“Do you think we are alone in the universe?” Gary asked us. “And where is ET?”
We were at the Kielder Observatory, where some forty members and friends of our synod churches had responded to an invitation from Dave Herbert, our North Northumberland minister. It was the night before the shining Bafta awards, but this was to be a very different kind of evening with the stars, in the company of lead astronomer Gary Fildes and his team.
The snow had already begun to settle down in the valley as we were ferried by land rover up the hill to the strikingly modern looking observatory. Outside a bitter wind was blowing, but inside we enjoyed the warmth of Gary’s welcome, and of the wood-burning stove.
Just half a mile from Scottish border, and surrounded by forest, the site hardly boasts all mod cons: it’s off-grid as far as power is concerned, and the loo is of the composting variety. But the remoteness of the Kielder Forest is a great plus for astronomers, as this is the third largest protected Dark Sky Reserve in the World.
The observatory, which opened in 2008, is primarily concerned with outreach to the public – not least through events such as our own synod evening. But before we were given our own guided tour, Dave shared with us thoughts of his own about the relationship between religion and science, revealing his own enthusiasms, but also calling for humility in recognising the boundaries of our knowledge. We may have faith, but we do not have all the answers!
The resident team (including enthusiastic volunteers from as far away as Yorkshire) then took us round the observatory in groups, letting us see the two 16 inch telescopes in situ. Sadly this was to be a night without the stars, as the snow continued falling, and the telescopes in the very much colder turrets remained covered. But computer graphics helped us to find our way around the night sky – and no doubt the highly recommended (and free!) astronomical software will be finding its way on to many of our laptops.
Back in the warmth and glow of the fireside, Gary introduced us to galaxies, and gave us the low down on one of the questions that visitors to the observatory love to ask. Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? The point at which he asked for a straw poll of our opinions was the one point in the evening where he seemed to falter. Just two or three hands indicated “Yes”. “I’ve never had a group like you” he told us.
It wasn’t the time or the place to look into it further – but maybe there’s a thesis there for someone to write up: could there be a link between faith in the Christian God, maker of heaven and earth, and scepticism about alien life forms? Gary’s own scepticism is not faith-based, but arises from the perceived need for intelligent life forms to be ever seeking new homes. Hence the question, Why haven’t we seen ET?
Having said a quick thank you to Gary and his colleagues, we were hurried off down the hill. It was already gone eight o-clock – and two more groups were booked in for later in the evening. That’s how it is now at the observatory: there are events on every night of the year, and some day time activities too, and the founders’ original hopes that astro-tourism might take off at Kielder have been more than realised. As one observant member of our party noted, the pictures in the gents at the Anglers Arms in the village are no longer of fishes, but of planets.
We had a great night, even without the stars. Many thanks to Dave for organising it. And if you weren’t lucky enough to be with our party – just visit the observatory website, and make your own way there as quickly as you can!