The IYA in Birmingham, UK

Between March 6th and 11th I enjoyed a visit to the United Kingdom where I spent several days with the Birmingham Astronomical Society getting a firsthand look at some of the activities taking place for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) celebrations.

The waxing gibbous Moon rides above one of the Edgbaston Waterworks towers in Birmingham, England, said to be an inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers.
David Levy
The UK got a jump start on the IYA with the publication of Allan Chapman’s outstanding article about Englishman Thomas Harriot in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of the British Astronomical Association. The article offers a clear and concise argument that Harriot deserves to stand alongside Galileo as someone who studied the Moon through a telescope in 1609. Although Harriot never published his telescopic drawing of the Moon, it was reproduced in Chapman’s article and its clarity and elegance bring us back to the English night of July 26, 1609, when the drawing was made.

But does Harriot’s work belong in the same league as that of Galileo? Historians credit Galileo with being the first to study the Moon, Jupiter, Venus, and the Sun because he observed, published, and made worldwide announcements about his discoveries. Harriot, on the other hand, kept his work quiet, like an observer who discovers a comet but fails to report it.

Chapman proposes that in 2009, on the 400th anniversary of the astronomical telescope, Harriot be invited to share the dais with Galileo, and I agree. We may yet find others. The telescope clearly was a cooperative effort.

My trip was a time to reconnect with English astronomy, and I did so in three ways. Between March 8th and 10th I visited the Thinktank planetarium in Birmingham, the University of Birmingham’s Physics Department, and the Birmingham Astronomical Society (BAS). I found a huge supply of enthusiasm for spreading astronomy, and particularly the night sky. On April 3rd, the BAS will conduct a “MoonWatch.” Then on July 25th, one day shy of the 400th anniversary of Harriot’s telescopic sketch, the BAS will host a “Lunar Celebration” at the Thinktank. I am sure that these and the other events will be fully attended. You can visit www.birmingham-astronomy.co.uk to learn more about them.

Aside from lecture presentations, my trip included two personal visits that I treasure. One gave me a chance to see two great towers rising out of the busy skyline of Birmingham. These towers are said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers, the second book of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don’t know if the story is true, but around the turn of the last century, Tolkien spent his early years in Birmingham’s Edgbaston region. I even had a chance to photograph one of the Edgbaston Waterworks towers beneath the Moon. In The Two Towers the Moon plays a significant role as a form of celestial clock to mark the passage of time within the narrative.

The other highlight for me was a visit to Stratford-on-Avon, the village where Shakespeare was born, grew up, visited frequently during his working lifetime, and where he spent his final years. I’ve always agreed with James Joyce’s suggestion, written in Ulysses, that young Shakespeare enjoyed looking at the great supernova of 1572 shining above Cassiopeia, the W-shaped constellation that was the celestial imprint of his own initial.

During my visit I found an open field across the Avon River with a superb view to the north. Shakespeare might have wandered in a field much like this one during his own childhood look at Cassiopeia. Such observations might well have opened his young mind to an appreciation of humanity, nature, and the sky in a way that would strengthen his later writing. And I’m pleased that, as part of the International Year of Astronomy, I visited the area to help inspire today’s generations to look up in wonder, as Shakespeare, Harriot, and Galileo did so long ago.