Read the stars

Amatuer astronomer Paul Foley has some deep thoughts about deep space, CHRIS PEDLER writes

WHEN Bendigo amateur astronomer Paul Foley first began writing a column for the Bendigo Advertiser’s CV Week (which later became the Bendigo Miner), his aim was to make science a bit more accessible to the average reader.

It didn’t have to be filled with scientific jargon, complex mathematics or ideas that people couldn’t wrap their heads around.

He wanted the most complicated ideas to be understood in a simple way.

“I thought there was a lot of deliberate complexity in science journalism,” he said.

Since the Bendigo Miner closed in 2012, Foley has compiled his best and most interesting articles into a book.

He hopes his book, Beyond Earth, helps to share his own excitement about science and space, something he has had since reading about the missions leading up to the moon landing as a child.

“I’ve been an amateur astronomer since I was seven and learnt about the Gemini missions,” he said.

“Back in the 60s something on the front page about space was the normal thing. There was always something new and some first being done whether it was the first two-man or three-man mission, the first spacewalk or the first docking in space.

“After Apollo stopped doing anything they hadn’t done before, it was embedded (in me).”

But even as the manned space missions petered out and all the firsts had been done, Foley’s interest in astronomy remained.

“One thing that did keep going after the first moon landing was the scientific aspect of (space exploration)," he said.

“No one expected how much they could do robotically, all the prospects involved humans.

“The first trip to Mars and Saturn and everywhere was always (thought of as getting) humans out there with cameras and such but they found they could do it robotically, which made it a hundred times cheaper because robots don’t need oxygen or food and you don’t have to bring them back again.”

“When Voyager went past Saturn and Uranus in the late 70s there were all these robotic investgations. It kept going and we’re still doing it. It’s amazing stuff.”

But with all the talk and reading about Apollo, Voyager, planets, stars, red dwarfs and white giants, Foley admits the book isn’t a breeze to read.

“It’s not the easiest thing to read, you have to think about it but you don’t need degrees,” he said.

“The language uses allegorical examples that people can relate to. It’s written in a way people can understand without the complexity of scientific language, that was the original basis the articles started with. I’ve stuck close to that.”

“There are two chapters on relatively which are a challenge.  Two people who work in science told me they now understand relativity but didn’t before.”

Even with the challenge of understanding some of the concepts, Foley’s biggest challenge was fact-checking his articles and making sure they were still relevant.

“One of the hardest things was rewriting and checking every fact,” he said. “We had to make sure there was nothing out of date or that had changed.

“Some things were in there that were a great topic but the key of it doesn’t make sense anymore.

“I also had to make sure stuff wasn’t likely to be overtaken (with something new) in the near future.

“But it’s all interesting whether it is something you find in a text book or something quirky and silly – both are just as interesting. You learn something either way.”

Copies of Paul Foley’s book Beyond Earth can be purchased for $20 from the Discovery Science & Technology Centre in Railway Place, Bendigo.

You can email (online orders will include a postage and handling fee).

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