Monday 21 December 2015

The Crane Bird Aurora - Night Sky Magic and Messages in the Finnish Far North

Arriving in Muonio, Finnish Lapland, with its very short hours of daylight in winter and extensive pine forests, one can believe that, of the many present-day etymological theories on the subject, the reason why Finland got its name was because it was thought to be where the known world 'finishes'.
Snow-covered pine trees in Pallas-Yll√§stunturi National Park, Finland

Similar to what I have found on meditation retreats in forests, within the heavily snowed pine-forest landscape of Pallas-Yll√§stunturi National Park , there is no obvious horizon. An effect that this can sometimes enable on the mind is that one's mirror neurons begin to turn towards you and where you immediately are. Whereas with a horizon, one may wonder what is on the other side, perhaps questioning whether the 'grass is greener', that you may forget what you have not only where you are but within also.

Peering upwards through the trees though and looking over the frozen lakes, there is something though that has aroused human curiosity for thousands of years, the night sky. Following a rainy Christmas market in the capital Helsinki and after checking the local weather forecast for Muonio which suggested cloudy skies with intermittent snow, I was surprised to see a clear night sky during my first night in Muonio. But quite often though, when looking for clear skies for astronomical purposes it can be that the weather forecast and the weather as it happens are two very different things. In Lapland, weather conditions can change very quickly from one extreme to another, making it difficult to provide an accurate forecast. I also heard from the local aurora forecast that solar activity had been very strong over the last two days, which meant that there was a good chance that the Aurora Borealis could appear.

After experiencing a glimpse of the lights from Tromso, Norway, a year ago with a professional aurora chaser and photographer, I was eager to see a clearer and hopefully brighter aurora display from Muonio in the far north of Finland. During my first night in Muoni, I went down to the banks of nearby Lake Jeris, wrapped up warmly in temperatures of around -10 degrees to practice astrophotography techniques with a recently acquired digital single lens reflex camera and tripod. Using an exposure of 15 seconds, used by most astrophotographers as it is the right balance to allow enough light from the stars without making trail movements, when playing back my images, I spotted a green tinge that I didn't immediately see with the naked eye. But refocusing my eyes on the sky, after a few minutes, a faint glow of green slowly began to reveal itself. This time, I had found my own way to the Aurora!

The Aurora Borealis seen from the banks of Lake Jeris, Finland
But it was on the second night of my stay that the lights more than just merely turned up, but they were spectacularly bright. Once again, I had the fortune of a clear sky at just the right time indicated by the huge number of stars that appeared, making some of the constellations less obvious. The longer hours of darkness north of the Arctic Circle also contribute to a prolonged display of aurora activity. After noticing a glint of green from my cabin window, walking down to the same spot where I had been the previous night, the lights truly began to reveal themselves.

A Crane Bird-shaped Aurora, Lake Jeris, Finland
After applying my external attention and noticing to appreciate what I felt was being present at the 'Greatest Show on Earth', for a brief moment I then took a step back and turned my attention inwards. applying the effect that the forest location initially had on me upon arrival. As well as being able to get in touch with one's feelings and emotion through focusing attention inwards, one can also get in touch with their creative side. Of the shapes I noticed that the Aurora appeared in that night, one resembled an origami crane bird that I had made in Japan. 

Memorial to Sadako and her 1,000 crane birds, Hiroshima, Japan
The crane bird became an international symbol of peace in Japan after Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl in who was two-years-old when the atomic bomb was dropped on her native Hiroshima 70 years ago this year in 1945. Exposure to radiation during the blast and its aftermath saw Sadako develop leukemia in 1954. Following treatment, Sadako was given at most a year to live and in that time, she learned how to make origami crane birds and together with her room-mate, made a thousand crane birds upon which she made a wish to recover from her illness. Sadly, Sadako's wish never came true, but the legacy she left leaves us with a warning to humanity of what technology we have invented can do to us if we use it for destructive purposes.

That night, as well as an obvious sight of beauty, I also felt that in the run-up to Christmas, the Aurora brought a message, to live in peace, thus helping find happiness within.

Merry Christmas Everybody, and a Happy, Peaceful New Year!

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Eye for Detail, Imagination, Creativity and Patience - Mindful Railway Modelling

Arts and crafts are well-known for their therapeutic qualities, as well as providing a space for one to express their creative side. For many people on the autistic spectrum, it can also be a way of expressing their thoughts, feeling and emotions, especially if their ways of thinking are more visual, making it easier to communicate their needs.

Mindfulness doesn't necessarily change an individuals interests, pastimes or pursuits, but can change the way one approaches them, thus enriching one's experience. It is well-known that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, have so-called special interests. It is not un-normal for anyone, whether on the autistic spectrum or not, to have an interest from which one gains great enjoyment. But when linked to autism, sometimes such interests can become an 'issue' to others around them with presumptions that they can be isolating or possessive, to the extent that they become associated with stereotyped Asperger behaviour. When taking a mindful approach with more awareness to such interests, whole new visual and sensory experiences slowly unfold, thus deepening one's relationship with their interest and how it relates to their surroundings.

Of late, I have begun to notice this with one of my longer term interests, model railways. A pastime that I have been very keen on from when very young, that I have 'shelved' every so often due to other commitments and responsibilities, when returning to it fairly recently with a more mindful awareness, I have begun to notice in more depth the artistic side of the pastime, its relationship to full-sized railways, including adding realism. A theme largely advocated by Cyril J Freezer, the late former editor of Railway Modeller, realism applies not only to making a model railway layout look more realistic through the addition of scenic detail and weathering, but also to train operation, track layout and setting.

It can be very easy for one to be put off taking up railway modelling in a monetary sense when one sees the retail prices of model locomotives, rolling stock and accessories, including power and control equipment. Space can also be an issue for many. The idea of railway modelling as a pastime confined to the wealthy was a myth that Freezer looked to disprove. Fair enough, when starting out in model railways one may find themselves spending quite a bit of money to acquire one or two locomotives, some rolling stock, track and power appliances as well as time and effort in acquiring some space in which to build a layout.  However, through patience and intuition, going deeper into it need not be too expensive. As well as being in many ways more affordable, techniques Freezer described in Railway Modeller and the many books he published on railway modelling, including scratch-building (making models from readily available raw materials) and kit-bashing (altering or adapting a commercial kit) to fit a limited space, also help add and further deepen an individual uniqueness to a model railway or diorama.

