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National Astronomy Day

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To celebrate the stargazing event our content designer reminisces on the early days of his sky-scanning hobby and the people who’ve inspired him.

My name’s Jason Pawlin and I’m one of the designers for the Companies House content on GOV.UK. Since I can remember I’ve been interested in astronomy and space in general.

I grew up during the era of the Voyager expeditions to the outer planets throughout the 70s and 80s. I owned my first telescope when I was 12. During the day I’d chart the comings and goings of shipping from the Bristol Channel ports, while at night I was eagerly seeking out my favourite double stars or globular clusters.

Also, I was a huge fan of NASA’s Space Shuttle missions – particularly after we were allowed to watch an early launch on TV in my primary school on Barry Island.  And my favourite Christmas presents growing up would be a giant map of the moon, a planisphere or the latest Patrick Moore book.

In 1984 I subscribed to the BBC’s Sky At Night newsletter. It was an actual newsletter back then, sent to your home address, not an email in your inbox. Inside my subscription request I placed another envelope with 'Patrick Moore, Selsey, Sussex' written on it. In it, I’d asked him advice on where to buy a better telescope. To my amazement and joy, I soon received a quickly typed note on a BBC card from the man himself.

A telescope in front of the night sky
Image credit: sdecoret/Shutterstock.

On the card he’d typed something along the lines of “Jason, thank you for your letter. The best shop is in Farringdon Road, London. Apologies for short reply, off to Chile.” Although he didn’t say why he was off to Chile, any budding astronomer worth their salt knows that the country has observatories at high altitude, and in clean dry air.

Accompanying his note was another card with his just signature on it. I was so pleased. It may as well have been a rock star’s signature. In fact, I remember sticking it to my wall with a drawing pin. Probably nestled between posters of Alice Cooper or KISS.

Another big influence on me back then was astronomer Carl Sagan. Sagan had broken through to public consciousness with his TV show ‘Cosmos’. He was an incredible communicator of often difficult detail. Sagan was a big advocate of reaching out to extra-terrestrial life. Indeed, Sagan was the man behind the gold record being placed on the side of the Voyager spacecraft detailing life on earth for anybody finding this message in a bottle in the cosmic ocean.

Stephen Hawking is today’s great communicator of theoretical cosmology, but would absolutely disagree with Sagan’s belief that reaching out to other life forms would be beneficial for our species. In fact, Hawking is dead against it, seeing any outside interest in our planet as a threat.

In school I was advised that there was more chance of me getting a career in banking than from following my passions of astronomy or astrophysics. Thanks for that. I fought the urge to get into banking, but I’ve now been employed by Companies House for the past 16 years. I’m proud that I’m employed in a job which is associated with transforming physical data into digital data. Then again, if I was part of the BBC's Sky at Night team now I might have to insist they revert to the physical newsletter!

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