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Theresa Cooper

Star-gazing from South Wales

25 August 2009

I was brought up in a small village in south Wales. I became interested in the night sky when I was about eight, having bought a very colourful book on astronomy which fired my imagination. The Gemini and Apollo missions were taking place and they were another element to stir on what has been a life long interest.

There was almost no light pollution where I was brought up and it was quite safe to be out on my own at night teaching myself the constellations.

I did a lot of science at grammar school and college, though not astronomy. I studied computer science and my first job was with the Natural Environment Research Council in South Wales, in the oceanography division. For about three months each year I worked on the Royal Research Ships Discovery and Shackleton, to provide software support. At that time I was usually the only woman on board.

I travelled to many places – Antarctica, Iceland, the Caribbean, the Mid Atlantic Ridge. In theory it should have been excellent for star-gazing in different latitudes, but the decks were brightly lit, and it wasn’t too safe outside at night in a rolling sea. My next post was a less exciting 9 to 5 one which enabled me to take care of my mother I began working for the NHS is various roles – project management, systems analyst etc.

Now, in my 50s, I spend lots of time on amateur astronomy. I’ve visited most of the world’s large observatories and the NASA centres. I help run Cardiff Astronomical Society, which has around 300 members. That has kept me very busy for ten years! I am very grateful to the Society as through it I have met some of the UK’s top astronomers such as Professor Lord Martin Rees.

This year is the International Year of Astronomy and it has been a high point for me. We have held public events nearly every month and I was invited to be on the Q&A panel for the media at the UK launch of IYA2009 held at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.

Light pollution is one of our big concerns and thankfully in Wales there are still some areas with dark skies which we are keen to preserve. We’ve lobbied the Welsh Assembly: Jane Hutt, Minister for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills sponsored us to hold an event at the there. Then Nick Ramsay, Assembly Member for Monmouth, invited us to present a seminar to the Assembly.

My favourite aspect of astronomy is a fairly simple thing to do: go to a dark site, somewhere fairly flat with a good horizon and stand and look at the whole panorama of stars with the naked eye. The sky above us is 50% of our environment. We worry a great deal about the environment beneath our feet, but we should also look up and think about the night sky and appreciate it. It’s amazing.

Theresa Cooper is Assistant Secretary of the Cardiff Astronomical Society and an active member of theCampaign for Dark Skies. She is also in regular contact with the International Year of Astronomy UK Office.

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