After many years of enjoying making commercial card building kits by Metcalfe and Superquick, whose products are a familiar sight on many model railways, including my own, I found that I had amounted a large reserve of waste card, including unused patterned card e.g. brick, tiled etc. Additionally, I had also amounted a sizeable stock of modelling materials and tools, including several colours of modelling paints. Though I had previously kit-bashed or put individual touches on card buildings I had made from Metcalfe and Superquick kits, I hadn't previously attempted scratch-building. Through being able to notice and gain an appreciation of the textures of different raw materials that had amounted from my modelling activity, including waste card and wood offcuts as well as a spatial awareness of the scale, including proportions, I saw there was a way I could make use of amounted raw materials rather than them going to waste. Looking at examples from old railway photographs I had seen online or in books, I put together the following small buildings/structures:

Cattle dock, made from card and matchsticks
Locomotive coaling stage, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
Coal depot, made from balsa strip wood and crushed coal
An aspect of realism that I have begun to enjoy adding, is placing and in some cases painting figurines depicting people in various leisurely and working roles, including rail enthusiasts with spotters notebooks, porters, a station master and engine crew. As well as adding depth to a layout, placement of figurines and small details, such as trolleys, suitcases etc. also helps to further enhance the imaginative side of building a layout. As well as being a therapeutic activity, painting figurines (many I have painted so far are supplied by Dart Castings) also helps to bring then beyond a figure-shape cast in white metal almost into an individual character.

An eager rail enthusiast chats to the station master
Such scenes may be inspired by books or films where rail travel features heavily or in my case, through being interested in recreating rural branch line scenes that were once common throughout Britain until many were closed after the Reshaping of Britain's Railways by the government in the 1960s, when private car ownership and motorways were still largely in their infancy. As well as in miniature, the realism encouraged by Cyril J Freezer has much relevance for full-sized railways in opening us up to lost rail networks in an era where roads have become heavily congested and certain towns, villages and housing estates remain remote from public transport. As well as providing alternatives to car use, local lines can also serve as a link with the mainline networks, including proposed high-speed routes.

Two young enthusiasts chatting to driver,
based on a well-known  Southern Railway poster
For me, railway modelling has been a good way for me to apply imagination to eye for detail, which I have long considered a personal strength. Turning it into something creative though requires a lot of patience cultivated through mindfulness, which I hope will be rewarded the more I work on my layout, which I have named Bretherbury.


Friday 10 July 2015

Going Deeper into the Forest Within - Templestay at Woljeongsa

People with Asperger’s Syndrome are often described as having difficulty in not being able to see the woods for the tree. Historically, professionals have referred to this as ‘weak central coherence’. Such a weakness though can translate to a strength, eye for detail. Through initially noticing such strengths translated from weaknesses, by starting with what one has, it can open one up to hidden qualities and further possibilities.

To notice and acknowledge strengths and qualities that one may have, including in relation to how they are affected by their Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, it helps to find an environment where one can step back from the flow, free from distractions. Staying at Woljeongsa, a Buddhist Temple in South Korea, I felt that I was able to notice with clarity where I was able to notice with awareness where strengths Asperger’s Syndrome can have can be expanded upon, including being able to see where small, often obscure detail fits into the bigger picture.

Main meditation hall and nine-story pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple
Situated in an expansive fir tree forest in Odaesan National Park, around 140km east of Seoul, Woljeongsa provided me with an appropriate setting for me to help expand my awareness. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I tend to focus on and become interested in very specific details, but seeing where such details fit into a plot or setting can still sometimes be quite a challenge for me. Being able to notice sensations and sounds in a very peaceful countryside environment gave me an opportunity to expand my field of awareness beyond the tree into the woods and beyond.

It is fascinating as to how when many of us find ourselves in environments that are outside our comfort zone, including the comfort zone of our thought patterns and the daily routines and actions that arise from them. On my first meditation retreat, I was also able to notice how much I continuously talk to myself.  During my stay at Woljeongsa, I felt I noticed as well as how my autopilot mode is often a response to my thought patterns, but also how easily distracted I am by them, and how such distractions can become over-obsessive.

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, even now, I still find it difficult to adapt to social situations, including being able adapt to topics of conversation especially where I don’t know anybody so much that behind closed doors I find myself having to almost practice conversation and non-verbal communication. But what can’t be practised behind closed doors is being able to respond in conversations, especially as it is difficult to anticipate how someone may respond to you. In this way, I began to notice how my speech can sometimes feel almost ‘scripted’, perhaps coming across as repetitive, and sometimes out of context through not always being able to read the mood of the conversation or situation.

For the duration of my stay I was given a temple uniform to wear and I slept on a thin mattress on the floor, in accordance with the eight precepts that Templestay participants have during their stay, one of which is not to sleep on luxury high beds. An effect that I noticed when sleeping on the floor was, and something that the thinness of the mattress contributed to was in being able to notice the sensation of contact of my back against the floor, thus opening me up to being able to notice the effects of my breathing on the body. This was very conducive to me being able to sleep soundly. Quite often, distracting thoughts can keep me awake. But, as I was to find when waking up at 4.00am in the morning going to the Zendo (the main hall for practice) for the first meditation and chanting session, a sound night’s sleep helps to ‘still’ the mind. Whereas a mind distracted by excess thoughts, many of which arise from outside influences, can feel full of waves, a mind that has been stilled through being able to ‘switch off’ in such a way can feel very calm, thus enabling openness. The mind stillness I felt was enhanced during my first sitting meditation practice.  
In my temple uniform

As well as morning and evening chanting and sitting meditation sessions, another activity I took part in during my stay included making the 108 prostrations practiced in Zen Buddhism alongside making a chain of wooden beads, adding a bead for each prostration. A prostration is a triple bow made for each 108 actions to help purify 108 defilements (unwholesome states), with the bow and adding of the bead to the chain representing the action. Though such practice may appear to some as just ritual, from a mindfulness perspective, I found it helpful not only in noticing sensations with the body in what was an unusual position and performing an unusual action for me, listening to the English translation of each prostration, it also helped me notice and get in touch with my consciousness. When performing rituals or stretching exercises including yoga stretches, it can be easy for one to be caught on autopilot, possibly also engaging in repetitive movements. Getting in touch though with my consciousness with each prostration though while focusing on the sensations of my physical movement and in putting each bead on the chain, enabled me to be aware of each action. I also felt I was able to concentrate effectively while being mindful of physical movement involved in each prostration.

