Colloquium, SAAO Auditorium: “Teaching History of Astronomy to the Public: The ABC Experience”

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales: 19th of June 2014.

Lynnette and I attended a colloquium in the SAAO Auditorium titled “Teaching History of Astronomy to the Public: The ABC Experience”.  The speaker was Dr. Julio Saucedo Morales from the University of Sonora. Dr Morales is based at the Department of Research in Physics at the University of Sonora, which is situated in Hermosillo, the capital city of the state of Sonora in Mexico.

The ABC referred to in the title is the Astronomy Basic Course, which the University of Sonora has been offering for this course to the general public for the past 25 years. The course is presented as direct contact sessions and through the internet. The course takes three months to complete and consists of 12 three hour theoretical sessions on Saturday mornings with eight observing sessions held on Saturday evenings.

The ABC experience consists of 12 modules and starts with a session on the Philosophy of Science before moving on to the second session, the History of Astronomy. It is this particular aspect which the speaker presented at the colloquium and which he is especially passionate about. Other than agriculture, astronomy is arguably the oldest scientific activity practiced by humans.

Julio makes the point that Astronomy has been a key element in the development of human civilization but, because the public, in general, knows very little about astronomy and, in particular, the history of astronomy, the public does not appreciate its importance. However, people from all backgrounds find astronomy interesting and this creates an opportunity to address the lack of knowledge by means of specific educational courses and outreach activities.

He gave a quick overview of the contents of the course on the History of Astronomy and then went on to discuss the results of a survey they had conducted to assess the impact of their course on the knowledge levels of the attendees as compared to non-attendees, as well as Physics, Civil Engineering and Mathematics students at the University.  These results show that the course attendees have a definite edge over even the students after attending the course as far as their knowledge of astronomy is concerned.  All course materials (PowerPoint presentations and videos) can be downloaded here.

Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales and a group of learners during an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory, INAOE, Cananea, Sonora
Dr Julio César Saucedo Morales (far right) and a group of learners during an event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Guillermo Haro Astrophysical Observatory, INAOE, Cananea, Sonora

The University of Sonora has an astronomy page, called the Área de Astronomíade la Universidad de Sonora.  The first time I visited the page was not available and the following message in Spanish was displayed: “No podemos encontrar la página que querías. Tal vez se cayó en un agujero negro!” In English that says “We cannot find the page you wanted. Maybe it fell into a black hole!”, which I thought was rather appropriate for an astronomy page.

The University also has a Solar Observatory, the Carl Sagan Solar Observatory which participates in a wide variety of outreach activities.  An example of the other outreach activities that the University participates in is the “Noche de Las Estrellas” or “Night of the Stars” or “Starry Night”. They are also very active in the “From the Classroom to the Universe” program which has the objective of providing telescopes and training for Astronomy Clubs in schools throughout Mexico.

Lynnette and I enjoyed the talk and both liked the fact that the speaker’s enthusiasm for taking astronomy to the public was very noticeable throughout his presentation.  It is actually a great pity that the talk was so poorly attended.  We had the privilege of being able to spend about 15 minutes in discussion with him after the talk and during that time one really got a feel for the passion he brings to his outreach and the immense satisfaction he obtains from doing it.  It would be a great privilege to be able to work with him and collaborate on a project.

Venus Transit 6/6/12 Carl Sagan Solar Observatory: Image  taken by Magdalena Riestra Caraveo
Venus Transit 6/6/12 Carl Sagan Solar Observatory: Image taken by Magdalena Riestra Caraveo.

Saturn/Moon occultation: 10th of June 2014

Lynnette and I had been caught up in the excitement about this occultation with e-mails, Facebook messages and various other media reminders urging us not to forget to get out there on Tuesday and view it; after all the phenomenon would not be seen again until the year 20-whatever.  The uncertainty factor was the weather; would it be playing for us or against us?  Like everyone else, we kept a close watch on the weather forecast and when clear skies were forecast we wondered exactly how clear they would be?  Would there not perhaps be the odd cloud ready photo-bomb that crucial moment?

