When I told my mum the present I’d got for my dad’s fifty- something birthday was booked for 11:30pm til two thirty in the AM she was shocked. Gobsmacked. Unbelieving. Moreover, when I said that it was an hours’ drive away from home she was even less impressed. Trying to convince my folks to stay up late was a challenge, but the promise of gazing at the stars through fancy telescopes and learning about the universe from expects just about did it. Mum and Dad started prepping for their pre- Keilder naps almost immediately- taking the six weeks’ notice to load up on any sleep that may be lost.
Keilder Observatory, while technically in Northumberland, hidden in the red-squirrel filled forest of Keilder is a mere half a mile from the Scottish border. The building itself looks like something Kevin McCloud would have been skeptical of at first, and mighty impressed with by his return visit on Grand Designs. Up a steep country track, the wooden structure boosts two brilliant telescopes and a lecture theatre heated only by a log burner in the corner. The staff and volunteers are warm, welcoming and extremely knowledgeable, though openly desperate for female help. Science, as always, looks to be a man’s game, so if you know of any budding female astronomers in the north east send them this way.
The Observatory is a charitable enterprise, providing spacey outreach for the public, and spacey outreach is clearly something the public want as thousands of people flock to the events which- despite three being held each night- book up quickly. It might not be something you think you care about, that you know about or that you’re even interested in- but the questions asked, the information given really get you thinking and start to pickle your brain. Concepts such as E.T; The Big Bang; The Edge of the Universe and Creation are notions that affect everybody and that call our very existence into question, which is why the Observatory is such an interesting place, and why- even on a foggy night you can have an incredible visit. Moreover, even when you’re not using the telescopes to gaze on stars light-years away, they’re pretty cool to look at and I’m sure end up populating numerous Christmas lists after the visit (I’m looking at you Dad).
Driving home in the dark, along the tree lined roads of the Northumberland, my mind boggled and the conversation about the origins of the universe and the probability of being the only intelligent life form in the universe continued with my family as we struggled to get our heads around the astro-physically conundrums that we’d been faced with. As a historian my main difficulty came semantically; we say the universe is ancient because it’s 13.8 billion years old but we also talk of ancient Egypt and Greece a mere 2500 years ago. Plus the added mind-f*** of being told that at some point, it doesn’t just become a concept of time but of space, and of light and of all these other things that I can just not get my head around. Woah. I left with a sense of feeling that the human race, and our planet earth are a very small, but very special part of what we barely understand.