This past Saturday, I presented a talk on light pollution to the Rhenosterspruit Nature Conservancy. The area is of special interest to me since my home lies within its borders, and despite its rural location suffers from quite bad sky glow. Even on a good night the limiting magnitude never gets better than about 4.5, so I was hoping to reach a few people and improve matters. Unfortunately the turnout was a lot lower than I’d hoped, apparently because there was some sort of sportball game happening, and a lot of people felt that it was important enough to spend several hours in front of a television to watch it. Ah well, it’s a free country and people can spend their time however they like.I was well prepared. The official announcements had suggested that visitors stay after the talk to socialise, enjoy a meal around a fire, and join us for some stargazing, so I packed the telescope (aside: I’m pleased to say that my observing pier released its grip on the wedge with no difficulty. My design may have its flaws, but at least it’s easy to use!), and all accessories. Since I had never seen the venue before and didn’t know how big the audience was going to be, I also loaded up the laptop, the camera and its tripod, a PA system, and my binoculars. Also my copy of the Sky Guide, and all the warm clothes. With a full van, I headed out and promptly got lost. Which is a problem with these remote locations!
So I ended up parked in somebody’s driveway, fiddling with my phone, trying to get a data signal so that I could try to find the organiser’s phone number (I never think about phone numbers. I barely even remember that my smartphone can make phone calls these days, and all communication had been done via email – the obsolete medium of the future that just won’t die). The clock was ticking, the pressure was mounting. Finally, a few minutes after the event was due to start, I managed to reach somebody who was able to give me the number of somebody who could give directions. Fortunately, I was still the first to arrive, which was my first sign that the turnout wasn’t going to be great.
Still, having arrived, I found the organisers to be the most charming collection of ladies who had managed to provide everything I needed to proceed: A digital projector, electricity, and tea. I quickly set up everything (except the PA system. I save that for big crowds where people might have trouble hearing me), had a cup of tea and a slice of cake (Thank you, ladies!) and waited for the last visitors to arrive. Unfortunately, by the time we started, the Sun had shifted and was shining directly onto the screen, rendering the projector useless. Fortunately, the small crowd size meant that I could just turn the laptop around and let everybody squint at the monitor!
The talk went well. It was far more intimate that previous talks I’ve given, which meant that I could allow people to interrupt with questions, and several times we had impromptu discussions break out in response to some of my points. The crowd was generally very responsive, and the discussions continued long after I reached the end of the presentation. One of the organisers even suggested I start up a consultancy to advise local home and business owners on how to light their homes and properties without causing excessive light pollution, and reducing negative impacts. They have also insisted that I write up the talk in article form, to be included in the conservancy magazine, which should be fun!
So after all was said and my presentation gear was packed away, the Sun began to set and the fires were lit. I fetched the telescope and began assembling it when I happened to glance in the right direction to catch the slenderest crescent moon I’d ever seen. I ran to the car to fetch the camera and T-ring, and began a race to get everything set up before the Moon set. Disaster! I’d forgotten to pack the finderscope, so that getting the Moon in sight cost me precious minutes. In fact, the Moon set behind the hall just as I finished, so that I ended up having to hoist the entire assembled rig up into my arms and carry it about 20 meters to the side to reacquire the target. I managed to snap a few frames before finally relaxing and rejoining the party. A bit of processing the following day yielded the image to the left.
After that, there isn’t much to say. We ate, we drank, we warmed ourselves around the fire. I swapped out the camera for an eyepiece and spent a few minutes acquiring Saturn, and left the telescope tracking for people to have a look. As usual, that went down very well with everybody excited to see the ringed planet with their own eyes. For the record, seeing was good enough that I could make out a dark equatorial belt and the Cassini division. Several hours later, we tore everything down, loaded it all back into the car, and watched the fires burn down. I drove home, lucky to have had a wonderful evening and having made charming new friends.
Naturally, I’d be happy to do this again. The conservancy have asked me to become a regular speaker for them, but I’m looking forward to speaking for other groups and events as well. Mail me at [email protected] if you’re interested!