The Astronomer Royal for Scotland tells why the sky in winter remains a dazzling prospect

TEN-year-Old John Brown walked down the garden path proudly clutching his new invention. He glanced up at the star-studded sky for a few moments before attaching the home-made contraption to the front gate of the family home in Dumbarton.

• Prof John Brown

Then, buoyed with anticipation, he pointed his telescope – made from an old spectacle lens and a magnifying glass taped on opposite ends of two cardboard tubes (from a calendar and a toilet roll) – towards the Moon.

It was the year 1957 and Sputnik had just been launched and Jodrell Bank opened. In an era before television had taken hold, many boys like John devoured stories about Outer Space such as the Lost Planet series by Scottish science fiction writer Angus MacVicar. A young astronomer named Patrick Moore was also a great hero.

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"The first thing I saw through that telescope were the craters on the Moon. I was amazed by what I was seeing and the sense of wonder has never left me. If anything it's got stronger. I still get the same thrill as when I was a wee boy," says Professor John Brown, the tenth Astronomer Royal for Scotland. "There had been talk of rockets getting into space and I wanted to be part of that world," he adds.

The young Brown's appetite for astronomy had been whetted by his uncle Joe, who had shown him the comet Arend-Roland through binoculars, and by a friend of his father's who let him see Saturn through a real telescope.

"By the age of 16 I had started the school astronomy club at Dumbarton Academy. We had a science teacher, John McIntyre, who was brilliant at physics and he helped me coerce money out of the school to build a 15cm telescope from a kit," recalls Brown, who recently retired as Regius professor of astronomy at the University of Glasgow.

The teenager then heard that Coats Observatory in Paisley, which had lain moribund for years, was to have its lens cleaned and that astronomy and science buffs were to hold evening classes in the town museum.

He says: "I got on two buses and a ferry to get there. The bus from Dumbarton to Yoker, then went across the Clyde on the Renfrew Ferry, and then the bus from Renfrew into Paisley.

"The speakers were Archie Roy and Mike Ovenden. It was really good listening to them. I remember someone asked about radio telescopes and Mike filled his pipe with tobacco, lit it with a match, then said "the light you saw from that match had more energy than all the radiowaves ever received by all the telescopes in the world. I sat there thinking 'my God, what a wonderful thing to do for a living, I want to know as much about space as them.'"

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Some might say he did just that. He studied at the University of Glasgow and while still an undergraduate, he was offered a combined doctorate and teaching post there. Years of research, overseas fellowships and hard work followed and were rewarded by being appointed professor in 1984 aged only 37, and as Scotland's Astronomer Royal in February 1995.

The prestigious position is unpaid but the postholder is free to develop it as they see fit. Brown lectures widely and travels all over Scotland – from remote islands to inner-city schools – using his interest in magic and sometimes a mobile planetarium to entrance audiences. He is also a keen space artist and helped co-write a Fringe comedy about cosmology.

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But the spirit of the inventive ten-year-old boy who nipped down the garden path with his first telescope is still very much alive in Scotland's Astronomer Royal, who lives in Glasgow.

"About ten years ago I knew there was going to be a major meteor shower, the Leonids. I set my alarm clock for three in the morning and got up and put a heavy jersey on over my dressing gown, put on a pair of socks and gloves and lay down on the sun lounger in the back garden.

"They were the best I'd ever seen. It was a meteor a minute. Some people saw five a minute.

"Two of the many things from which I still get a big buzz are meteors and comets. I like things that are that wee bit unexpected and those two you never know what you're going to see."

And, Brown explains, the winter sky at Christmas offers one of the best times for stargazing.

"In addition to the brilliant planets visible in the festive season – Venus in the morning and Jupiter in the evening – there are many 'hidden' wonders, more subtle things to enjoy." These include artificial satellites, the colour of the stars and peculiarly shaped nebulae, of which more later.

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Brown says: "This is the ideal time to be stargazing whether you're coming home from a party or just out in your back garden.

