Saturday, 7 February 2009

Astrofest 2009

Today I ventured to Kensington, swanky West London, to attend Astrofest 2009. I guessed it would be like a CAMRA beer 'fest', but without the beer. My one experience of a beer festival was great fun: lots of wild beards, fluffy jumpers with intricate chequered patterns and instant friendships with people you probably shouldn't be hugging as much as you are, but you just can't help yourself! And to be honest, Astrofest wasn't far off the beer benchmark.

What it lacked in hugging, it made up for in Patrick Moores.

This morning my newest research book arrived. Patrick Moore on the Moon. I started reading it on the train and it proved its worth immediately. Here's one thing I learned early on...

The sidereal cycle is the amount of time it takes for the moon to orbit Earth and return to its starting position. The synodic cycle is the time it takes for the moon to orbit Earth from new moon to new moon: when the moon is aligned with Earth and the sun (as we remember, the moon is between these two bodies at new moon). As the Earth orbits the sun, so the moon must go that extra distance to return to the new moon alignment.

Sir Patrick explains it beautifully (with diagrams that sadly I can't reproduce; unless I draw them in Paint, but I feel that would be more of a hindrance - and would take this whole whiny "I'm a travel writer, not an astronomer" disclaimer to a ludicrously astronomical level). But here goes without:

After 27.3 days [sidereal period] the moon has completed one circuit, and has arrived back [at its starting point]; but meanwhile the Earth has moved on [in its sun orbit], and the moon must travel further along its orbit before the three bodies are properly lined up again [synodic period].
Patrick Moore on the Moon

Simply put, the moon takes 27.3 days to complete one circuit of Earth. To complete a lunation/synodic cycle, it must go a bit further to return to alignment with us and the big, hot, gaseous, fiery, glowing thing the other side. 29.5 days to do that. Easy. Sort of.


So I arrived at High Street Kensington and after first getting mobbed by Kiwis (New Zealand rugby fans, not the bird or fruit), and then getting lost in the rather attractive Victorian backside of one of London's most attractive - and expensive - boroughs, I stepped into Astrofest. Hirsute characters everywhere - even the women (only joking). I felt nude with my boyish, pale skin and collection of 23 facial hairs.

After twenty minutes of smiling at people - and trying to hug them - and trying to avoid questions ("So, what area of science are you in?" "Yeah, well, I'm sort of in the bit with all the traveling and"), I spotted a queue. I'm always drawn to a queue. It's that wild Britishness trying to burst out. I joined the end and plodded forwards until I came to the little sign explaining why I was here - in the queue, not here on Earth.

"Patrick Moore book signing. Saturday only."

It's Saturday. Patrick Moore is here. Here! The very man who wrote my book. Mr Gamesmaster! A modern day astronomical (and computer games head) genius! I was prepared to queue anyway. But now, rather than queueing possibly for an ice-cream, maybe even for the toilet, I knew that soon I'd be standing beside Sir Patrick Moore, no doubt engaging his mind with my lunar theories, anecdotes and witticisms...

To be honest, this excitement didn't exist while I queued. My initial thought - as enjoyable as queues can be - was As enjoyable as this queue is, I hope it speeds up. It did. Thankfully. And soon I found myself standing a foot from Sir Patrick and proferring the book I'd received only that morning. I mentioned my book and his eyes lit from below their fleshy lids. "What's it about?" he offered, a little croakily.

"I'm walking around Britain by full-moon." I dried.

What would he say? It's his subject. He loves the moon. The front cover of his book - the one he's just about to stamp with his signature - shows him flying across the full-moon in Spielbergian whimsy. He's dedicated his life to space. And here's this smooth-skinned pretender, this charlatan, this dry fool suggesting that he's writing his own take on Sir Patrick's baby. What's he going to say?

"Great. Sounds good. Best of luck with it. If I can help in any way, just let me know."

"Will do. Thanks."

Will do?? Thanks??

If your brother says you can use the internet, he's finished, "Will do. Thanks" is fine. When Patrick Moore offers to help you write a book about the moon, you think of something a little more sincere. Or you dry up and mishear what he says first time and then eject some sort of gutteral grunt before clearing your throat and asking him to repeat himself. Sir Patrick wasn't flustered by this dithering idiot in front of him. He's seen it all before. After all, he's ridden a bicycle through the sky.

I shook his elderly hand and wheezed something about writing to him soon. And I will. He seemed a lovely man.

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