Through being able to get in touch with my consciousness in this way, I felt that I was able to look deeper inside myself, and how I can be so oblivious to my consciousness, including emotional feelings. The Vipassana retreat I participated in last summer enabled me to look within myself to an extent that I was able to notice myself more clearly in a sensory context, including how physical sensations to which I am mostly oblivious to directly and indirectly contribute to shaping my thought patterns, which in turn determine my moods and actions. During my experience at Woljeongsa, I felt my awareness went deeper, opening me up to being able to change the way I respond my thought patterns, including noticing the restrictions they can sometimes bring. The openness a calm mind contributed to I felt enabled me to go deeper in this sense, enabling me to notice aspects of my consciousness that normally I am oblivious to.
Going deeper into the forest, Odaesan National Park

My visit to Woljeongsa was, physically, a retreat into an expansive fir tree forest, in which the trees depending on each other for their existence together with the fertile land which allows them to grow, yet each also exists independently. Mentally, within I also felt there was a journey into the forest, into which going deeper enabled me to notice the inter-dependent existence of body and mind with much more clarity. 

Monday 6 July 2015

Being Alive to Each Moment - Sunrise over Mount Fuji and the Zen Way of Life

In many cultures and beliefs, mountains are considered sacred, including as places where gods and deities reside, where pilgrims and spiritual leaders seek refuge or as heavenly abodes to where the deceased retreat. Mount Fuji, at 3776m Japan’s highest mountain, a subject of many great works of art with its almost symmetrical shape, is considered divine in Japan’s two major faiths, Shintoism and Buddhism, with pilgrims visiting to make mini-shrines to their ancestors to keep them out of reach of evil spirits.

Mount Fuji peers above the clouds over Lake Ashi, Hakone, Japan
But mountains also have much in common with humans, not least in that they are ever changing and renewing through the weather and micro-climates that their altitude contributes to. In this way, mountains are almost expressing their emotions as to how they ‘feel’ in accordance with their ever-renewing existence in accordance with changing seasons, rather like how humans may express their emotions through non-verbal communication and facial expressions. Often shrouded in mist, the summit of Fuji can often be obscure to tourists hoping to view it from Lake Ashi, Hakone. In this way, Fuji is a ‘shy’ mountain, rather like how some people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel.

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I find that it helps for me to go deeper into myself to understand my own emotional thought processes including their sources through stepping back from the flow away from distractions, enabling me to look inwards more, thus enabling more control and awareness. Similarly, to experience the features and qualities of Mount Fuji, I felt it helped to go deeper within the surrounding forestry and mists before making the ascent towards the summit. The trek towards the summit opens one up to a highly varied multi-sensory experience, including huge differences in temperatures and different physical sensations from walking on different surfaces and through different levels of sunlight, air pressure and temperature, including noticing cooler temperatures once I had got above the tree line.

The Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
Prior to climbing Fuji, during my visit to Japan I had visited the Daisen-In Temple in Kyoto, which features a Zen landscape garden. Made up of white sand and rocks, the Daisen-In garden represents one’s lifecourse as a river flowing into the Great Sea, represented by an expansive spread of white sand, where one is of free of the trappings of greed and avarice. To reach the Great Sea though one must overcome the great wall of doubt, represented by a corridor over the garden. The journey along the stream shows highs and lows of different lifecourses on their way into the Great Sea.  The different rock shapes of subjects flowing down the stream that eventually leads into the Great Sea, including that of a turtle trying to swim against the flow of the river, show that you can’t go against the flow or back into the past. From this, much frustration and suffering can result, but each subject can eventually find a way to reach the Great Sea that they can manage at their own level.

The Wall of Doubt on route to the Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
In the Daisen-In garden, I felt I could almost ‘see’ aspects my life before me, at the point of and after my Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, including the regret I remember feeling at what I had missed out on in relation to the turtle swimming against the flow in not receiving my diagnosis earlier in life as well as the uncertainty of how the next part of my life was going to be once diagnosed represented by the wall of doubt. Similarly, when ascending Fuji, such ‘walls of doubt’ appear before trekkers in the form of steep ascents walking over volcano ash and as it was the first Fuji climb of the season, there was still some ice and snow. When walking across slippery surfaces, one becomes much more conscious of the sensations experience with each step, to be able to adapt to different conditions.

Sometimes, certain physical sensations experienced on a mountain trek can be uncomfortable, including sensations that certain items of outdoor clothing can bring, much different to clothing materials that one may normally wear, including cotton and denim. But rather than resisting them, it helps to open up to them where we can by being with them. When opening to them, we find that we may have a lot in common with the mountain itself, starting with the elements they is formed of, some which are present within our physical body. The different physical experiences I felt when climbing Fuji, which was formed by three volcanoes, also reminded me that the planet itself experiences physical sensations as a result of activity at its molten core, similar as to how we experience sensations at the physical level that arise out of bodily feeling, including tension.

At Fuji's 7th Station on the Yoshida route
As with Kilimanjaro, the trek to the summit began through the night, with the intention to reach the summit in time to see the sunrise. With only a head torch to light the first few yards of steep gradient in front of me, I found that my attention became more diverted to how I felt within both mentally and physically, including noticing the drop in temperature and that keeping on walking helped me to stay warm. Though Fuji isn’t as high as Kilimanjaro, what I felt made it as demanding a challenge in its own right was that the route towards the summit, the Yoshida route, was uphill all the way, whereas the Lemosho Glades route I took to Kilimanjaro was up and down, and also had acclimatisation periods. Each mountain though is a challenge in its own right with the different weather and micro-climates it creates, which is why it helps to approach a challenge using beginners mind, including seeing each moment as training, and being alive to it. 

