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Highlands Astronomical Society

Stargazey Pie January 2008

So here we are in 2008 already. It promises to be an exciting year for the Highlands Astronomical Society, and already many wonderful celestial masterpieces are being displayed for our enjoyment and study in the night sky. Some of these were mentioned in one of the presentations at the January meeting. We also learned how to prepare for speaking in public, and were invited to give feedback about a long list of proposals being made by our Chairman for the future development of our Society. Before all that (or actually after all that) some of the notices below were read by Chairman John Gilmour:

  • Immortality Still Available. You can still reserve a place on the HAS Member Sponsor Plaque in the new observatory. A donation of just £25 brings you eternal (not really eternal) glory and fame (definition of fame not specific). Please contact Treasurer Pat Escott if the temptation is too much for you (don’t resist)!
  • Observing. Official HAS observing sessions have had to be cancelled until March 2008 due to the work being done at the Visitor Centre car park. This is only temporary and we hope to resume normal service ASAP! In fact, alternative plans may well be in the pipeline. Keep your eyes and ears open…
  • Observing Update! Remember that pipeline I mentioned? Well it seems that John Gilmour is happy for us to use his garden in Beauly as an observing location over the first two weekends in February! For information on how to find the site, please get in touch.Sessions will start at 8pm, weather-dependant as usual.
  • Moon Phase Postcards. Some Moon Phase postcards are still available and can be purchased from Pat Escott for the ridiculously cheap sum of 100 pennies each. Go on, splash out – you need to know when the Moon is around so you can plan your lunar observing sessions or apply your lune-cream so that you can go out safely under its glow.
  • HAS Astrophotographic Calendars. If you still have to collect and pay for a 2007 HAS astrophotographic calendar, please can you contact Eric or Pat Escott ASAP. Thanks also to all who kindly helped to raise £167.50 for the new observatory fund.
  • Photography Competition. We are holding a photography competition for members, with the intention of using the winning entries in the HAS 2009 astrophotographic calendar! The pictures entered must be taken between November 2007 and the end of October 2008 and be entered by a Society member. They need not be taken through a telescope, but may be pictures of constellations or of astronomical objects against terrestrial backdrops. Variety may be the keyword here. For further information, please contact Eric Walker.
  • The Specialists. Any member who has a particular interest in a subject and would be willing to act as a contact for enquiries on it please contact the Secretary, Eric Walker. So far the HASPecialists include: Equipment & Observing Technique - Antony McEwan, Astrophotography – Eric Walker, Planets – Pauline Macrae, Aurorae Borealis – John Gilmour, Blue Stragglers – Maarten de Vries, Solar Observing – Bill Leslie, Computers & Information Technology – Lynn Robinson, Variable Stars – Rhona Fraser.
  • Seeing Stars. The latest Seeing Stars articles about the different nebulae and features to observe in and around the Orion constellation by Antony McEwan, were published in the Dec & Jan issues of the Inverness Courier. They are now published on our website to help you get the most out of a winter’s night observing session.
  • Listen Here, Mr Brown… A petition to the Prime Minister has been launched to tackle the problem of reduced UK funding to particle physics and astronomy. If you would like to find out more or add your name to the list, please visit the web page here.
  • Ancient Constellations. Heather Connie Martin has recently written a book about ancient Pictish carved symbols and their relationship to a now-forgotten system of constellations. It is priced £10.50, and available from heather connie by phone 00 33 46660 1958 (France). The ISBN number is 978-2-9530732-0-1. A free copy is on its way to our Society for our appraisal!

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The Main Event
‘Presentation Skills’ by Robert Clark

Robert Clark has been a member of Inverness Speakers Club for nineteen years, having held the posts of Vice-President, President, Secretary and Treasurer – sometimes holding more than one at a time! His other hobbies are running, hill-walking and keeping fit. He has a grown up family and is an accountant by trade.

Robert’s aim for this presentation was to give some tips to improve the members’ presentation skills, and to allay some of the fears associated with speaking in public. He explained that in any presentation there were four main points or parts to be considered: Purpose, Preparation, Delivery and Summary.

