Hubble bubble

Dr Nick Lister (Principal-Lawrence House Astronomy School) at Rossall School, Fleetwood.
Dr Nick Lister (Principal-Lawrence House Astronomy School) at Rossall School, Fleetwood.
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Twinkle twinkle little star – how I wonder what you are.

Six hundred folk from the Fylde will find out on Wednesday night for a ticket-only BBC Stargazing Live event at Rossall School’s own Lawrence House Astronomy and Space Science Centre.

Resident astronomer Dr Nick Lister reckons they could have held several such events and still had a waiting list for more keen to learn the secrets of the solar system. The free tickets were snapped up with hours of release.

Of course it helps to have the pin up poster boy of popular astronomy, celebrity scientist Brian Cox looking suitably starry-eyed on the cover of the latest Radio Times – although the better news is there’s a handy pull-out night sky guide poster to go with it too. The BBC’s annual campaign aims to encourage more of us to get into astronomy – and the spin-off for allied sciences is immense.

Nick says Professor Cox’s programmes prompt a surge in calls to his own astronomy centre – although he attributes his own interest in astronomy to Sir Patrick Moore’s Sky at Night and the late Carl Sagan’s phenomenal Cosmos series “which took us to Mars long before computer graphics came along”.

Rossall’s own astronomer in residence is passionate about his subject – and keen to share that enthusiasm with others of all ages.

He never tires of what he calls the “wow factor in astronomy”, the fact that, when you look at a star, you’re travelling through time, seeing something that may well no longer be there, millions of light years away.

“We can all be Dr Who,” he adds. “We travel through time when we look at the stars. That’s science fact not science fiction. What’s more, it extends to other sciences, physics, chemistry, biology, geology.”

Nick runs the stand alone astronomy centre on the Rossall campus – a fitting way of keeping the old St Annes prep school Lawrence House’s name alive through a £250k founding grant some six years ago.

The personable young professor is one of the rising stars of astronomy – increasingly called upon for public speaking tours, radio and TV work and personal appearances – but runs the centre, with attendant courses, by day and night, virtually single-handed.

Astronomy has taken off in recent years, with some of the credit down to Professor Cox’s clout on the box ... and the blockbuster sci-fi film and fantasy game circuit.

Nick’s built on the bedrock of Rossall’s own enduring interest – the site boasting a beautifully restored and fully functioning observatory with Victorian scope: the Jeremiah Horrocks (the Liverpool-born founding father of astronomy) facility accessible to pupils and Nick’s students alike.

Nick started working at the school 12 years ago, in science, running the design technology department for three years, but dreamed of running his own astronomy centre.

The grant from Lawrence House – a legacy born of the largesse of the now closed preparatory school – made that happen. Others have since got involved, several former students sharing Nick’s dream of bringing astronomy to all.

Indeed that’s the name under which the centre now extends its reach – Astronomy For All.

A brand new website is going live soon so that those who miss out on Wednesday’s Stargazing Live event (and attendant programmes on BBC) can book one of Nick’s eight-week courses, a crash course in constellations, a light look at black holes, an intergalactic romp through the star stuff of which we are all made.

And yes, it makes for fascinating debate when Christians committed to the Creation attend the Big Bang session. “What was before? some ask, and I say nothing, because time started with the Big Bang. There is no before.”

Nick is now putting the Rossall School based facility on the national map.

“It’s the only school in England to teach just astronomy. It’s important to make that distinction, and show just how significant this place really is.

“There are museums elsewhere, and planetariums, and courses ... but this centre just teaches just astronomy.”

He’s forged links with Uclan’s distance learning course, and also runs GCSE astronomy 18-month courses for students of all ages, with 150-minute tutorials every fortnight (Thursday evenings) to ease pressures on students and workers and encourage greater access to all ages.

Indeed one student so impressed Eton selection panellists with his astronomy GCSE they snapped him up on the spot. “It’s still quite a rare GCSE,” Nick admits.

The local centre includes a planetarium, as well as access to the magnificent observatory. Nick admits: “It’s fairly high maintenance. Any failure costs about £500 a time.”

Liverpool’s World Museum’s planetarium, the UK’s only free planetarium with four shows daily, is currently getting a £110,000 re-vamp four decades after it opened – with German based company Zeiss donating new digital facilities after it reopens on January 30.

Nick’s own centre is totally self-funding, but he wants to make it the centre of the universe for those keen on learning more, starting social networking support and a friends network.

“I teach primary, secondary and sixth formers at the centre by day and adults by night,” he adds.

His latest eight-week course starts mid-February (Tuesday nights) and has been priced at £99 since he started them a decade back.

“It’s important to keep it accessible,” he admits. “Basically we just enjoy ourselves. No prior knowledge needed. No equipment. I always tell people that they don’t need expensive telescopes or even binoculars, because we come equipped with what we need – eyes. You can see so much with the naked eye if the conditions are right.”

Indeed right now the brightest “star” in the sky is actually Jupiter, and just to the south one of the moons of Jupiter, Europa, is visible, an ice-capped landscape believed to be capable of supporting carbon-based life, if not as we know it.

“Fifteen years ago, 90 per cent of astronomers would not have believed there was life anywhere else,” concludes Nick.

“Today I would suggest that at least half us accept the universe is teeming with life.

“The odds are still very remote that we would ever meet up with anything we would recognise as intelligent life or they us – but, by Jupiter, it’s a start.”

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