Magic Moment - Sunrise from the summit of Fuji
Eventually arriving at the summit, watching the sun rise over Fuji and its neighbouring peaks, lakes and forests was a truly memorable experience. As well as a visual spectacular, it was also a way to see the Zen concept of inter-dependence in action, with Mount Fuji and its formation being dependent on the Sun and it being at the right distance from Earth for Earth to receive enough of its heat to have an active molten core and plate tectonics that enable mountains to be formed through volcanoes. Fuji’s near symmetrical shape which contributes to its visual beauty and thus its place in Japanese mythology, is enabled by it having formed at a junction between three tectonic plates. Meanwhile, the mists, forests and lakes that surround Fuji are dependent on Fuji for their existence, existing independently, but not in isolation from one another.  

Ash slides on the route down
Where I felt that more physical sensations though and where I felt I had to come out of my comfort zone more was on the way down. A sizeable portion of the way down involved descending steep paths of volcano ash and sand. More strain can felt on the joints when descending after a climb, especially since keep balance can be hard on a steep path and it can be easier to slip when walking on ash. Motor coordination has often been a challenge for me in relation to my Asperger’s Syndrome, but what I found helpful during my descent down ash slopes was to make use of the surface by leaning back slightly allowing myself to ‘slide’ down the slope, almost like skiing! Through this technique, I felt I was able to get in touch with and find my centre of gravity.

As well as a physical challenge, the journey to and from the summit of Fuji was also a journey within with regards to the journey through different physical sensations experienced throughout the trek. In this way, mountain treks are analogous to the ups and down experienced in my own life regarding as to how I am affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, similar to the lifecourse expressed in the Daisen-In garden. Coping with different challenges within a challenge, as well as making life interesting, also helps one deepen their understanding and appreciation of their abilities when opening up to them rather than shying away from them. Having said that though, I still feel I have some way to reach a personal state of a Great Sea!

At the summit
Special thanks once again to G Adventures and to Fuji Mountain Guides, for their guidance in reaching the summit of Fuji.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Brave Acts of Donkey Work

Of previous jobs I had prior to Autism Works, one of the most enjoyable and fascinating was working on Durham County Record Office's Image of the Soldier project. Recently, I took the opportunity to revisit this in seeing the play Man and the Donkey at South Shields Customs House Theatre. Based around the life of John Simpson Patrick, a stretcher-bearer with the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) during the Gallipoli campaigns of the First World War, Man and the Donkey commemorated a lesser-known yet highly commendable act of bravery a hundred years later with a very passionate and moving performance from the cast.

Working on the Image of the Soldier Project involved scanning, cataloguing and classifying images and records of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) before linking them to an online database enabling the public to access them, including being able to research ancestors involved with the DLI. What especially fascinated me was finding out more about often forgotten roles of those involved in supporting and supplying soldiers in the front line with food and medical needs, who often had to take huge risks under fire with little or no protection in making sure soldiers fighting in the front line had enough to eat and the wounded were attended to.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey, South Shields
John Simpson Kirkpatrick (1892-1915), also known as 'Jack', was one such man. Born in South Shields, Jack worked with donkeys giving rides along the beach at South Shields during his youth before joining up with the Territorial Force before joining the Merchant Navy in 1909. In 1910, Jack deserted the Merchant Navy while in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. After working in various jobs as a steward and stoker on Australian coastal ships, Jack enlisted in the Australian Army as a stretcher bearer under the surname Simpson (his mother's maiden name) to avoid being identified as a deserter, possibly in the hope that it would eventually bring him back to South Shields to see his family again.  
Duffy, a handmade souvenir, made by cast member Viktoria Kay

At Gallipoli, Private Simpson would put his experience of working with donkeys back in South Shields to good use. In the early hours of following day after landing at Gallipoli, 26th April 1915, while bearing a wounded soldier, Private Simpson saw a donkey and made use of it to carry fellow soldiers. Fearless of going back and forth within the line of fire, Simpson and his donkey helped to rescue more than 300 soldiers, carrying them from the frontline to the shore where they could receive treatment. Private Simpson used at least four donkeys to help carry the wounded, after the donkeys themselves had been killed or wounded in action. On May 19th, after 24 days of negotiating 'snipers alley', Private Simpson himself was killed in action by machine gun fire, aged just 22.

John Simpson Kirkptarick, a man who gave his life so that others could live, has since been the subject of many petitions to be awarded a Victoria Cross or Victoria Cross of Australia. A hundred years after his death, the cast of Man and the Donkey Jamie Brown, James Hedley, Viktoria Kay, Gary Kitching, Dean Logan and Jacqueline Phillips made a very passionate and compelling case for John Simpson Kirkpatrick to be given the recognition his very brave actions were worthy of. Despite being reviewed in an inquiry, Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour, the tribunal for this committee decided in 2013 that no further awards were necessary as Simpson's bravery was representative of all other stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Field Ambulance.
'Lest We Forget', an ANZAC wreath in Brisbane, Australia

Though Simpson's story is well-known in Australia, back in Britain, including in South Shields, until recently Simpson's heroic deeds at Gallipoli have been nothing more than a historical footnote. Sometimes, history can have a short memory when commemorating those who gave their lives so others may do their duty and survive during conflict. Attention to detail, a quality expressed by some people diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, shows us that historically, much less honours have been given for exceptional bravery by those from non-fighting personnel involved in conflict. What I remember feeling so pleased with after the completion of the Image of the Soldier project was that it gave aspect of war was given the recognition that it deserved. As respected military historian Andy Robertshaw said at the launch of the project, military history isn't just about soldiers and guns, but also the personnel supporting them, including engineers, signallers and those supplying food and medicine to the front line, who often have to be just as brave.

Over 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War, now is as good a time as any to recognise and commemorate this often forgotten aspect of military history, looking at those who both risked and /or gave their lives, so that not only others could be saved, but also enable peace for future generations.  The Image of the Soldier project still provides a very invaluable resource to show us what our ancestors both fought and served for. Meanwhile, after the impact of Man and the Donkey residents of and visitors to South Shields, will likely take a moment to notice Simpson's statue with a strong sense of commemoration and pride for a forgotten local hero.

