Both astronomy and railways are often described, and even now still sometimes stereotyped, as 'Aspergic' pursuits. For me as a person with Asperger's Syndrome who enjoys these pursuits, albeit in not as obsessive a way as I did when younger, they go much further than their ability to be the 'special interest' of just a few people. As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I do still find it easy to become immersed in their depth and detail. But they both also have visual appeals that conjure up different feelings and even emotions. Astronomy has its mystique with the appeal of venturing into the unknown while railways, especially steam, has a nostalgic and romantic appeal. What they both share though is a sense of wonder we can get like a child seeing something as if for the first time, inducing feelings of childhood innocence, enabling them to capture the imagination of the public.
|The Sun 'smiles' through the clouds|
Like many thousands, I had made the journey to Cornwall in August of 1999 to experience the last time a total Solar Eclipse would be visible in the UK until the year 2090. As many of those who went to Cornwall to see the event may likely remember, after three days of clear skies, it clouded over during the moment of totality, but experiencing a minute-and-a-half of natural blackout was quite an experience. Obviously, with technology available we are able to forecast when future eclipses will take place, but in ancient times, as such a natural blackout could happen suddenly, it must have been a huge shock for it to go dark for up to two minutes, as well as a big step outside one's comfort zone. that would likely have been based on the day starting with the sun rising and finishing with its setting. Some historical events have shown that such steps outside of its comfort zone can have interesting effects on humanity, including bringing peace! This famously occurred way back in 585 BC during a battle between the Medes and Lydians in present-day Turkey, when the two armies stopped fighting and agreed a truce. For animals, it is a big step outside their comfort zones as when it turns dark during an eclipse. While many farm animals start looking for a sheltered place to sleep thinking it is night time and birds stop singing and look for higher perches, nocturnal wildlife, including owls and bats, may suddenly become alert!
As advised, I viewed the eclipse using solar filters, which I had kept from the 1999 Total Eclipse. The filters sharpened up the image of the crescent sun very effectively. During an eclipse, it really comes 'home' to you as to where you are in the Solar System, as, with clear skies, you can visually see the planetary system of Earth and Moon in motion, including how fast orbital speeds are when seeing the Moon move across the Sun. In the Solar System, only on Earth can such a phenomenon occur as the celestial bodies involved are of the right size and orbit at the right distances to create the optical illusion where the Sun and Moon look like they are almost the same size in the sky, despite in real terms one being thousands of times bigger than the other! Though we can calculate when and where such phenomena will occur, what we can't be quite sure of are weather conditions on Earth during the time and place of an eclipse. Fortunately, on this occasion I got to see the Sun smile on what was also International Day of Happiness, which made me very happy!
|No. 62005 heads the Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express|
Unlike with modern rail traction, where the motors are inside or underneath the locomotive or unit as they are in the sprinter units and diesel-electric freight locomotives that passed by as I waited for the steam to arrive, when seeing a steam locomotive in action, especially if its cylinders are on the outside, you can see its workings in action, seeing the steam exhaust as it pushes the pistons around. Not to mention, if you have a good view of the stretch of track on which a steam-hauled train is running, you can see it coming from afar with its 'head' of smoke! While the popular postcard image of a steam train passing through a scenic setting pleases many an eye, from observation of the head of steam and smoke and hearing the sound, the more experienced watching eyes and ears can tell how hard the locomotive is working from the more smoke and noise it is making, and may almost 'feel' the gradient profile of the line.
What was especially great about seeing both an astronomical and railway-related event in the space of two days was that I didn't have to go very far from home at all to see them. Quite often, when we think about what we would like to see and do, our attention tends to focus on places and events far away that we overlook what is closer to home. Ironically, subjects that involve far away worlds and long distance journeys brought me closer to home. As well as seeing Roker beach in a different light, I also saw some of the Durham Coast Heritage Trail in Easington. Being able to enjoy such pastimes close to home adds to its accessibility, while their simplicity allows them to be enjoyed by many, rather than them being confined to any stereotypes commonly applied to those that do enjoy them, including people with Asperger's Syndrome like myself.
|George Philip planishpere and night sky guide|
|Publications from the Ian Allan ABC series|
So many night sky and railway related past times most likely started out with the 'apprenticeships' of finding appropriate spots to view the stars or watch trains in action. With today's technology, stargazers are able to find out what is visible in the night sky with mobile apps such as Google Sky Map and Star Walk and railway enthusiasts are able to find out when and where steam-hauled charter trains are running through websites such as www.uksteam.info, while Satnav technology enables one to find and plan a journey to a good vantage point.
For me though, the most enjoyable part of these two subjects has been the correspondence with others who share enjoyment of them with me, which has largely been enabled by interaction via social media. The power and popularity of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, enables those who enjoy these pursuits to be constantly updated as to events and also to connect with others who seek similar enjoyment from them, and may very well see future generations obtain similar enjoyment from them.