Eventually clear turned out to be really cloudless here in Brackenfell so Lynnette and I set up early using Lorenzo, the trusty 10-inch Dobby, and the MartinCam.  The first choice would have been the 5-inch Meade, which can track, but I have had no luck in getting a well-focused photo with that and the MartinCam. I think the camera is just too heavy for the focuser on the telescope and causes a distortion of the light-path. This, of course, makes it impossible to focus properly. So the Dobby it would be and we would just have to improvise.

We had ample time to do several trial runs and our initial reservations about recording a video were soon confirmed. We would not be able to keep a stable image in the center of the field of view manually, which was essential for recording a video. So it was going to be single photos.

The ingress worked quite well, although the quality of the photos left a lot to be desired, but we did manage to get shots of Saturn’s disappearing act. We then ran Stellarium several times to make absolutely sure that we knew exactly where Saturn would reappear and by the time we’d done the trials again and had coffee, the big moment was on us.  Somehow we fluffed it and managed to miss the crucial first few moments of reappearance. We only picked up the blasted planet when it was well clear of the Moon’s surface.  Damn!

I suppose we should look on the bright side and consider the mission half accomplished and not the complete disaster it might have been if we had missed both ends of the event. Anyway, everything was soaked with dew at this stage so we just carted it all inside and left the stuff open to dry overnight.  In retrospect, I realize I should have set up my camera on a tripod as well but, as we all know, Hindsight is, of course, the most exact scientific discipline known to mankind.

Saturn still clearly visible in its entirety as it approaches the unlit edge of the Moon.
Saturn still clearly visible in its entirety as it approaches the unlit edge of the Moon.
Saturn just starting to slip behind the darkened edge of the Moon.
Saturn just starting to slip behind the darkened edge of the Moon.
Saturn about halfway into the disappearing act.
Saturn almost halfway into the disappearing act.
About 25% of the planet still visible at this stage.
About 30% of the planet still visible at this stage.
Almost gone
The planet is actually gone and only a section of the rings remain visible.
Just a glimmer of the rings still to be seen
Just a glimmer of the rings still to be seen
Finally gone
Finally gone

 

Visit to Boesmansrivier Primary School

Last year at the Bonnievale Bonanza Laurette Erasmus, a teacher at the Boesmansrivier Primary School, approached us and asked us to consider coming to the school to talk to the learners about astronomy. The school is a so-called farm school and is situated on one’s left about two kilometres after turning off the R317 on the road that takes one to Night-Sky. We had previously attempted to get the learners and teachers to the Southern Star Party, but the transport logistics defeated all our best intentions in this regard. The school is only five kilometres from Night-Sky making it very convenient to visit the school during daytime while staying at Night-Sky so we had hoped to combine our stay there with a visit to the school.

Top left to bottom right: The schools name board, The School and a very bare school yard, The Grade R-building, The school rules, The school's badge and motto, Norwegian assistance

Top left to bottom right: The schools name board, The School and a very bare school yard, The Grade R-building, The school rules, The school’s badge and motto, Norwegian assistance

This time lady luck was indeed on our side and by Friday evening 30 May, Laurette had the Headmistress, Mrs Boniswa Mabombo’s permission and it was all systems go for Monday morning. We arrived early on the Monday morning 2 June, not wishing to make a bad first impression. I must say I was rather nervous, as speaking to 175 primary school learners seemed a rather daunting task. The school secretary, Stephne Segutya received us and was friendly and very helpful in giving us all the names of the learners as well as all the details about the teachers. Mrs Mabombo finished her lesson and came to welcome us, while Laurette and her colleagues organized the seating and got the Grades 1 to 3 learners seated. The chorus of “Good morning …..” took me back many years to my own Grade 1 days – then known as Sub-A. May the ghosts of Christmases, past, present and future, visit Miss Walton and Mrs Knight wherever they are. All went well with the talk and we were presented with a very colourful thank you note prepared by Aviwe Kolomba and presented, with an appropriate speech by a charming little girl, Nekisha Antonie, resplendent in pigtails with blue ribbons.