Robert spent some time looking at each of these areas, and passed on some valuable advice. He realised that generally the purpose of a presentation at a HAS meeting would be to inform or educate, although it may also be to create action (see John Gilmour’s presentation later!). In preparing a presentation his advice was to allow one hour of research or preparation time for every minute of delivery! Also he recommended that speakers only talk about subjects that they know. Attempts to do otherwise can be quite disastrous.

Other tips were more subtle. For example, in the introduction a speaker may tell the audience what they are going to talk about and list several sub-headings. If they then speak about them in a different order to the one suggested, it could appear misleading and chaotic, not smooth and logical. Robert suggested that acronyms and abbreviations be avoided, unless they have been made clear to the audience at the beginning or as the talk progresses.

Visual aids and body language were discussed, with the generally favoured opinion being that of keeping it simple. Visual aids can be very helpful, but only if they serve a purpose. Showing too much information can overwhelm the audience and not showing enough makes them worthless. Apparently audiences remember 25% of what they hear, but 50% of what they see. By combining the two styles, the effect is cumulative: 75% of the information can be retained if it is presented in a cohesive mixture of aural and visual media.

Delivering the presentation is of course vitally important. You must be heard to be heard after all! Therefore, muttering into one’s chest, jangling the change in one’s pocket, not engaging in eye contact with the audience and talking too quickly are all frowned upon. Conversely, speaking slowly and clearly, using the voice to emphasise different points and to react to the audience are of vital important to the potential speaker.

Some speakers will prepare a full script and read it verbatim, while others will prepare notes and simply use them as place-markers or reminders. Both styles have their good and bad points, but Robert suggested that a full script is the easier option if you are new to public speaking. The other style can appear more natural and relaxed, but may come easier after acquiring some experience.

Possibly the most important tips given were to arrive early, be organised, have notes on numbered pages (handy to reassemble if they are dropped), be familiar with the equipment being used, and to start only when ready and in control of oneself.

After sharing these valuable insights into the speaker’s world with us, Robert left the audience to the tender mercies of Arthur Milnes, who was to give a talk on Astronomical (-ish) reminiscences….

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Astronomical Reminiscences’ By Arthur Milnes

Arthur admits to being a long-term member of HAS, having spent his professional career flying, in both military and civil aircraft. Having spent seventeen years flying with the Fleet Air Arm, including service on aircraft carriers, Arthur became a civil aircraft pilot flying small 4-16 seat turbo-props and similar aircraft.

Arthur commented that having flown many hours at night seated in a bubble canopy at 40,000 feet, he has experienced some absolutely unique views of the night sky. That one point alone made everyone in the audience green with envy. Arthur went on to point out that nocturnal astronomical phenomena were not always welcome on the flight deck. He recounted his experience of training to fly in formation at night from RAF Lossiemouth in Meteor jets. After taking off and attaining the appropriate height and heading, the pilots had to bring their aircraft close (10 to 15 feet) to their leader or wingman and hold position there. At night the only sources of illumination were the cockpit dials and anything outside, which of course was limited to the stars – and the aurora! The night Arthur mentioned was apparently one of the worst sessions for his flight trainer ever! It was only when discussing the night’s events afterwards that the flight-crew realised that they had all been suffering from disorientation brought about by the lack of fixed visual reference points and the ever-changing moving auroral display! Interesting to discover that what we as ground-based observers think of as a peaceful, tranquil phenomena could actually be hazardous to those training military pilots!

One of Arthur’s other stories was about flying a pair of Lancashire businessmen from Liverpool to a business meeting and then returning them to Liverpool. The weather was pretty bad, with rain, low cloud and wind. The passengers had access to the cabin in those days, and were seated so that they could see what was going on at the controls. Arthur and his co-pilot engaged in conversation with the men throughout the flight, as they were uncomfortable air-travellers, and the conditions did nothing to relieve their anxieties! As the aircraft passed over Ormskirk radio beacon, one of the men put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and demanded to know why the aircraft was turning around! He had seen the needle on the radio-compass swing around to point to the rear, as the ‘plane passed over the beacon! He thought that meant they had turned around due to the weather!

