Since the dawn of mankind, humans have gazed upon the stars with wonder.
In 2023, the University Astronomical Society continues this proud and ancient tradition, albeit with a chocolatey twist.
Around 9pm last Thursday evening, the first stargazers trickled down to the observatory. Anna Hayes, Senior Observing Director and the resident astronomy expert, took the excited crowd of freshers and other newcomers on a journey through the stars with the help of a high-powered laser pointer.
Her knowledge of the night sky was proven as she took us on a tour of the heavens, stopping at each bright spot to give us a quick classics lesson on the myths from which the constellations had first been named.
Starting at the north star, or Polaris, we quickly slipped through Cassiopeia and towards Cygnus, the swan constellation. At this point, one anonymous student suggested it did not look like a swan at all, to which there was a general agreement that “the Greeks were on something”.
Stargazing, whilst not a recent phenomenon, has gained more notoriety in recent years largely due to the influence of the Hubble and the James Webb telescopes which have taken stunning images of our galaxy.
Whilst the instruments that Astro Soc use are not quite as powerful, they still offer precious glimpses into the wonders of space.
At their Thursday event, the society pointed the massive 10-inch lens of their telescope towards Jupiter and its moons. Mercifully it was a clear night, and there was little interference from the as-ever unpredictable St Andrews weather.
After overcoming some technical difficulties from the cold, the hazy form of Jupiter came into focus. The massive gas giant appeared in striking clarity; its signature orange stripes slowly becoming clear through the inky void. To many in the observatory new to the hobby, this was a moment of particular brilliance and one which they, as I, will surely remember for some time to come.
If there is one thing Astro Soc is famous for other than stars, it’s hot chocolate. Speaking to the Society President, Nikko Juengsophonvitavas, I learnt that during Freshers’ week, they got through 50 litres of the stuff! On this particular night, the quality of said beverage was a contentious issue. Whilst most insisted it was “pretty good”, or at least “the second-best hot chocolate” they’d ever tasted, there were some dissenting voices. One excitable fresher insisted that it was a “war crime” before hurriedly adding that the society was “10/10.”
In addition to the ongoing chocolatey drama, I was able to observe the society's EGM, in which members vied for various positions whilst facing a withering barrage of strangely comical questions from the audience. Crucial support was won and lost over what vegetable a candidate would like to be, and one poor contender found his campaign scuppered by a lack of experience in auctioning bow ties.
As the night progressed, I was keen to discover what drew people to Astro Soc.
One student, Logan, commented that looking at the stars brought one “a degree of mindfulness”, a calm that stayed with him throughout the week. Another, Stan, simply stated that “it was cool and also awesome.”
Regardless, all seemed to be drawn to the same inexorable love of the stars.
Photo: Beau Thomas