Taxi to the Stars

In the summer months I like to sit-out in the garden as the light fades and watch the stars appearing. Tiny points of light, unimaginably far away but bright enough to be seen across those vast distances. It’s easy with the aid of a reference book, or a computer program to look up and say, “Oh yes, that’s Vega, 25 light years away, slightly over twice the size of our sun at 2.4 million miles diameter.”

It means nothing to me…

The numbers are meaningless in any real sense, what do they mean, can you visualise something 2,400,000 miles across? Can you fit it into a frame of reference? 25 light years, that’s about 146,965,634,329,590 miles. How long would it take to drive there at 70 mph? 2,099,509,061,851 hours or around 16,811,442,957 years. The mathematics may be a little dodgy there, I’m no expert with MS Excel (which I used to perform the calculations) but I don’t think the figures are too far out. But then again, yes, they are way too far out and meaningless against the yardstick of our everyday experiences, even against the metrestick which is slightly longer. Pause for audience laughter… Nothing.

Stars, ever since I’ve been old enough to understand what those points of light are I think I’ve been in love with them. Our sun too is of course a star, a very humble and ordinary star to boot. I remember as a child eagerly reading about what stars are and what makes them shine, it fascinated me, nuclear fusion, what a wonderful process, crushing atoms together to make new, heavier atoms and in the process releasing the energy that we not only see as starlight but also see and feel as sunshine. One figure, one statistic that sticks in my head is that the sun “burns” four million tons of fuel every second. Well, no, it’s not as simple as that, the Sun “burns” nothing but every second, four million tons of hydrogen are converted, fused, into slightly less than four million tons of helium, the difference being released as energy, the heat and light that we see and feel. It’s not even as simple as that because the energy released spans a broad spectrum from low frequency radio waves up through infra-red to ultra violet, x-rays and gamma rays; sunlight is just the bit that we can see.


Back in the 1960s my dad was a taxi driver and one day he happened to collect a chap called Arthur Frank from Heathrow airport to deliver him somewhere or other in London. Arthur Frank was the son of a Lithuanian immigrant Charles Fraiker who had emigrated from Lithuania to Scotland in 1905 and made his home in Glasgow changing his surname from Fraiker to the more anglicised Frank. Around 1907 Charles set-up a business manufacturing, selling and repairing photographic and scientific apparatus.
The company, Charles Frank Ltd. became very successful and after the Second World War the company focused on instruments for astronomy such as telescopes and binoculars. The 1950s and 1960s were a boom time for Charles Frank Ltd. In 1959 Charles Frank died and his son Arthur took over the business and ran it with great success until the mid-1970s when foreign imports began to undercut their products and the business closed in 1974. Slightly ironic given Charles’ status as an immigrant.

So, there’s my dad, driving Arthur Frank into central London and they’re chatting away and my dad happens to mention that his eldest son, me, is interested in the stars and planets. The next week a package arrived at our house, from Charles Frank Ltd. Inside the package, amongst other things was a letter from Arthur, thanking my dad for his “courtesy and efficient services”. Inside the package was also a goodly number of books, pamphlets and other materials all to do with astronomy, there was even a map of the moon compiled by Patrick Moore. Arthur’s letter finished off by saying that he hoped one day to see the words, “Steele, Astronomer Royal”. He’d spelled our family name wrong  (he’d even got the county wrong) but I forgave him. I was overwhelmed by this lovely and quite unexpected gift, as was my dad, and I immediately got stuck-in to reading everything, several times.

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It’s full of stars.

Obviously I never became Astronomer Royal…
Obviously? Why is it obvious? Oh dear, one of my pet hates and I fell right into its trap. I wrote “obviously” without even thinking about it. It’s one of those words that is used out of context and far too often; let me start again.

I never became Astronomer Royal but I never lost that sense of fascination at looking up into the night sky. I know what those points of light are, I know for the most part how and why they shine but that still doesn’t diminish the wonder. In the town where I live there is quite a bit of incident light from buildings and street lights at night but not enough to obscure the stars, obviously (correct usage), otherwise I wouldn’t sit out and watch them, however, go out into the countryside away from the town’s lights and the night sky becomes breath-taking. Stars beyond number crowding the celestial sphere… Oops, I’ve gone a bit lyrical there but the fact is that when you do get to a dark place you can see an awful lot more stars than you can in the towns and cities. So on summer evenings when it’s not cloudy, obviously (also correct usage), I sit and watch the stars come out. The winter sky however is in my opinion the best for stargazing with the constellations Ursa Major and Cassiopeia overhead and Orion to the south. Well, that’s if you live in the temperate zone of the Northern Hemisphere, which I do.

In 2012 I had the good fortune to be in New Zealand, if only for a week, but one evening, determined to get at least some star gazing in, I went out into the garden of the place we were staying and searched the unfamiliar sky until I found the constellation of Orion. Now, I’ve been watching Orion for the best part of 50 years but it took me a while to identify it from New Zealand because it was almost upside down, at a jaunty angle compared to how we view it from the Northern Hemisphere. I knew it was going to look different but the reality of it more than anything brought home to me that yes, here I was on the other side of the planet.

That chance meeting in a taxi expanded my universe; I was; as I mentioned earlier, already interested in matters celestial but the materials I was gifted served to strengthen that interest. Tonight, if the skies are clear I will of course be out at some point giving the sky a glance, more than just a glance because when you really look at it, it’s full of stars.

I can’t leave this without mentioning Stellarium, which is a free-of-charge, open-source program which turns your computer into a planetarium. I use it a lot to see what’s “up there” and I can heartily recommend it to anyone with a passing or more absorbing interest in astronomy.

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