On the same flight, on the return trip, the weather had deteriorated so much that Arthur was prevented from landing at Liverpool and was instead diverted to Manchester airport. Now, in order to amend his flight plan, Arthur had to refer to his Jeppeson flight charts, the bible for all pilots flying instrument approaches. He reached down to the pocket by the side of his seat and retrieved the book of charts. At this point one of his weary and worried passengers erupted with, “Bloody hell, he’s going for the instruction book now!”

Several other stories were included in Arthur’s presentation, and Robert Clark was obviously impressed by Arthur’s use of a particularly impressive visual aid: an onion. Arthur compared the onion to the earth; with a diameter of 8cm representing the Earth’s approximate diameter of 8000km. He used this to demonstrate the Earth’s atmosphere, which he called his workplace! At this scale Earth’s seven miles of atmosphere was quite accurately represented by the onion’s thin and fragile very outermost layer of skin! Remarkable and quite thought provoking, but that’s typical of Arthur’s visual props and presentations in general!

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‘Future Development Opportunities’ by John Gilmour

Next up was Society Chairman John Gilmour, with a presentation showing many proposals for ways to improve and/or change the Society in the future. Since becoming Chairman last year, John has devoted a lot of his time and effort towards the new observatory project, which is even now coming to fruition at Culloden. Once this has been completed he would like to devote more effort towards different new projects in the Society, to cater for the members for whom the observatory is perhaps not the number one priority.

John’s presentation was a simple PowerPoint affair with his proposals listed as single-line listed entries. This was quite appropriate though, and easy to follow. John explained his proposals as he went through the presentation, and explained that he had based them on his study of fifty astronomical societies based in Scotland and northern England.

By the time you read this you will already have received an email from John which includes several attached documents. One of those includes a detailed list of his proposals, so there is no need for me to list them here. Another of the attachments is a feedback form. Members who attended Tuesday’s meeting were asked to look over a handout sheet with several proposals listed (also attached to the email) and then use the feedback form to choose their favourite five (if appropriate) items and post it into the suggestion box for immediate review by the Committee.

As John said, it is only by reviewing the feedback from the members that the Society can put into action the changes and projects that will please the members. Therefore feedback is vital to the Society’s progress.

There is little more to say about John’s presentation really: it was a direct and straightforward plea to the membership for guidance on what the Society should be doing in the best interests of the members. The feedback will be reviewed and assessed promptly and results from it will be announced at the February meeting.


After Arthur and John had given their little presentations, Robert Clark was still on hand to give his opinions of their styles. He found both to be very professional and remarked on Arthur’s excellent use of the onion visual aid, humour and speaking style. He also noted John’s gestures, body language and use of emphasis. So overall we seemed to score quite highly with our speakers for the first meeting of 2008. I’m sure that the trend will continue through the year.

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Stellarium and beyond…

With no Eric Walker present, Pauline Macrae took to the floor to run through a few visual highlights using the Stellarium software. She pointed out where comets Holmes and Tuttle will be through the next few weeks, and how to use reference stars in the constellations of Perseus and Pisces respectively to locate them.

Having dealt with the comets, Pauline turned her attention (and ours) to the two principle open clusters of January’s night skies: the Pleiades and the Beehive. Both are large clusters visible to the naked eye, but showing up best in binoculars or a low magnification, wide field telescopic view. M45, the Pleiades is in the constellation of Taurus, very high in the southern sky, and M44, the Beehive is in Cancer, between Orion and Leo.

Speaking of Orion, Pauline then closed down Stellarium and loaded up one of her Constellation presentations from 2005. It focused on Orion, Canis Major and Canis Minor. It included some wonderful photographs of the deep sky objects that are such a highlight of Orion, and showed an easy to use diagram that demonstrated their whereabouts. This was particularly topical as Orion is very high in the south now, along with the two other constellations Pauline mentioned: Canis Major and Canis Minor.