In memory of those who lost their lives during the First World War 1914-1918

RIP Jackie Fielding, director of Man and the Donkey, who tragically died just as the show finished its run following a brain aneurysm. No doubt she will have been delighted with the reception the show has had and the performances of the cast.     

Sunday 5 April 2015

Eclipses and Expresses - from spotters guides and planispheres to mobiles and app technology

I will likely remember the dates of March 20th and March 21st 2015 for many years to come! Two exciting events happened in the space of two days relating to two of my favourite interests, starting with the Partial Solar Eclipse and then watching the steam-hauled Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express in action along the Durham Coast Line. To see and enjoy both events, I didn't have to go very far from home!

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 
Despite cloudy conditions in much of the UK, millions took time out to experience a partial eclipse of the Sun, where in the northernmost parts of Scotland the Moon covered up to 97 per cent of the Sun. I was fortunate enough to get a good view of it from Roker Beach in Sunderland. As had been forecast, the sky over Sunderland was cloudy to start off with but gradually began to thin just enough for the Sun to shine through as the Moon began to move across. As well as with my interest in Astronomy, watching the eclipse also turned out to be a fascinating way to practice mindfulness. While concentrating on the interaction of the Sun and Moon, when holding this in awareness, I also felt that I was able to notice it's effect on the sky, down to where I was standing. The surrounding clouds darkened very slightly. Though it was as obvious a 'blackout' as those in the line of totality which passed through the Faroe Islands and Svalbard high up in the Arctic Circle would have experienced, I still felt that I could notice degrees of initial darkening and later brightening effects as the Moon eventually completed its passage across the Sun.

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
The second experience over this period of two days that also made me very happy was the steam-hauled Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express in action passing Easington Colliery in County Durham. Readers of this blog will be familiar with how much I enjoy actually being on a mainline steam-hauled train journey, but really other then when the train is going around a long curve, though you hear it, you don't see the steam locomotive in action when on the train. Featuring former London and North Eastern Railway engines Class K4 2-6-0 No.61994 The Great Marquess and Class B1 4-6-0 No.62005 in a push-pull arrangement, one pulling from the front and one pushing at the back, the Wensleydale and Durham Coast Express provided a fantastic site for onlookers who had gathered to see it in action.

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
Though in reality human fascination with astronomy goes back almost to the dawn of humanity itself while railway enthusiasm is almost as old as railways themselves, where growth in participation in Astronomy and Railway Enthusiasm is often attributed to is in their post war 'booms'. Largely perceived as a 'hobby for the rich' before the Second World War, with the availability of mass-produced and affordable telescopes together with the dawn of the space age with the launch of Sputnik (1957) and Yuri Gagarin becoming the first human in space (1961), public participation in astronomy grew. This led to the availability of publications for beginners, including George Philip's Signpost to the Stars and starter packs including star maps and planispheres, adjustable start charting instruments that display the stars and constellations visible in the night sky at a given time and date.

Publications from the Ian Allan ABC series
Meanwhile, the postwar era also saw the nationalisation of Britain's railways (1948). With this came the introduction of a national numbering system for Britain's locomotives which in turn, saw the publication of spotters handbooks, including the Ian Allan ABC series. The popularity of this series saw a whole generation of enthusiasts get to know the major railway junctions and centres throughout Britain. At the same time, Britain's railways were going through major changes with the phasing out of steam and the Beeching cuts. Not wanting to see their favourite steam locomotives being broken up, the spirit of rail enthusiasm contributed to the preservation movement and the development of steam heritage railways, enjoyed by many today.

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, 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.      



Thursday 19 March 2015

Decoding Human Convention, Emotions and Out-of-Synch Development

As you will have likely seen, last month saw the passing of Leonard Nimoy, who will likely be familiar to many readers of this blog as he was to millions worldwide as the original Star Trek crew's Mr Spock. a character popular with many adults with Asperger's Syndrome. Coincidentally, the evening before Nimoy's death was announced, I was talking about the character he famously played in a lecture to the MA (Hons) Autism students at Northumbria University, looking at how Spock often appears to have similar confusions in understanding human courtship that many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel they have and can relate to.

Those who have attended one of my Asperger's Syndrome workshops may well remember the 'boomerang exercise', where I ask two audience participants to describe to one another what the item is and what it is used for. Normally, if two participants speak and understand the same language, such a task should be easy, but one is taken out of their comfort zone when I say that one of the participants has to imagine that they are an extra-terrestrial visitor to Earth, and don't know any human languages or social gestures. The task is then made substantially harder when one can't use language, but the other can. Participants often describe how they find the experience both confusing and frustrating. but this is how it can sometimes feel like to be a person with Asperger's Syndrome.

Similarly, as a Vulcan working within a human crew, Mr Spock experiences similar confusion in recognising and interpreting the many shapes and forms of communication in non-verbal form which are often also just as invisible to many people with Asperger's Syndrome, including eye-contact and facial expressions. Like people with Asperger's Syndrome, to be able to function socially among Earth people, Spock finds he has to learn their non-verbal social cues by observation as they aren't natural or habitual as they are to the Earth people with whom he shares a starship. In this way, people with Asperger's Syndrome are almost like 'actors', learning non-verbal social cues from practice.

Spock with his human mother, Amanda
The 'social blindness' Spock often experienced working within a human crew also puts in in a position where he is able to observe human behaviour from an outside perspective. For Nimoy to play Spock, it would almost have been like an 'actor playing an actor', which would have enabled both himself and the character he played to provide an examination of humanity, including what it means human. Often forgotten though is that Spock's mother was human, so Spock had some human characteristics, which were often hidden by his Vulcan social presentation, one of which was empathy, something which again people with Asperger's Syndrome are often described as lacking. In reality though, many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, feel as though they have a lot of empathy, often more so for others than themselves. Some are also known to become over-emphatic to the extent that someone else's problems or issues almost become theirs. Often though, it tends not to come across to others as feels of empathy and understanding are often hidden by absence of facial expression, which sees people with Asperger's Syndrome come across as unintentionally 'cold'. Balancing and recognising external expression with internal feeling is a difficult art for many people with Asperger's Syndrome to master.        