The grades 1 to 3 learners were very attentive - well most of the time anyway. and I get thanked by a charming young lady.
The grades 1 to 3 learners were very attentive – well most of the time anyway. In the end I get thanked by Nekisha.
The thank-you letter prepared by Aviwe Kolomba and presented to me by Nekisha Antonia
The thank-you letter prepared by Aviwe Kolomba and presented to us by Nekisha Antonia

Next up were the Grades 4 to 6 learners accompanied by their teachers. This session also went of very well in my opinion. Lee-Ann Hendriks did the honours of delivering the little thank you speech. After this session Mr Mentoor asked me to download my slides for the two talks for him as he felt he could use the images in his class presentations. After that I gave Mrs Mabombo a set of educational posters we had left over from the 2013 National Science Week, which she promised to hand over to the appropriate teachers. Mrs Mabombo and the other teachers assured us we would be most welcome back at the school and they would very much like us to follow up on this visit later in the year.

There were fewer learners in grades 4 to six but most paid close attention.   Lee-Ann thanked me very nicely at the end.
There were fewer learners in grades 4 to six but most paid close attention. Lee-Ann thanked me very nicely at the end.
Mrs Mabombo looks at the posters we brought and the other photos show the school yard during the break.
Mrs Mabombo looks at the posters we brought and the other photos show the school yard during the break.

A Winter Exploration

Brackenfell to Kopbeenskloof

We left Brackenfell on Sunday morning of the 25th of May, under threatening clouds and elected to take the longer route over Du Toitskloof Pass instead of using the Huguenot Tunnel. Lynnette was driving. I was checking out the scenery and Snorre was spread out on my lap. We negotiated the N1 and the multiple traffic lights at Worcester successfully and stopped for coffee at the Veldskoen Padstal north of De Doorns. We were very glad to find that the service there was as friendly and efficient as we remembered it from past visits. Back on the N1 we drove past the R318 turnoff so that I could take photos of the new 50 Mw solar installation nearing completion east of the N1 a few kilometres past the abandoned 1948 tunnel attempt. I only hope the designers have done their homework, otherwise northbound motorists are going to see a very sharp reflection in the late afternoon at certain times of the year.

View down the valley from a vantage point in the Hex Pass
View down the valley from a vantage point in the Hex Pass
The solar farm north of De Doorns which is currently nearing completion
The solar farm north of De Doorns which is currently nearing completion
A closer look at some of the panels in the section closer to the N1.
A closer look at some of the panels in the section closer to the N1.

After taking the photos, we turned back to the R318 and continued on that until we reached the turnoff for the Nougaskloof road. The gravel road was not as good as we’ve seen it in the past, but neither was it bad, considering the fairly heavy rain in that area in the recent past. At Kopbeenskloof, our first surprise was the flock of Emus grazing in a field. The owner, Wouter Stemmet met us at the house and then accompanied us to the guest house, a kilometre or so further on. We quickly settled in at the refurbished farmhouse which has all the necessary amenities and nice clean linen. The house can sleep up to 10 people and has three bathrooms but I think eight would be a more comfortable number. There is a small sunroom with a Queen Anne stove that would make nice focal point in chilly weather and the large indoor braai area with its huge fireplace has a great deal of potential.

The signboard announcing the turnoff to Kopbeenskloof
The signboard announcing the turnoff to Kopbeenskloof
A representative from Down-Under gave us a disapproving stare.
A representative from Down-Under gave us a disapproving stare.
Snorre cleaning up after the long trip
Snorre cleaning up after the long trip
The infamous "long drop" fortunately no longer in use
The infamous “long drop” fortunately no longer in use
The trusty Vito parked in front of the guest house
The trusty Vito parked in front of the guest house with Lynnette relaxing on the stoep

