfix catalogue with its many pages of power tools, laser measuring devices and power tools with integrated laser measuring devices. Your shed/observatory will be transformed into your workshop. The pier will now be home to a vice. The desk where your computer and books once resided will now be decorated with an array of saws and chisels and the walls where your moon posters were once pinned will now be covered in arterial spray because those saws and chisels are really, really sharp.
Once you return from casualty you’ll probably decide that you need a nice, relaxing hobby that doesn’t involve sharp implements or ear splitting, vacuum tube powered amplifiers. Thinking about it you will recall those relaxing evenings spent under lovely, crisp, clear skies that you used to enjoy last winter and wonder why you ever decided to get rid of your telescope. Once you’ve reset your password on stargazers lounge and read a few postings you’ll whip out your credit card and spend a ridiculous amount of money on some new astronomy equipment. You will then spend the next few days filled with the kind of excitement you recall from a childhood Christmas when you were expecting to receive a shiny new bike. And much like that Christmas of long ago you will find the day your parcel of astro kit arrives it is pouring with rain.