When we think about it, that we have ways of addressing and recognising each other, names, and in some cases titled hierarchy, is simply only human convention. Equally confusing in making sense of non-verbal communication for people with Asperger's Syndrome can be unawareness of what their own non-verbal presentation, which could possibly result from any sensory issues they may face in a social situation or anxiety triggers. Anxiety triggers that a person with Asperger's Syndrome may experience in a social situation could involve being worried about how they are being perceived by others around them, or perhaps from frustration of not being able to understand or relate to certain topics of conversation.

The original Star Trek crew meet Sargon
From anxiety, bodily tension often arises, making one feel uncomfortable in their physical body. Such bodily discomfort often reminds me of a particular episode of the original Star Trek's season two, Return to Tomorrow, in which the crew encounter a telepathic being, Sargon, who comes from a lifeless planet. or at least the planet is devoid of life in forms that the crew of SS Enterprise know it to exist. Existing in the form of energy contained in a sphere without substance, Sargon, his wife Thalassa and his former enemy Henoch are oblivious to physical sensations that are familiar to life forms that inhabit physical bodies, where they arise and pass frequently, some of which are more or less noticeable than others. However, when Sargon, Thalassa and Henoch inhabit the bodies of Captain Kirk, Dr Mulhall and Spock respectively, after initially experiencing the joy of what it is like to feel sensations again after so many thousands of years, they then start to feel rather uncomfortable.

Looking at the energy without substance form in which Sargon exists, one can't help wonder what shapes and forms in which extra-terrestrial life may exist. Could it be possible that there is intelligent extra-terrestrial life that doesn't have a 'face' as humans would recognise, but has cognitive ability and/or syntax? Unfortunately, distances across space, and more crucially time, means that there is only a very remote chance that projects such as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) could succeed within a human or extra-terrestrial time frame. For instance, an extra-terrestrial civilisation may have died out by the time radio messages beamed from Earth reach the planet it inhabited. Similarly, humankind may well have died out long before any radio messages sent by an extra terrestrial civilisation reach Earth.

Pattern of message beamed towards star cluster M13 from the Arecibo Radio Telescope, Puerto Rico, 1974 
Back on Earth, within human time, as an adult with Asperger's Syndrome, I feel that I experience it much where physical age and socio-emotional development seem to by 'out of synch'. Spending much time learning how to interact in the social world, often leaves little scope for learning about emotions and the heart, as well as understanding those of others around us. Understandably, many adults with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, may feel that, contrary to what their chronological age suggests, at the same time they may feel they are not socially or emotionally mature enough to make certain decisions about their life, that others of a similar chronological age might have already have experienced.

Such out-of-synch development also raises some interesting questions about autism and Asperger's Syndrome in later life, for both people on the autistic spectrum and others around them, including their families or next-of-kin. To help service providers prepare to meet the needs of chronologically older adults on the autistic spectrum, with funding from Autistica, Newcastle University, is inviting potential participants, including people on the spectrum themselves as well parents, relatives, carers etc. to be part of its Adult Autism Spectrum Cohort. More information on this much-needed project can be found at

Friday 20 February 2015

Condensing Eight and Two Centuries of History - Magna Carta and Waterloo

Following my last blog entry about astronomy, a subject in which hundreds of years as they are measured on Earth are merely microcosmic, realising that 2015 sees the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, in feel it is appropriate for this to look at hundreds of years in the context of human history. Not only are hundreds of years a long time in human terms, but the hundreds of years that have followed these events show us how interlinked a process history is, as a opposed to a series of isolated events.

A tendency that people with Asperger's Syndrome, including myself, can often have is in being able to see detail, however minute, not initially seeing the bigger picture or chain of events. In clinical speak and as described by Professor Uta Frith in her public lecture at Newcastle University last December, this form of perception is often referred to as Weak Central Coherence. Frith also did say though that despite the use of the word weak, Weak Central Coherence is also a strength in being able to see detail. Rather than Weak Central Coherence, as a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I like to describe it as 'eye for detail'. Eye for detail combined with cultivated awareness helps to see the wider context as to where the detail fits.

The tendency of going off on a tangent presents a bit of challenge to me in writing this entry. The two anniversary subjects that it is about are indirectly made possible by one another and their relevance to the present day are separated not only by hundreds of years but by many details into which it is easy to become sidetracked into, which my old school reports suggested that I had a tendency to do, including into those irrelevant. So to condense it down, in some instances, I may skip across hundreds of years in a single paragraph or sentence, which Shakespeare described as 'compressing years into an hourglass'.

Magna Carta Moument, Runnymede, Surrey
When going into the details of historical events, one may eventually read into their origins, and it is surprising how many such significant historical events together with many present-day rights and civil liberties have their roots in a document handwritten on sheets of sheep skin (vellum). Signed by King John at Runnymede following a dispute with a group of rebel barons in 1215, the Magna Carta, or 'Great Charter', itself originated from a sequence of events with King John's unsuccessful attempts to reclaim his ancestral lands in France culminating in a disastrous and costly military expedition in 1214, escalating his barons distrust of him. The singing of the charter that followed saw that the king would be under law and lay the foundations for modern democracy not just in present-day Britain, but throughout the world.

Though in the broader spectrum of human history, going back thousands of years, many of the earliest known ideas of democracy and representative government originated in ancient Greece, many democratic principles and civil liberties familiar in our lives today can be traced to Magna Carta's detailed clauses, including Clauses 39-40 that focus on liberties and properties, permitting no free man to be seized except by law and the state not to help itself to private land. As described by the respected historian David Starkey, though the document contains extensive detailed clauses, it lacks any great statement of principle, leaving its principles hidden within its finer details.

The format of Magna Carta, being full of fine detail but lacking in weight-carrying statements has left it open to different interpretations, resulting in it being a subject of dispute among ruling elites and its importance as a mandate resurface in both times of peace and war. All of which has led to a course of history that has seen two invasions by invitation, a civil war and further afield, a war of independence and a revolution. After signing Magna Carta, King John's appeal to the Pope to have the charter annulled led to the First Barons War, which saw England's lesser-know 'invitation to invade' when rebel barons attempted to install Prince Louis, son of Philip II of France, to the throne as their 'anyone but John' candidate. The lack of a rival claimant to the throne had only strengthened King John's power.

