Tuesday, 13 December 2011

When I were a lad.... 3

A magical moment

Something I saw recently reminded me of an incident from my childhood.  It happened in the winter of 1956 / 1957.  At that time we lived in a small house in a village close to London, an area now a part of Greater London but then it was in Hertfordshire.  Our house was on the side of a small hill and was built on quite a steep slope with a metalled drive running beside the house which led to my father's small business, a Garage where he eked a living repairing cars and selling petrol. 
That night I was sound asleep in bed when Dad came upstairs and woke me up, made me get wrapped up warm and without saying why, he took me out into the winter night.  I don't know what time it was but it must have been late.  We stood on the sloping driveway facing north and when my eyes had adjusted to the dark, high in the Northern sky was the most amazing comet I have ever seen, indeed the first comet I had ever seen. It stretched almost vertically up the sky, tail up just like the images in all the books. That was the only night it was visible at that majestic stage in its path around the sun, because there were clouds for weeks before and after. Although I did not know it at the time, it would have been the Arend - Roland comet which was discovered in November 56 and peaked early in 1957. It came quite close for a comet, within half the distance that the Earth is from the sun, (0.5 AUs) and was quite bright at its peak. 
Many years later in 1997, the brightest comet since then that I saw was the Hale - Bopp comet, which whilst visible for much longer, was disappointing to me because I was expecting to see something more like the Arend - Roland comet.  
The Arend – Roland comet was much more like a comet should be, whilst the Hale – Bopp was much smaller, fuzzier and split into two tails. 
In the intervening fourty odd years, sky photography has improved in leaps and bounds, so the images you can see now are not comparable, but the real thing was magical.
The Arend - Roland comet 1956/57
The Hale - Bopp comet 1997
For those who like to know things, the distance I put in brackets, 0.5AU, is half an Astronomical Unit.  Astronomers think in big numbers, literally astronomically big numbers, so miles or kilometres are much too titchy to use because they will give you great long strings of figures.  An astronomical Unit is the mean distance from the Earth to the Sun and is a useful size for interplanetary distances within our solar system.  It is almost 93 million miles or to be exact, 92 955 887.6miles
For measuring distances between stars, another unit is used, because AUs are much too small for those kinds of distances and although the term Light Year is often used in news reports and movies, real astronomers tend to use the Parsec.
The Parsec is rather complicated as to how it was derived, so I won't bother with that, but it is just over three and a quarter light years and makes a much more useful unit of distance for Astronomers to use between stars, since the nearest star Proxima Centuri is a little over one parsec from us. For even greater distances, the kiloparsec or the megaparsec are used and now we are tlking inter Galactic distances which are turly big.
Ok so a light year?  
 On TV news broadcasts, when the roving reporters are linked to the news desk via satellite, you notice they stand and nod their heads idiotically for a few seconds before replying to the person in the studio. This is because they have not heard the person in the studio yet and although satellites are only a mere 20,000 or so miles high, it takes the TV signal, travelling at the speed of light, a few seconds to go up and bounce down again. It takes the light from the sun just over four minutes to reach us and that is only one AU. It takes over four years to reach Proxima Centuri which is the closest star.  If news reporters ever get to Proxima Centuri, the news will be over four years old by the time it reaches us and any conversation would take near enough nine years to get a reply. So a light year is one damned long way, well 5,878,499,810,000 miles to be exact and since a Parsec is 3.26163626 Light Years, we are talking big big number in miles or kilometres and very very very long distances.



  1. The Hale-Bopp comet was pretty spectacular to me. We were flying home from somewhere and I watched the comet framed in the cabin window for a long while. It was very bright and I watched it from the warmth and comfort of the cabin. It seemed very close.

  2. It's amazing to me to think of all that space out there - what on earth is it all for? (sorry, no pun intended!)

    How wonderful of your dad to give you that incredible moment of a lifetime. When I was about 10, we were living on Flamborough Head in Yorkshire. One day my father told me to get dressed to go outside -- it was in the middle of a tremendous storm: pounding rain and gale force winds of 90 miles per hour blowing inland off the North Sea. He took me right to the very edge of the cliff and told me to stand tall and lean out into the wind right over the edge. Amazingly I did, and amazingly the wind held me up! It was almost like flying! It was an incredible experience and spoke to me of the awesome power of the Creator!

    I am not so sure I would ever try that again, though!

  3. I saw the Hale-Bopp of 1997 and thought that was stunning, so to see the Arend-Roland must have been wonderful. A childhood moment to treasure - as is Kathy's cliff top experience. x

  4. Elizabeth and Chris,The weather was much kinder for Hale Bopp and Chris you were well above the weather on that flight, it must have looked brilliant.
    Kaybee, come on, remember your Bible. Jesus said 'In my Father's house there are many rooms'. He has to put them somewhere.
    As to cliff leaning, wild weather can be quite exhilarating but they are high cliffs, so you can claim that you and your Dad set the trend for extreme sports long before anyone else.

  5. Thanks for reminding me, snafu - a word of wisdom!

    Yes, and I have added a number of other 'extreme sports' to my repertoire over the years - but those are stories for another day!

  6. One night late in 1956 after work,I had been helping a friend decorate his railway cottage in South Wigston Leicester,he was soon to be married.On coming out of his front door facing the railway,it was a clear night we saw a huge shape of shiny particles like crystal,to the right it looked like a car's headlight in fog but it was enormous as we watched the light was coming towards us.After a wash and change we met for a drink by then it was a long way South.To day 10/4/2012 is the first time I have seen its name or read anything about it the (Arend-Roland)Comet.I was 22 years old then and have seen lots of strange things in my life but this was the biggest.