Stargazing with Cambridge Astronomical Association chairman Paul Fellows
Paul Fellows was 13 when his father, a physics teacher, brought home a small reflector telescope from school.
“We had no idea what we were supposed to pointing it at, but we looked at a bright object in the sky and saw Saturn and its rings. I was instantly hooked,” he recalls.
“Come my 14th birthday, he took me up to a shop in London and we spent £20, which was a lot of money in those days, on a second-hand telescope mirror and some odds and ends. We built that into an eight-inch reflector using bits of my grandfather’s greenhouse and anything else I could scrounge, and I taught myself astronomy.”
After securing an A in the O-level at 14, his school gave him a prize – a book by Sky at Night presenter and renowned astronomer Patrick Moore, who lived in Selsey, near to where Paul grew up on the south coast.
“They got him to sign it for me. I was very pleased,” says Paul. “He even invited me around for tea and telescopes to his place. What better luck for a young lad than to spend an afternoon and evening with the great man?”
Paul, who went on to study at the University of Cambridge, has since spent many years passing on his love of astronomy to thousands of people of all ages in and around the city.
He is chairman of Cambridge Astronomical Association, one of the largest – perhaps the largest – clubs of its kind in the country.
“We have more than 550 paying members, whereas most astronomy clubs have 30-40!” he says. “This is because we work hand-in-glove with the university.”
While most amateur clubs have to make do with a village hall, CAA holds its events at the university’s Institute of Astronomy off Madingley Road, where leading researchers like Prof Gerry Gilmore and Prof Richard McMahon ply their trade.
“We run our own CAA meetings once a month, where we have an eminent speaker to talk to the membership. The university lends us their lecture theatre, which is very nice,” says Paul.
“We also use the same premises for our two lots of Cambridge Young Astronomers’ group. We have a 7-11 year group on a Saturday morning once a month, with 30 or 40 kids. And we have a monthly 11-plus group once a month on a Monday night. We put as much science into them as we possibly can. We’ve been doing that for 25 years now… so some of the seven-year-olds have got their PhDs!
“The format is interesting. We set up a series of tables in a loop in the lobby. We put five or six kids and one lecturer on each table. The lecturer talks on their allotted subject for eight minutes and then the bleeper goes. The kids get up and move to the next table and listen to another voice.
“We do that throughout the year for two hours, with a film and some sticking and glueing – it’s great fun.”
In return for the use of the lecture hall, CAA supports the Institute of Astronomy’s free public open evenings, held on Wednesday nights from the start of October until March.
“We work with the university’s outreach team at the IoA – Dr Carolin Crawford and Dr Matt Bothwell. They put on a lecture at 7.15pm, while we’re setting up all the telescopes outside. We amateurs run the outdoor observing session,” says Paul. “We’ve got four computer-controlled telescopes. I stand at the front and use a laser to point things out, guiding people from star to star or planet to planet around the sky, as they turn up on the screens behind me.
“Each of the telescopes has got a projector. We have three 8ft by 6ft screens, and we throw an image up from one of the telescopes. I talk about it and show people where we are aiming in the sky while the next telescope is finding the next object. It’s organised chaos!
“We do that for an hour until about 9pm, which is usually when people’s fingers and toes are beginning to freeze up. About 250 people turn up and we’ve been doing that since 1994.
“If it’s a cloudy night, we still get 100 turn up, and they get a cup of tea and a biscuit and a secondary lecture from me on a more light-hearted subject, like the physics of Star Trek, or astronomical mishaps.”
The Wednesday night sessions are public and free, and you can try out a CAA meeting for £1.
“If you like it you can join, and our membership fee is the princely sum of £4, which I think is the cheapest in the galaxy. That’s because we don’t have to hire a hall,” says Paul.
CAA also organises trips and holds ‘Star parties’ for members, featuring lectures and an observing session. Members can also loan the CAA’s telescopes or giant binoculars.
“My shed is full of telescopes that we lend out,” notes Paul. “There are a range of small to medium-sized telescopes that you can just about get into a car boot. We recommend people do that rather than rushing out and buying one so they can get a flavour of what type of astronomy they want to do. We can teach them how to use them, then if they want they can buy the right type.”
In May and June, once the main observing season is over, the CAA runs a 10-week course offering an introduction to astronomy, including sessions on astrophotography.
Paul has never forgotten his formative experiences of astronomy. And when he was made chairman of the CAA a decade ago, he wrote to Sir Patrick Moore to thank him.
“Bless him, he wrote back, and said ‘Paul, you’re very lucky’, and he told me a story about how he used the telescope in the Northumberland dome at Cambridge, which we still use in our public outreach sessions.
“He used it in the 1960s to measure the length of all the shadows of the mountains and crater rims.
“He worked out how high they were and produced a 3D map of the moon for the Apollo programme, so that when the lander was coming down it didn’t crash into an unknown mountain!”
A career in computing: From Acorn to the technology behind Hive
When not gazing at the stars, Paul Fellows had a very successful career in computing, which followed a spell at the University of Cambridge’s Computer Lab.
“I did my graduate degree there and worked for Acorn on the BBC Micro computer.
“I set up my own business doing software engineering and computers of various types for 35 years, culminating in a couple of businesses, one of which was Amino Technologies plc, which we sold on the Stock Market in 2004 for $100million – not too bad for a company that started with five of us in a converted pig shed! Then after that, I had a company with a couple of other crazy Cambridge guys, called AlertMe.”
This smart tech business was sold to British Gas in 2015 for £65million and was renamed Centrica. Its technology led to what is called Hive.
Paul now spends his time enthusing others about astronomy, and going on lecture tours – including a recent trip to Norway to see the northern lights.