Magna Carta's purpose of keeping the King under law wasn't truly to awaken until over 400 years later when Charles I, whose belief in the divine right of kings, saw him ignore both the Magna Carta and parliament trying to rule like an absolute monarch. To enforce Magna Carta, a civil war lasting seven years was needed, followed by the king's trial and execution. The freedoms that Magna Carta sought to protect were then denounced by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's unpopular puritanical regime, resulting in the Restoration of the Monarchy after Charles II returned from exile. Magna Carta would resurface once again towards the end of the 16th century when religious tensions mounted with James II secret conversion to Catholicism opened the way for the better known invitation to invade in 1688, which history would call the 'Glorious Revolution', when William of Orange and James II's daughter Mary were offered the crown providing they accepted both Magna Carta's terms and the sovereignty of parliament.

While royalty gradually conceded power in Britain, on the other side of the channel, royal absolutism held firm in France. Meanwhile, Magna Carta's principles were taking root across the Atlantic in Britain's American colonies, with the charter forming the basis of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, won in 1783. While the American Declaration of Independence can be seen as a 'descendant' of Magna Carta, the French Revolution that took place a few years later (1789), can be seen as a 'child' of the American Wars of Independence. French involvement in the wars of independence together with the loss of its North American colonies following the Seven Years War (1756-1763) had contributed to huge debts, placing a heavy burden on the French peasantry, which the Court of Versailles appeared oblivious to. With no Magna Carta or equivalent, violent revolution was needed to overthrow royal absolutism.

Lion Mound overlooks the Waterloo Battlefield, Belgium
The collapse of the Ancien Regime in France would later see the rise to power of Napoleon and his ambitions bringing the whole of Europe, including Britain which he famously described as a 'nation of shopkeepers' under his rule. The Napoleonic Wars that followed lasted over 12 years resulting in over six million casualties,saw Napoleon gain and regain domination of Europe until his eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815) in present day Belgium by the Allied Forces led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian Field Marshall Gebhard Lebrecht von Blucher. Wellington wanted everyone involved in the battle to have a medal to be designed by master engraver Benedetto Pristrucci. Due to its size and weight, the medal was never completed. But 200 years later, the London Mint Office has issued 500,000 free medals to mark the battle's bicentenary.

One of 500,000 free medals issued to mark the Bicentenary of Waterloo
As well as peace in Europe for much of the next 50 years after Waterloo, a legacy that emerged from the Napoleonic wars, currently a topical and divisive issue in British politics, was the concept of a unified Europe, sharing the same principles of government, units of measurements, a single currency and civil code. I rarely cover politics in my blog entries due to its divisive nature which sometimes 'overheats', but something I will say is that while the present day system of European unity, the European Union, isn't without its controversies, I am grateful that it has contributed to preventing full scale war in Europe on the level of the Napoleonic Wars or the two world wars. That said, the current situation in eastern Ukraine will be a test of its ability to uphold peace and security. Recent times have also seen rights and freedoms, many of which have their roots in Magna Carta, come under threat with the war on terror, in which tensions have been heightened by recent events including the Charlie Hebdo shooting in France and cafe shootings in Denmark and Australia. Such rights are often overlooked during times of insecurity, making Magna Carta as relevant in many ways now as it ever has been.

Interlinking historical events often ends up with one's walls being covered in flow diagrams, as the walls of Clare Sainsbury's (author of Martian in the Playground) hall of residence room at the University of Oxford was! Being a visual thinker, flow charts often help. What this particular writing exercise has shown me is that, as well as interlinked, as Leo Tolstoy described, history is an inexorable process, a continuum, which one man alone cannot influence. There are theories and principles from the past that have relevance to the present day, as well as mistakes from which to learn for the benefit of humanity.

Monday 2 February 2015

From your own backyard to the edge of the Solar System and Beyond

When we think of the terms space and astronomy, some of the first visual images that tend to come to mind are of worlds far away. In many ways, astronomy starts much closer to home, not just with what one can see in the night sky on a clear night from their back garden, but also from natural features common in everyday life, including pebbled rocks and ripples in sand. Such features are usually considered unremarkable because they are a common feature of our natural surroundings, especially for those of us who live near the coast, but when we see similar features on other worlds in the Solar System, we get excited!

Pebbled rocks on Titan photographed by Huygens
Note their similarity to pebbled rocks on Seaburn Beach, Sunderland

Images from the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon, taken by the Huygens probe in 2005 showed pebbled rocks on the surface generated excitement as they confirmed the existence of surface liquid, the only place in the Solar System apart from Earth where surface liquid has been found. Though rather than water, Titan's lakes are made up largely of methane, ethane and propane. More recently, the Rosetta mission to Comet 67P/C-G showed rippled landscapes similar to sand ripples commonly found on beaches on Earth being constantly shaped and reshaped by the tide. Such findings arouse excitement in the world of astronomy as they provide insight into what an early planet Earth may have been like when it was forming, long before it could support life, but while conditions that would later enable the planet to support life were developing, including the presence of water in solid, liquid and gas form together with a climate and atmosphere conducive for life to evolve into its many forms present today, including us.

Ripples on Comet 67P/C-G photographed by Rosetta
Again note their similarity to ripples on Seaburn Beach

Like railways, a subject that has featured much on this blog, astronomy is also considered and sometimes stereotyped as an Aspergic subject, perhaps for the level of detail and data it involves and the different colours and features visible on different planets and the shapes of the constellations. For some, including for myself when younger, may be an escape from coping with the ever-confusing social world on Earth looking out to where there may be worlds far away across space and time where they feel they would be more accepted, especially if they feel that aren't accepted in the society they live in or feel frustrated at not being able to make sense of the social world. This may also explain inspirations for science fiction, another past-time enjoyed by many people on the autistic spectrum.