After settling in, we set up the telescope and got ready for an evening’s viewing. The area around the house is clear, but the lines of pine trees on two sides of the house are a problem. From the front of the house one has a clear view all the way from the west to the southeast but, to work the sky from the southeast to the southwest one would have to set up in the road beyond the trees; a distance of about 25 metres from the house. What really surprised us was the amount of sky glow in the clouds to the southwest. This light pollution problem probably has its origins in Worcester but is no doubt helped by the lights of De Doorns and the new sodium lights along the Hex Pass. The more distant lights of Paarl and Cape Town also make a contribution. The seeing was quite good, but the general conditions did not favour observing. It was never entirely overcast, but there were always stray clouds moving across the sky which made observation for any length of time in any part of the sky impossible. Monday night was a repeat of Sunday night as far as the clouds were concerned.

The sunset was magnificent
The sunset was magnificent
The sunset just kept on getting better
The sunset just kept on getting better
..... and better
….. and better
The sky-glow to the southwest
The sky-glow to the southwest
I am not asleep, just resting my eyes for some serious observing later on
I am not asleep, just resting my eyes for some serious observing later on

On Monday evening Snorre disappeared into the surrounding veld and failed to reappear. I eventually set off with a headlamp in search of him and finally found him about 40 metres away from the house eating a mouse. My attempts to take him home before he had finished his meal were met with growls and flattened ears, so I just hung around until he sat back and very smugly started washing his face.

On Tuesday morning 27 May, we drove a few kilometres down the Nougaskloof road in the direction of Touws River to Leeuwenboschfontein. The place was under new management and we wanted to see what had been changed and discuss various possibilities with the new owner’s son, Johan Roux. The changes are all very positive and Johan is also open to discussions about concessions should we wish to use the place for stargazing in the future. We had the pleasure of bumping into Iain Finlay and Willem van Zyl while at Leeuwenboschfontein, where they had taken up residence in Willow Cottage for the week. After the discussions with Johan and coffee and snacks with Iain and Willem, we drove back to Kopbeenskloof to make lunch.

Early morning view down the Nougaskloof on the way to Leeuwenboschfontein
Early morning view down the Nougaskloof on the way to Leeuwenboschfontein
The Vito at the entrance to Leeuwenboschfontein
The Vito at the entrance to Leeuwenboschfontein
A view from above down on the Leeuwenboschfontein campsite and guesthouses
A view from above down on the Leeuwenboschfontein campsite and guesthouses
Venus and the the waning crescent moon hidden behind the clouds
Venus and the the waning crescent moon hidden behind the clouds
The moon looking decidedly jaundice as it slipped out from behind the clouds
The moon looking decidedly jaundice as it slipped out from behind the clouds
The bird in the picture is not perched on the distant mountain top
The bird in the picture, for those of you who may be wondering about it, is not perched on the distant mountain top

On Tuesday afternoon Wouter and Elsabé Stemmet showed us around the chalets and their other facilities. The indoor facilities are clearly intended for handling large groups and a visit to their website gives one a good idea of what they can do by way of arranging functions. The facilities would certainly be more than adequate for talks and presentations at a Star Party. The 20 chalets are very basic and can sleep up to 12 people per chalet on bunk beds. One does not have to put 12 people into each chalet, as they charge per person and do not prescribe a minimum number of occupants per chalet. There are sufficient toilets and showers and the communal indoor cooking facilities are quite adequate. In clear weather the outside braai area would be nice, but there is also an indoor facility should the weather turn nasty. Wouter and Elsabé regularly handle large groups of learners from youth organizations and do not seem daunted at the prospect of serving three meals a day to 200 odd hungry children.

The outside braai-area at Kopbeenskloof
The outside braai-area at Kopbeenskloof
A section of the inside braai- and entertainment-area at Kopbeenskloof
A section of the inside braai- and entertainment-area at Kopbeenskloof
Some of the chalets at Kopbeenskloof
Some of the chalets at Kopbeenskloof

That evening the clouds once again put paid to any ideas we might have had of doing any observing, but this time it was seriously overcast. Not wishing to load the Vito in the rain, Lynnette and I got as much as possible loaded before we settled down in front of a nice fire. The toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches grilled over the coals were excellent. It started raining later that night and on Wednesday morning 28 May we left in light rain; the gravel road to the R318 was already quite muddy in places. At the R318 we turned left and headed for Montagu.

