John Brown, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, is a guest of honour at the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. On Friday 8 February he will help launch the festival and our photography exhibition, and then introduce our Opening Gala, Wunder der Schöpfung. The following day he will present an Ask the Astronomer session as part of Dark Skies Exploration Day One and on Monday 11 February he will do an (already sold out) event at Gallan Head.
Hi John. We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Hebridean Dark Skies Festival. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about Wunder der Schöpfung and why people should go and see it?
It’s an utterly astonishing film from the 1920s, quite incredible, a piece of movie industry history and a great insight into an era – the same era as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – even if you’re not interested in the science. The animation content makes it worth seeing by itself – to think they had no computers and that it was all done with models and time lapse. There’s a bit where they’re in space in zero gravity. I loved it.
While the film was certainly ahead of its time, it gets a few scientific facts wrong. What’s it like watching it as an astronomer?
The science content is interesting! They get a lot of things right but some of the later stuff is just plain wrong, when they talk about relativity for example. It’s also a bit quaint in places. There’s a scene with an eclipse or a comet where there are people who live in mud huts dancing around cooking pots, looking terrified of the sky. There’s another scene where two young women look terrified at a comet and a wise older gentlemen reassures them. Back then it was taken for granted that it was ok to be patronising about that. Most modern audiences chuckle at it though because it’s so old-fashioned.
Your son, Stu Brown, is a member of Herschel 36, the duo who have written the new live score for the film. What has it been like working with him on this project?
It’s not really any different from working with anyone else – and all I really do is introduce the film. He’s a very accomplished musician, and very versatile. Strictly speaking there isn’t a score – there’s nothing written down to play from so it is, to a considerable degree, freely improvised. They’re watching the film while they’re playing and it’s different every time because it’s live. How they do it I don’t know, it must be exhausting, but it brings fun, dynamism and mood in a much better way than the original sound for the film, which was a recording of pretty heavy, dull classical music and was quite heavy going.
You’re also doing a festival event at Gallan Head. Can you tell us a bit about your connection to that part of Lewis?
I first heard of the Gallan Head venture through a former student of mine who wrote to me. Gallan Head Community Trust raised funds to buy the site (a former RAF radar station), and took great delight in taking down the ‘strictly forbidden’ signs. There’s a lot of bird life there and dramatic scneery and it’s a good site for whale watching but they are also working towards setting up an observatory, so I wrote to them and said ‘I’ve heard about this, it sounds great, I don’t have lots of time but if you need any advice or need a supportive letter then I’d be happy to help’. I’ve been up there three times now, I think. My talk there will be a bit of an introduction to astronomy, either by pointing things out in the sky or if the weather’s bad I can talk about the remarkable things out there and illustrate it using a few magic tricks. It’ll depend on the weather and what people want.
What does the job of Astronomer Royal for Scotland involve and what’s the best part about it?
Officially it doesn’t involve anything! There are no official duties but it is assumed that form time to time you’ll be available for activities promoting astronomy in Scotland. For some astronomers royal it’s just an honour and they’ll do the occasional TV appearance, but I take it fairly seriously and respond to people when they ask me things or ask me to do things. I do a lot of stuff with schools, work with artists, musicians, pooets and magicians and generally promote public interest in science. It’s a bit like being a poet laureate of astronomy – which ties in with the fact I’m writing a book with a poet!
Indeed. Tell us a bit about your new book, Oor Big Braw Cosmos.
It’s written with a poet called Rab Wilson – he used to write every week in the National and is still a contributor. It’s a popular level science book, basically, with about 250 images – a mixture of poetry, science, imagery and a bit of history of astronomy. The message is that the universe is a beautiful place and the science underlying it is also beautiful in its own way.
You’re going to be on Lewis for a few days during the festival. What are you most looking forward to?
Hopefully clear skies! And just seeing the island again and visiting folk up there. I cycled in Lewis when I was a student and did planetarium shows in the Nicolson Institute in the 1990s; I raised money for three mobile planetaria and toured Scotland with them. I’ve always liked Lewis; it’s quite wild but a very interesting place. I have some good friends there.