I – for the record – do not want to be an astronomer. The title of this article is for those who do.
I’m not saying I’ve never wanted to be an astronomer, though. When I was young I did want to be an astronomer. That was before I realised that astronomers and space pilots were different things. Once that happened I wanted only to be a space pilot. Looking at the stars was okay – television was awful when I was young – but I had my sights set on destroying them or using them as slingshots to break the speed of thought.
But you – since you’re here – probably do want to be an astronomer and that means you’re not one now. First off, what’s daily life like for a typical astronomer?
Algernon: Hi Percival! Doing a spot of astronomy?
Percival: That’s right Algernon! That’s why I’ve got my telescope under my arm and a thermos of oxtail soup. And you? Have you just come back from astronoming?
Algernon: Yes I have. I astronomed from the field beyond the farm. The trees keep light pollution down and I’ve been keeping an eye on the super cluster of black holes in Virgo for a friend who’s worried about them. Are you heading to the field too?
Percival: Oh no! I like to astronom from the hill beyond the magic forest. The extra altitude means I can see the pulses from the pulsing pulsar in Pollux so much easier.
Algernon: Well, have a happy astronoming Percival!
Percival: Thankyou Algernon. Astronom well, yourself.
A life under the velvet blanket of night, staring at the universe, with all the oxtail soup you can consume may sound as perfect as you’d always imagined but to be an astronomer you’ll need a couple of other qualities too.
In ye olden dayes of astronomy excitement occurred when a new planet was discovered thanks to the milling of a new, larger, smoother lens to fit into some rich playboy’s large, sparkly, brass cylinder.
"Huzzah! A new planet just beyond Jupiter! I shall call it Georgeworld after the King and I’ll be knighted and … what’s that? Herschel’s already spotted it and called it what? He called it my what? That German fucker!"
But the solar system is more-or-less mapped out now and the optics needed to spot a planet around another planet are unwieldy and leave no room for carrying a thermos. Subsequently, everything these days is pictured by computers, cleaned up by computers, and displayed on computer screens. Excitement, therefore, has been reduced to The Thrill Of The Pixel.
An astronomical life demands dedication. Look away from your telescope for one second and you could miss a supernova. Switch the radio dial from X-ray bursts coming out of Leo to Bill & Pat’s Late Night Easy Listening Request Show and some lucky amateur from Mumbai could pick up the first extra-terrestrial signal instead.
Dedication, though, is the inbred cousin of obsessiveness. To be an astronomer you’ll have to be prepared to walk the tightrope above the canyon of madness called Dementia every night. Astronomers, like stars, burn out. Unlike stars they grow beards too. They wear monocles. They play the xylophone. They work the word "spectrograph" into every sentence and describe the comings and goings of fellow astronomers as red or blue shifting. Nobody’s quite sure when it is that the last professional astronomer actually discovered anything of any actual use to humankind. Astronomers are unloved.
To be an astronomer needs dedication and a strong will. Autism’s good too.
Do you still want to be an astronomer? This quick quiz will test your aptitude and is the same one used by the Queen when picking the next Astronomer Royal.
1. Best film featuring astronomy?
- A. Contact
- B. Explorers
- C. Mission To Mars
2. Greatest space explosion ever!
- A. Supernova 1987A
- B. Bomb in Dark Star
- C. Reliant in Star Trek II
3. If there was nobody around at the Big Bang did it make a noise?
- A. Yes
- B. No
- C. It is still making a noise
4. What’s your star sign?
- A. Virgo
- B. Cancer
- C. One of the shit ones
5. If there was a shortage of oxtail soup what would you take in your thermos?
- A. Warm, dilute, orange juice
- B. Tanqueray
- C. Why would there be a shortage of oxtail soup? Who’s been tampering with the oxen?
6. I want to be an astronomer …
- A. For the money
- B. For the chicks
- C. To determine if there’s a single nebula in the universe without a dangerous anomaly inside for future Federation missions
If you’ve still got the urge to peer into the heavens then don’t delay and sign up today for an astronomy course at your nearest astronomicollege. You’re best off the streets where you can do less harm. Astronom well.