Down through the Koo and the Keisie and then through Montagu to Kati’s Wine Farm

It really is a delightful drive down Rooihoogte into the Koo and then down Burgers Pass into the Keisie. The scenery is magnificent and varies continuously as one drops from more than 1200 metres at the top of Rooihoogte to just over 500 metres at the lower end of Burgers Pass in the Keisie. In Montagu we stopped off to buy some of the famous Montagu Muscadel and then took Snorre to Dr Marina le Roux, the vet, for his check-up and inoculations. After that we had coffee and lunch and a long chat with Christine, who is no longer at Bergwater after the recent ownership changes there. Then we were off to meet Katica Palic at Kati’s Wine Farm between Robertson and Bonnievale. To be more exact, the place is almost on the dot six kilometres down the R317 after one exits the big traffic circle on your way out of Robertson on the way to Bonnievale. After being shown to our room and making sure Snorre was out of reach of the local canine, Biscuit, we went looking for Kati. Biscuit, by the way, is encouraged to see cats off the premises in the interest of the safety of Kati’s Amazon Green Parrot who is free on the back stoep.

The entrance to Kati's place on the R317
The entrance to Kati’s place on the R317
From left to right, the Vito, Biscuit, Lynnette, Kati and the reception office
From left to right, the Vito, Biscuit, Lynnette, Kati and the reception office

Kati is Croatian but speaks fluent German and her English has a strong German flavour. Her son and daughter are in a local school and speak fluent Afrikaans and English and Kati speaks to them in German. Kati is a very energetic person and during the whirlwind tour of her premises, it soon became clear that she has lots of ideas for the place and the energy to make them work too. What surprised us most, was that she had identified a potential stargazing area. I say surprised, because when we checked it out later that evening and took a set of sky brightness readings, it turned out to have a lot of potential.

We had supper with the family and went to bed fairly early after taking the sky brightness readings. The next morning 29 May, after a delightful breakfast next to a blazing fire to keep the early morning chill at bay, we went off to Bonnievale to say hi to Inus and Elsophie van Staden who were day visitors at the previous Southern Star Party. Their son, also Inus, has resurrected an old telescope and is very keen that we should come back and show him the ropes. After coffee we went off to Parmalat’s cheese shop in Bonnievale and then headed back to Kati’s place where she had organized that I would give a talk on astronomy and, weather permitting, also do some stargazing with the 12-inch Dobby in her stargazing area. The show also inaugurated her very innovative sleeping dormitory in the old 18th century wine cellar. In attendance were the Tourism people from Robertson as well as the local press, her staff and other guests from as far afield as Montagu. The talk went well and the weather cleared sufficiently to give us time to do a quite a good astronomy show-and-tell-session.

The 18th century barn Kati has converted into a dormitory type sleeping area
The 18th century barn Kati has converted into a dormitory type sleeping area

The next morning 30 May we departed for the Night-Sky Caravan Farm. Lynnette pointed out earlier to me that I have been calling it a Caravan Park when it is actually a Caravan Farm. I shall mend my errant ways.

Night-Sky Caravan Farm

The Weather at Night-Sky was not good during our stay. By day we had such strong winds that it was quite unpleasant to be outside, but every evening the wind died down and by 19:00 it was almost completely wind free. The clouds were a different matter and I do not think we had more than two hours cloud free at stretch on any given night. In fact, two hours might be stretching it quite a bit.

