Archive for April, 2008

A War, a Grandfather, and a Great Uncle

April 25, 2008

Once again, ANZAC Day is here, a day on which we recall those who in far too many cases died fighting someone else’s battle.

My grandfather, James Melville, fought during WWI in Egypt, Gallipoli, and France. He always struck me as a proud, meticulous man. After the war he worked in several jobs, including on trains in outback Australia. As a child I loved his Scottish accent. I wish I had known him better, talked with him more, not seen him as so “other”. I’ve been a pall bearer for two people: my Grandfather and my Mother, who died 16 years apart.

My Great Uncle, Frank Jagger, served in the German army in that same war. I recall a family member years ago remarking that he and my Grandfather may have been in fighting in the same area of France during the war. I don’t know if this was actually the case or mere speculation, but it probably happened to some. Uncle Frank stayed with us for a short while in the late 70s. He was a real character. After he returned to Germany, I used to help translate his increasingly German letters to my family. He too is gone now.

The saying goes: “Lest We Forget”. Indeed. But please please please, Let Us Not Glorify. War is a terrible thing, something I hope my kids never have to participate in. As Skyhooks put it so well in the 70s: “Horror movie right there on my TV, shockin’ me right out of my brain.”

Those who romanticise war haven’t seen enough death. If you watch a movie like Saving Private Ryan and don’t feel viscerally offended, then the world we’ve constructed has succeeded in numbing you. Anyone who has seen dead people and terrible injury up close and personal (I was a nurse before I was a programmer) understands that War cannot be a clean thing any more than car accidents or cancer. The best way to honour the War Dead is to Just Stop It. Just Get Along. Life’s too short to do otherwise, and as a species we take ourselves way too seriously. We need to get over ourselves and just get on with Living and Learning. There’s no salvation, no Higher Purpose. It’s just Us. Carpe Diem.

Another saying goes: “No Fate But What we Make” (Terminator 2). The only thing we are not free to choose is our freedom to choose (Sartre). Yeah, we’re stuck with one other and we had better make the best of it. As Carl Sagan said “We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.” Providing the answer “War” to any question just doesn’t qualify.

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NACAA 2008 Impressions

April 6, 2008
What impresses me about The National Australian Convention of Amateur Astronomers (NACAA) is that it demonstrates how much can be achieved with sufficient motivation and relatively few resources.
NACAA is convened every 2 years. I attended first in 2002 when it was held in Adelaide. In 2004 my family came with me to Hobart, and in 2006 to Frankston. This year the event was held in Penrith,  Sydney.
Some of the highlights this year from my perspective were:
  • “Probing Pluto’s Atmosphere with a 10 inch Telescope” by Dave Gault. Along with others in Australia (including Blair Lade at Stockport) and New Zealand, Dave’s observations yielded a light curve from which Pluto’s atmosphere — with a pressure measuring in microbars — could be discerned, using only a 10″ SCT and Meade DSI imager.
  • A workshop on light curve analysis using data from automated surveys to look for contact binary star systems. Surjit Wadhwa who ran this excellent workshop also won the best paper award for his work and peer reviewed publications over several years, revealing previously unknown contact binary star systems.
  • Ragbir Bhathal’s “45 Years of SETI”, including an overview of recent optical SETI developments. Whether or not you think that SETI is ever likely to lead to positive results, the technology involved is interesting and potentially useful elsewhere. Not to mention the philosophical questions it prompts us to ponder.
  • Encouraging words from Arne Henden, Director of the American Association of Variable Star observers, about being an amateur scientist in the 21st Century.
  • Entertaining talks such as: giving astronomy lectures on the final voyage of the QE2 (by Ray Johnston), the current state of planetaria worldwide (by Martin George), and examining the possibility that Australian Aboriginals were the world’s first astronomers (by Ray Norris).
  • Useful and interesting ad-hoc conversations during breaks and in the corridor.
There were workshops and sessions to suit a wide variety of interests. You can read more about NACAA 2008 here: http://nacaa.org.au/2008/
In short, a very worthwhile event. I plan to be in Canberra for NACAA 2010.