"One of the reasons for our cold weather is that the sky is clear and star-studded. The clouds, which have acted as a blanket, fall away allowing you to see stars and planets and search for things you have never seen before.'

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While most people think of stars as being dazzling white, astronomers have long known that this is not always the case. Brown says: "If you look up at the top lefthand side of the constellation of Orion, that is, his right shoulder, you'll see that that star – Betelgeuse, pronounced "Beetle Juice" by many people – is distinctly red.

"I always think of Orion like the figure of Santa who comes back every winter. Perhaps the red star is part of his coat. However, his left knee, the bottom right bright star, is definitely blue – could this be due to the chilly Scottish weather?

"Again, Aldebaran, the eye of Taurus the Bull in the small reclining V-shaped star group called the Bull, up to the right of Orion, is clearly red.

"The explanation for these colours is red stars are hot, approximately 4,000C, while the blue ones are much hotter at 20,000- 30,000C."

But among the most elusive but amazing objects "hiding" in the sky are the nebulae nicknamed the Christmas Cracker and the Christmas Tree.

A nebula is a cloud of gas and dust from which new stars often emerge. Some glow, reflecting starlight, while others cast shadows and appear as dark silhouettes. Stars begin their lives as nebulae, forming as the dust and gas collapses under its own weight, heating up to form bright beacons of different mass, size and colour.

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The Christmas Cracker nebula, shaped just like the crackers pulled over Christmas dinner, is about 2,100 light years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus (The Serpent-Bearer). It is believed to have been a Sun-like star early in its life but is now dying, with its peculiar shape caused by it imploding, only to be wrapped in a fast stellar wind.

Meanwhile, the Christmas Tree nebula in the Monoceros (Unicorn) constellation, approximately 2,600 light years from Earth, resembles an inverted Christmas tree complete with a bright star on top and a "snowflake" which seems to have glided down to land on one of its beautiful branches.

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"While the nebulae are not easy to see, even with binoculars, they give an indication of just how fascinating the sky is, especially at Christmas," says Brown.

"But something rather more 'man-made' you can spot with the naked eye if you know the time and place to look are satellites. Among the best are Iridium flares caused by sunlight reflected off the large solar panels of Iridium communication satellites."

He adds: "There is something about looking at the sky which is very powerful – it takes you out of yourself and away from your troubles, overwhelming you in its intensity.

On Monday, weather permitting, Brown and his jazz musician son Stuart are heading to Newgrange near Dublin. There they hope to witness in a neolithic tomb a full lunar eclipse which will coincide with the winter solstice, something that only happens every few hundred years.

Brown says: "When I was a boy I always dreamed of seeing a solar eclipse and a manned satellite launch. I travelled to Germany, South Africa and Shetland to see an eclipse before finally succeeding in Turkey and the China Sea. I saw a shuttle launch on one of three trips to Florida.

"But watching the midwinter sunrise from Newgrange is something I've never done before … and I can't wait."

Reach for the sky

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IF you want to learn more about astronomy there are a range of societies throughout Scotland.

• A GOOD starting point is the Dark Sky Scotland website at

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Scotland has some of the largest areas of dark sky in Europe free from urban light pollution.

Led by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh Visitor Centre, there are projects and events for all the family including workshops on building rockets and meteorite handling sessions. The website also lists events at many local astronomy clubs and public observatories.

• ALSO check out Set up by astronomers from the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Science Centre it promotes public lectures and events for all ages. Activities have included an Autumn Moonwatch Week and astronomy "sleepovers". Website includes a Scottish solar system overview and maps as well as listings for local astronomy societies.

• STARGAZING LIVE: 3, 4, and 5 January 2011, 8pm, BBC2.

Professor Brian Cox, below, and trained physicist turned comedian Dara O'Briain host three days of live stargazing featuring epic images from observatories around the globe. They will reveal images from the most powerful telescopes on the planet, and beyond. Cox aims to take O'Briain on a celestial crash course.