11.30am- arrive at ULO, situated on a main road near Mill Hill Broadway train station, it is a charming series of domed white buildings.

I have a meeting arranged with the observatory manager. We have a talk about the observatory, the work and research that goes on there and I explain that I would like to draw sunspots first and then the moon, which led to a good talk about observing, scale and form.

Peter showed me around the observatory and asked me to guess what era each telescope was from. This was interesting as each was very different, one from the 60s and Kubrick-esque, and one from 1862, great exhibition-esque, both very beautiful. Another more modern American model that did not have the investment in the design and quality of the object that the others had, and was more for producing  digital imagery.

Finally we went into the biggest dome, to the biggest telescope- a giant! With a moving floor and couch to observe from, and panels of glowing buttons to press, I loved it.

After this I sat with Peter and Steve(Astronomer) and we discussed the shift from the analogue image/document in astronomy to the digital, – the shift from the individuality of the analogue record with its human experience and imperfection to the standardization and homogeneity of the digital record.- How this removes the need to concentrate and spend time observing from telescopes as images can be accessed quickly and easily on the web/digital format.

Steve said he asks some of the students to draw sometimes to get them to really look and I agreed that in order to draw something you really need to observe and concentrate on it, spend time looking and it helps to remember what you are seeing, therefore becoming a mnemonic aid. We talked about how by removing students from the direct experience of drawing from the telescope, learning from direct experience you are reducing the potential for the unexpected surprises that happen when learning from experience and the first hand engagement that really helps sustain interest in any subject. A removal from first hand experience is sure to lead to a disengagement with the world around us and be detrimental to our learning because of this.We concluded our chat talking about the virtual and the danger of engaging with the world on a virtual level.

After our chat Steve set up a telescope for me to observe the sun- which I found to be a glowing red ball, with a lot of sunspot activity around its edges.

I observed and drew a sunspot as it changed for an hour and a half. It was interesting to do this and talk to Steve as he was interested in the changes I had noticed and could identify the changes clearly from my drawing.

Here is an interview with ULO observatory manager Peter Thomas-

G.A- Do you think digital tech is preventing the students from the benefits of more direct observational methods like drawing?

P.T- Drawing teaches the students to look and look again- it is surprising how many get good accurate results from drawing- they get so much information from digital images without much observational effort.

Now students have to learn to subtract noise- when looking at current CCD images it is a very different technique and way of looking, to drawing.

G.A-Is drawing on the BA Hona Astronomy syllabus at UCL?

P.T-Yes- It is for the first years- we ask them to Look through the telescope,  move the telescope to find an object and then to draw it

G.A-What do you see as the purpose of the drawing exercise?

To orientate and memorize position of stars and show relative distances within the field of view.

P.T-They all do this practical and it is very important that the student has the choice to draw and if they wanted to work on a drawing project, this would be valued-

G.A- I Asked students about their experience of drawing through the telescope,

Most students said it was beneficial and helped them observe more actively and remember what they where observing.

G.A- I believe there is a value in the slower process of creating the analogue document compared to the quickness of the digital.

The slowness helps the memory and develops interest in the subject. Nowadays we tend to form a different kind of knowledge, we can now “know” about anything very quickly using the internet. Compared to the olden days when forming knowledge about anything was a very slow process, an endeavour, Drawing is a slow process and a slow way of getting to know something, requiring concentration, patience , imagination and  acute observation.

P.T- Yes- Look at monastic life- there is a lot missing but a tranquillity that is aimed for- you have time to study and time to think and decide what is important morally and worthwhile, modern life doesn’t give you much opportunity to do that…

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