Canis Major has as its brightest star Sirius, the brightest in the sky. Close to it, just below in fact, is a nice compact open cluster of stars, M41. This was one of the first open clusters I ever went looking for when I got my first telescope, so it’s always a pleasure to hear it mentioned! Pauline also mentioned that the stars Betelgeuse, Sirius and Procyon (in Monoceros) make up an asterism known as the Winter Triangle. It is to the winter sky what the summer triangle of Deneb, Vega and Altair is in the summer. When the winter triangle is above the south-eastern horizon at mid-evening now, the summer triangle is slipping below it away in the north-west.

It was great to see one of Pauline’s classic constellation tours resurrected for the meeting, and was an excellent taster for her next big presentation on Jupiter next month.

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Highland Skies – January 2008

Happy New Year to all our members, and let’s hope we see an improvement in viewing conditions in the next few months! Unfortunately, unfavourable weather has already put paid to observing the grazing occultation of Mars on 24th of December as well as the two observing sessions scheduled for the beginning of January. Not a good start…

If the weather does improve there is plenty to see. You will have heard about comet 8P/Tuttle by now, and may have picked up one of John Gilmour’s information sheets with a finder chart and facts about the comet. It’s passing through Pisces at the moment, so nice and handy to locate, and should definitely be worth a look anyway. It’s crossing the sky very quickly, as was pointed out by Eric, who captured several images of it and made an animation showing its movement against the background stars. You can access that animation from our own message board or on Eric’s personal website.

Orion is nice and high this month, and some pointers for what to look for in that constellation are available in the ‘Seeing Stars’ articles from December and this month, which were printed in the Inverness Courier. Both of these articles are available to be read on our website.

The Moon makes for some interesting photo opportunities this month. On the evening of the 18th it will be close to M45, the Pleiades, and on the 22nd it will be close to M44, the Beehive cluster around midnight. If you are up early on the morning of the 25th, say around 4am, you should see Saturn close to the Moon too. Quite aside from being a target for photographers, the Moon is a great object for visual study at this time of the year, as it passes very high overhead, well away from the turbulent air near the horizon. This can result in sharper, clearer views at higher magnifications, with less atmosphere-induced ‘wobbling’ to disrupt the view. Whether or not the infamous alcohol-induced ‘wobbling’ so prevalent in January is also to be avoided is another matter.

The planet Mercury will be at its greatest elongation from the Sun on the 22nd at 5pm. It will be very low above the western horizon and will probably be quite a challenge to spot, even despite it shining brightly at magnitude –0.5. Hunting down Mercury on these occasions can be very rewarding. It can take many frustrating minutes to find, always racing against the clock lest the planet should slip below the horizon before you manage to find it – and then there it is and you can’t imagine why you didn’t spot it sooner! If you observe it with a telescope you should make out that it will not be completely illuminated, but will appear to be semicircular. Only one side can be illuminated by the Sun at any time, and when the planet is at its greatest orbital distance from the Sun only half of the illuminated portion is visible to us on Earth.

Another planetary highlight for January is the return of Saturn. The ringed planet travels below Leo and will be observable by 10pm in the middle of the month, though will not be particularly high above the horizon. That situation will improve as the weeks pass though, but don’t expect to see too much detail in the rings, as they are nearly edge-on to us now!

Good hunting.

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Next Time

The next meeting takes place at 7.30pm at the Green House on Tuesday 5th February. Pauline will be speaking about Jupiter (by Jove) and there will be an update on the feedback garnered from this month’s forms by John Gilmour. Hopefully we will hear some good news about the new observatory’s progress too, and if all else fails there’s always the famous tea to be looked forward to.

Please remember to visit our website for any late-breaking news, and feel free to leave messages or questions on the message board – you could even post reports of what you’ve seen in the sky!

Until 5th February, Dark Skies!

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