As well as people with Asperger's Syndrome, it is a subject that has in recent times opened up to wider audience with the effect of Professor Brian Cox's documentary series and Stargazing Live. Locally in the North East, general interest and participation in astronomy also appears to have increased through Northumberland National Park together with Kielder Water and Forest Park being awarded 'Dark Sky' status and Look North weather forecaster and reporter Hannah Bayman's enthusiasm for the subject, including its effects on the weather, and in turn, how it affects our daily lives, often when we are least aware of it. Public participation in astronomy locally in Sunderland was evident during Sunderland Astronomical Society's 'Jupiter Night' last month held at their Cygnus Observatory located at Washington Wetlands Centre where a sizeable crowd turned out to get a look at Jupiter and the night sky's other sights through the several telescopes available.

Sunderland Astronomical Society's Cygnus Observatory
At first the sky was cloudy but it cleared up later and visitors were able to get some good views of Jupiter and its moons through the Cygnus Observatory's 14-inch reflector telescope and also of Comet Lovejoy before it disappears from sight, after which it won't appear again for over another 8,000 years. As well as the sights of the night sky, something that the event showed was both how great a social and family activity astronomy can be, including families affected by autism, especially if the skies are cloudy. Many people on the autistic spectrum can experience meltdowns or panic attacks in crowded places. Though avoidance of such situations is understandable, the lack of a viable alternative to being around others can also lead to social isolation and anxiety. Sometimes a way of learning to cope with such situations is to experience them at first in such an environment where they are with someone who understands their difficulties and where they are around like-minded people perhaps at an event related to an interest, and can provide a release from stresses and anxieties. With patience, social skills that develop over time through experience of such events can help one cope with and become more confident and assertive in social situations.
Readers of this blog may well remember me talking about how one of my favourite aspects of astronomy is how the stars in the night sky being as they were so many years ago can in effect represent your past while you are tuning into the present in a mindfulness context. One of my other favourite aspects of astronomy from the perspective of curiosity is how astronomical discoveries alter humankind's perception of the universe, including human convention on naming, classifying and cataloguing new worlds when they are discovered, and how knowledge gained from space exploration can often radically alter previous theories and pre-conceptions we may have had about the Solar System, the universe and our place within it. On such theory that had been suggested in the 19th century was that water arrived on earth courtesy of comets. This theory had briefly resurfaced with the Rosetta Mission, but though Rosetta's observations showed there was water vapour present on Comet 67P/C-G, it contains a higher level of deuterium than hydrogen than water vapour on earth has, making the theory that water arrived on Earth via comets unlikely.

Three such important discoveries that have radically changed human perception of the Solar System and the wider Universe include William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781, the first planet discovered with the aid of a telescope, Edwin Hubble's 1923 observation that showed Andromeda as a galaxy beyond the Milky Way and most recently, the confirmation of the existence of the Kuiper Belt in 1992, a region of many small, icy worlds orbiting the Sun beyond Neptune. Though many other important astronomical discoveries have been made, these three particular discoveries opened human perception up to a much bigger Solar System, and in the case of Hubble's observation, a bigger Universe. Such discoveries have seen us alter previous theories and opening up further possibilities for us to approach using beginner's mind. This may involve building on present theories or taking apart old theories, altering them completely. As well as altering perception of the Solar System, the discovery of the Kuiper Belt, also altered human naming convention which saw the downgrading of Pluto from being the ninth planet from the Sun to being a 'dwarf planet' that orbits the Sun with many other companion worlds in the Kuiper Belt. Similarly, over 200 years earlier, Ceres, the first asteroid to be discovered by Guiseppe Piazzi in 1801, had been considered a 'planet' until within two years, two more bodies with similar sizes and orbits were found and astronomers began classifying them separately as 'asteroids'.

The 2006 Definition of a Planet published by the International Astronomical Union that 'downgraded' Pluto was merely an exercise in naming convention, with little to do with science. Though naming conventions are necessary to help us identify different worlds, sometimes just from such terminology it is easy to develop assumptions of what they may be like, and may turn out very different when observed up close. With the Dawn spacecraft due to visit Ceres (now 'upgraded' to dwarf planet status) next month and New Horizons due to visit Pluto, together with its largest moon Charon and the Kuiper Belt region in July, 2015 could be a fascinating year for astronomy with new knowledge to be gained from largely unexplored worlds and regions of the Solar System. Providing we learn from experience and mistakes, including the loss of the Beagle due to land on Mars in 2004 and the technical difficulties the Philae lander had when landing on Comet 67P/C-G, further space exploration this century could shed much new light on the Solar System building on knowledge already accumulated from previous missions.

Such missions can play a part, not just in arousing further interest in astronomy, but further general public interest and participation/engagement in science, a mission of Professor Brian Cox in his recently appointed role as the Royal Society's Professor for Public Engagement, whose own astronomical inspirations came from the Apollo Moon Missions and probes to the planets when growing up in the 1970s. Public awareness of and participation in science involves more than just scientists themselves and those who come from scientific backgrounds, but also the enabling of those like myself who have little scientific education or experience beyond GCSE level, or who, like me, considered themselves to be 'hopeless' at science at school, to make invaluable contributions. Such a wide range of public participation in science is important as science affects us all in various ways, directly and indirectly.

Kielder Observatory, Northumberland
Starting from observation of your natural surroundings on Earth and what can be seen in the night sky from your backyard, curiosity may lead one to enquire deeper into astronomy and its related sciences. As well as at the top level through the Royal Society, at grass roots level developments like the Kielder Observatory (the vision Gary Fildes) and local astronomical organisations including Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and many others throughout the country also serve an important role in enabling access to those who wish to pursue it further.

As access to the night sky is free, astronomy is well placed to enhance public engagement in science, as it is a science to which the amateur can not only make a significant contribution to but obtain much enjoyment from. Just to get simple enjoyment out of it, one doesn't necessarily have to spend a fortune on state-of-the art equipment, a notion that the late former Sky at Night presenter Sir Patrick Moore helped to dispel, as much can be seen with a small pair of binoculars or even the naked eye on a clear night from your backyard. Above all, as Jupiter Night showed, it is also highly enjoyable as a family and social activity.

Special thanks to Sunderland Astronomical Society, Northumberland Astronomical Society and all involved in organising Jupiter Night and their hospitality.