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Hidden away to the north of Eton College’s site lies the observatory, constructed in 1981, with five telescopes dating back as far as 1870. It is maintained and operated by Maintenance Assistant Szymon Kozłowski and a small team of boys and teachers who together form the Astronomical Society (AstroSoc) On clear, dark nights, the observatory opens its doors to the community and Oscar L went along last month to see the setup and to speak to those involved in AstroSoc.

Teacher in Charge of AstroSoc Dr Mann explains that the manually operated dome through which the main telescope looks is named after William Herschel, “who worked from a house in Slough and is noted for discovering both Uranus and infra-red radiation. The Herschel Astronomical Society in Slough has maintained the telescopes and the dome since the 1980s refurbishment, in a symbiotic relationship with the School. In recent years, since the COVID-19 pandemic, they have stopped using the observatory, and it is one of my aims to revive the collaboration”.  

Instead of being built using mirrors (as current telescopes have been), the main scope uses lenses to refract light over two metres into the eyepiece, which this January has enabled clear sightings of Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, and the Moon. It is accompanied by four other telescopes which are rotated on another mount outside the observatory, so the assembled crowds could see multiple celestial objects in a single evening. Due to the rarity of having the right conditions for observing the night’s sky, many boys jump at the opportunity to see the stars when the observatory is open.

 A 1999 article in a school publication said of AstroSoc, “the membership is limited by the capacity of the observatory and the attention span of those waiting for a fleeting glimpse of some distant heavenly body. The decision has therefore been taken to discourage new members!” In contrast, the current committee enjoys giving everyone the chance to see the observatory for themselves. 

Maintenance Assistant Szymon Kozłowski has been looking after the telescopes and main dome for five years, following his first experience at one of the AstroSoc meetings. The joy of observing the night sky has clearly not faded as he tells me “I like when lots of people turn up to our open meetings and I see their reactions when they can see planets, galaxies, moons and more for the first time. My personal favourites are observing planets and globular clusters.” 

Leading AstroSoc this year are Oscar M and Rajan A, two Year 13 boys with a keen interest in physics. Rajan A told me that what particularly drew him to AstroSoc was “the ability to see the very fibre of the universe in action. Astrophysics is so fascinating to me as it describes how our universe came to be and just how large the universe is compared to us (a daunting yet exciting thought), and AstroSoc allows me to see this.” Oscar M echoed his sentiment, saying “I just love being able to see so clearly with my own eyes and not in an image, the beautiful planets, nebulae, galaxies and stars that most people never get the chance to lay their eyes on.” 

Dr Mann, who teaches physics, has only been Master in Charge of AstroSoc since September. He believes “It is difficult or odd to be interested in physics without having some interest in astronomy, but perhaps my interest is a bit different from the ‘lay person’. I love the pretty pictures from Hubble as much as the next person, but the images gain so much more when you delve in the astrophysics behind the images. It is astonishing that we are able to deduce so much about the stars just from the electromagnetic radiation we get through a telescope. “AstroSoc is popular for a few reasons: Firstly, it’s a novelty: we don’t have many clear days and we have to observe in the winter when it’s dark, so observation evenings don’t come round too often. Secondly, people like to have the experience of seeing a planet ‘live’, and not just as a photo. I think it’s easy to forget the universe actually exists sometimes! Thirdly, some people like the techy and geeky side of using a telescope. Who doesn’t like a bit of shiny kit, after all?” 

In addition to hosting observation evenings, AstroSoc invites speakers working in Astronomy and astrophysics, such as Professor Mark Wyatt who came last year to talk about gas clouds and nebulae in the search for intelligent life out in the universe.  Secretary Rajan A says “with AstroSoc having already had a period of dormancy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am hopeful that it will continue to thrive with regular meetings, and perhaps gain some new telescopes, allowing boys to see more and see further and in more detail.” Oscar M has plans for more observation in the next few weeks, “we’re aiming to lay eyes on the 2022 E3 ZTF comet which is coming near Earth in the next couple of weeks.” 

Dr Mann is also hoping to run more classroom-based sessions for when the observation conditions aren’t right, so physicists can learn about the technical reasons behind what they’re seeing and what they can learn from the stars. This will be held in conjunction with the Annenburg Fellow, a position given to a recent American Graduate teaching in the UK. Mr McFarland studied Astrophysics at Princeton University and now runs an Astrophysics masterclass for Year 13 boys. 

Thanks go to Szymon Kozłowski for his tireless enthusiasm and dedication to the observatory, keeping it working smoothly and sharing his passion with the boys. Also thank you to Dr Mann and Mr McFarland for their work on AstroSoc and enthusing physicists at school and beyond. Finally, thanks to Rajan A and Oscar M for showing us around the observatory and answering our questions. We wish AstroSoc all the best for their exciting future plans!