Richard Bell's Wild West Yorkshire nature diary, Friday, 9th November, 2007
SO WHAT IS IT that Brian May and I have in common? No, I've never played guitar from the roof of Buckingham Palace; it goes back further than that; as a boy, May's interest in astronomy led him to buy a telescope kit which, from his description, was exactly like mine, a 4 inch reflector. I bought 'the Starmaster', from Charles Frank of Glasgow in the 1960s, price £7 including postage. Assembling the tube, the wing-nut & wood altazimuth mount and the stand was simple enough but I had to go to a family friend, Mr Walker, for the fiddly job of setting the secondary mirror on a piece of dowel.
I've taken it down from the attic for the first time in years to take a look at Comet Holmes which I heard about last week from Rheba, our friend in Texas, who has been admiring its unexpected outburst of brilliance. The comet is well up in sky, so looking at it through my bird-watching refractor telescope would involve leaning over backwards. With a reflecting telescope like the Starmaster you look in through the side of the tube.
No other comet has been observed behaving as Holmes has. It appears to have exploded, creating a ball of dust and gas the size of the sun. Edwin Holmes discovered this comet when it flared up in a similar way in November 1892, which was one year after the first Sherlock Holmes short story appeared in the Strand magazine. In A Study in Scarlet (a full-length novel published in 1887) Dr Watson is astonished to learn that Holmes is unaware of the Copernican theory of astronomy:
"What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently; "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
I've had a Sherlock Holmes book in preparation for some time.
'I am positive that Comet Holmes is in the sky to push you to finish your book', says Rheba. I had better get on with it!
The comet is so large that it almost fills the field of view of my reflecting telescope. It's easily seen with binoculars too and, if the sky was as clear as the skies Rheba enjoys in Central Texas, it would show up well with the naked eye. Once I'd discovered where it was with binoculars, I could find it by eye, but, like other faint objects, it was easier to see when you didn't look directly at it.
Through binoculars, the Andromeda Galaxy (right) is a small, pale misty streak compared with luminous sphere of the comet.
I remember the first time I used the Starmaster; I turned it at random to a patch of the night sky and it revealed dozens of tiny points of light that you wouldn't have guessed were there. Comet Holmes is large enough to be seen more easily with binoculars, but I'm glad to have seen it through my old telescope.
I turn the telescope towards the Plieades; a cluster of stars that looks more spectacular through the telescope. The familiar shape, which reminds me of the Plough (Great Bear) in miniature, is shown upside down in the reflector and the 'Seven Sisters' of the constellation are joined by dozens more companions.
A page from my 1964 notebook shows my attempts at lunar photography using the telescope