Derby and District Astronomical Society

BANG! A Complete History of the Universe
Basingstoke Astronomical Society - 25th October 2007

Report by Chris Newsome

The title says it all, but on the 25th October 2007, Dr Chris Lintott changed it to BANG! An Hour-Long History Of The Universe when he gave a presentation to the Basingstoke Astronomical Society – after all, that is the only way you can fit 13.7 billion years into an evening! Dr Lintott, along with Sir Patrick Moore, is the face of the BBC programme The Sky At Night and gave a talk to the Basingstoke Astronomical Society on the above date. A trip down to the town of my upbringing was a must and so I set off south especially for it.

Chris Newsome and Dr Chris Lintott at the meeting of the Basingstoke Astronomical Society on the 25th October 2007

The evening was divided into two sections. In the first half, Dr Lintott explained about the Big Bang and how it explained the goings on in the universe on current thinking and scientific observation. For example the microwave background noise that was detected coming from the formation of the universe, explaining what was being observed in an extremely easy to understand way. As he put it, the history of the universe and the big bang effectively starts at page 3, pages 1 and 2 of the history have not/could not be written because the laws of physics as we know it fall down. After a short break, the secretary of the Basingstoke society, John Stapleton, gave a short presentation on Whats Up in the night sky in November 2007 and provided me with some information about an upcoming photo opportunity on 28th/29th November! If the skies are clear, you will see the results – but I ain’t going to tell you what it is... just yet!

The second half of the evening was a less formal question and answer session with Dr Lintott on anything astronomical including his career. Dr Lintott provided a bit of an insight into the behind the scenes goings on at The Sky At Night including anecdotes about the producer who got the wrong aeroplane tickets for a trip to Hawaii (which forced the crew to stay in the sun a week longer than was originally planned... twice!), who decides on the subject matter of each program – Sir Patrick in consensus with Dr Lintott and the producer! Also the script for the 1st programme was discovered and the 50th Anniversary programme used that script, only for Sir Patrick, later over a drink with the crew, to come out with the comment that it couldn’t have been the script because "when have I ever stuck to the script?!"

John Stapleton (Basingstoke Astronomical Society) and Dr Chris Lintott during the question and answer session

The whole evening was fantastic. There were about 50-60 people at the meeting including one person from my past. Let me explain. When I was a teenager, I was a member of the Reading Astronomical Society. Each month on a Saturday evening, a gentleman by the name of Ken Covel would give me a lift to the meeting from Basingstoke. Well, when I turned up at the meeting on the 25th October, I saw gentleman who’s face I had seen before but couldn’t quite place until the penny dropped. Conversation as follows:-

Me "Are you Ken?"
Ken "Yes"
Me "Ken Covel?"
Ken "Yes?"
Me "Do you remember giving a lift to a spotty faced teenager to the meetings of the Reading Astronomical Society?"
Ken "Yes"
Me "Well that was me! I’ve lost a lot of hair since then!"

And so we had a long conversation about what we had been up to in the astronomical world. He still has the 4” refractor he had when I first knew him and still uses it for visual observations – he knows the Messier Catalogue inside out and can find the objects without GOTO systems! The last time I saw him – about 30 years ago... and here we are 30 years on!

Chris Newsome and Ken Covel, both former members of the Reading Astronomical Society in the late 1970s

The meeting ended at about 21:30hrs. The whole event was fantastic, informative, funny and nostalgic. Dr Lintott I can best describe as someone who’s passion for astronomy is so clearly abundant, as are his views on the collaboration between amateur and professional astronomers. His current project is the classification of galaxies to better understand galaxy formation from the start of the universe. To this end, instead of employing a student in astronomy to look at thousands of pictures of galaxies to classify them into spiral or elliptical, and whether they are clockwise or anti-clockwise he has encompassed the entire astronomer community, both amateur and professional, into the project through allowing anyone to interpret the 'design' of a galaxy and help with the project using images from the SLOAN sky survey. Whilst being a a full time professional astronomer and TV presenter, he still finds time to enjoy the views through his 6” Newtonian and just looking at the sky. And if he doesn’t have that with him, he relies on binoculars or his naked eye to look at the wonders of the stars. If, from Dr Lintott’s personal experience, you want to view the night sky from the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii or from a mountain top observatory on Chile... take an oxygen bottle with you – the sky is a lot clearer! Confused? Ask him and he’ll tell you why!

Finally... I, like many others at the meeting, got him to sign copies of the book BANG! The Complete History Of The Universe!

Chris Newsome