BY PETER ALLEN
THE recent death of Sir Stephen Hawking brought his life and his work back into the public conversation.
The author of A Brief History of Time, Hawking had a great influence on the popular science of astronomy and how we now understand the workings of the universe.
The most impressive West Cork facilities for stargazing and related subjects, go perhaps underappreciated.
The community-run Schull Planetarium and observatory remains a fascinating resource for astronomers in West Cork, being the only facility of its kind in Ireland.
The German-manufactured, single-sphere projector, depicts an accurate representation of the Northern Hemisphere’s night sky. The planetarium holds shows three times a week in July and August, with other special events held throughout the year.
Cork Astronomy Club’s Lynda O’Mahony is very enthusiastic about the clear night sky found in West Cork. ‘West Corkonians are so lucky, it’s brilliant to be down there and be able to look up at the Milky Way. It’s really mesmerising.’
Lynda explained how the history of West Cork astronomy includes the many stone circles of West Cork, which functioned as ancient calendars in order to predict seasons. ‘History and science are connected. Stone Age people were afraid that the sun would not rise again and building the circles kept them going,’ said Lynda.
Blackrock Castle Observatory is a regular venue for West Cork school tours and is another amazing facility in the south.
Many exhibits are housed within the handsome castle, including a radio telescope. The average visitor is awed by the distance between objects in space, and visitors are also gravitationally pulled towards the interactive explanations of such subjects as basic physics and the ontological make-up of our universe.
The average West Cork stargazer might have no telescope, but astronomy isn’t all about observing, noted Lynda.
Using a dish to catch celestial radio waves is something club members do regularly, later comparing their findings.
Aspiring stargazers shouldn’t buy a telescope, suggested Lynda, until they know what they want to look at, and then obtain suitable equipment.
‘People that call in, for example, saying they want to know what telescope to buy for their partner, are asked what it is that their significant other wishes to observe. We recommend that the person they have in mind comes to our monthly meetings for advice and guidance,’ she said. Binoculars are the ideal tool of the novice astronomer, although many club members have no equipment.
Of course, we should also not forget another great resource on our doorstep – the Sky Garden at Liss Ard Estate in Skibbereen. Designed and constructed under the guidance of artist James Turrell, it gives the viewer a totally unique opportunity to admire and enjoy the ‘celestial vault’. This unusual crater has become a massive naked-eye observatory. Visitors can take the time to relax on the plinth at its centre and observe what lies above.
Turrell intended that the crater be visited by very small groups of people, and in fact two is the perfect number. The plinth is designed for two lying toe to toe, their necks resting on the ‘neck roll’ allowing them to view this amazing framing of the Irish sky.
The garden is re-opening to non-residents at Liss Ard from May 20th.
A 19th century reminder of Cork’s astronomical past can also be seen at the Crawford observatory on the UCC campus. The observatory fell into disuse and disrepair for an extended period, despite the cutting-edge equipment of its day, due to increased light pollution from the city. It was refurbished in 2006 and can be visited during Cork Heritage Week.
Contact the Cork Astronomy Club at 087 2321706 or [email protected]