You put what on my catnip!
Yech! You put what on my catnip?
We did actually get the telescope out and try to do some observing
We did actually get the telescope out and try to do some observing

 

Snorre in his capacity as observing supervisor
Snorre in his capacity as observing supervisor

On Saturday evening Wilhelm de Wet and his son Christian paid us a visit. Christian’s mother, Helena, phoned me after the previous Southern Star Party in March, expressing interest in Astronomy and asking that we get in touch when we were in the Bonnievale area again. We did that and the outcome was this visit. Christian is a very talkative and knowledgeable lad and we spent some time discussing what we could see and pointing out interesting features between the clouds before doing some telescope viewing of Saturn, the Jewel Box and various other well known objects, as allowed by the clouds.

We had beautiful sunrises over the dam
We had beautiful sunrises over the dam
The reward for getting up early
The reward for getting up early
Snorre, believed that if he waited long enough they would come back to him
Snorre, believed that if he waited long enough they would come back to him where he was crouched behind the reeds
No stars but, as I said, the sunrises were fantastic
No stars but, as I said, the sunrises were fantastic
We did manage to get a look at the new moon too
We did manage to get a look at the new moon too

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday were pretty much repeats of the other days, but each evening the clouds were a little more persistent and the wind a bit stronger during the day. Snorre decided that sleeping on a chair in front of the fire covered with his blanket in the evenings was the only place he wanted to be. Finally, on Wednesday, down came the rain, lots of it, and even though it looked as if it was clearing late in the afternoon, the showers persisted, interspersed with short periods of being able to see a few stars. Lynnette and I once again loaded as much of our gear as possible on Wednesday afternoon during a break in the weather so as to make life easier the next morning.

The road to Stormsvlei in a different light
The road to Stormsvlei in a different light
The rain just kept on falling staedily
The rain just kept on falling steadily
What cats should do when it rains - wrap up and go to sleep in front of the fire
What cats should do when it rains – wrap up and go to sleep in front of the fire

On Thursday morning 5 June, there were still intermittent showers of rain as we had expected but we managed to finish the loading in good time. We said our goodbyes to Gesina and then left for Montagu where we stopped off for a bottle of Red Jeripigo, before proceeding along the R318 via the Keisie and the Koo to the N1.

How many safety and traffic infringements are being committed here?  There are two other people in that tangle of vine stumps by the way
How many safety and traffic infringements are being committed here? There are two other people in that tangle of vine stumps by the way

We were hoping there would be snow on the road between the Koo and the N1. Half way up Rooihoogte we pulled off because we thought Snorre needed a toilet stop. After walking round the Vito twice and inspecting the area in general he decided it was far too wet and way too cold, so we got back into the vehicle and set off again. At the top of Rooihoogte (1234 metres) the temperature had dropped to 2.5° Celsius but the only snow was far way on the high mountains to the west and south. There was even a light dusting of snow on the mountain behind Kopbeenskloof and also on the mountain to the west of Leeuwenboschfontein, but nothing closer. There were little bits in amongst the Renosterbos next to the road, but certainly nothing to get excited about. From the N1 we headed home down the N1, once again taking the scenic route over Du Toitskloof Pass instead of through the tunnel. Back home in Brackenfell we discovered that the hail that had fallen there earlier in the day and on the previous day, had knocked several holes in the roof of our car port and back stoep. The unloading was delayed several times by showers of rain, but eventually it was all done and Lynnette and I went off to the Old Oak Diner for a well-earned plate of fries and a vegetarian pizza. Back home we did some serious catching up on e-mails before bedtime.

The mountain west of Leeuwenboschfontein with a light covering of snow.
The mountain west of Leeuwenboschfontein with a light covering of snow.
Behind Kopbeenskloof the mountains also had a dusting of snow
Behind Kopbeenskloof the mountains also had a dusting of snow
Matroosberg hiding behind a veil of cloud had snow as well
Matroosberg hiding behind a veil of cloud had snow as well
The Brandwag mountains north of Worcester also had snow
The Brandwag mountains north of Worcester also had snow
Du Toitskloof was quite spectacualr even if there wasn't all that much snow on the mountains themselves
Du Toitskloof was quite spectacualr even if there wasn’t all that much snow on the mountains themselves