Astronomy · Friends · Goodbye · Reminiscing/Memories · Science · Work

Lost Stars: Farewell to Glasgow’s Starmaster

Last month Glasgow lost it’s very own Starmaster, a unique and amazing piece of kit that spent 13 years at Glasgow Science Centre (GSC) wowing hundreds of thousands of people with an incredibly realistic night sky.  The best simulated night sky in all of the UK and one of the finest in all of Europe.

I still remember my first time there, gasping as the heavens were revealed in the pitch black, country sky and enjoying the tour of the constellations which decorate the night.  There was no way to know from that first visit that in just a few years I’d be one of a handful of women in the world who’d have the opportunity to be in charge of such an impressive contraption but it seemed that would be the next direction in my career.  A detour from my original plan to work in conservation but a detour I’m grateful for.

Me with the Starball - Photo by Katy Mould
Me & the Starball Photo Credit: Katy Mould

I’ve taken my time to write this post as I’ve found myself quite conflicted.  The decision to remove the optical mechanical kit at my old workplace has been a long time coming.  Something discussed before I started working there in 2005 nevermind before I took the reins back in 2008.  It’s an exciting time for GSC with the end of summer launch of a brand new digital system, an amazing opportunity for new shows and most importantly, a dedicated team to finally focus on astronomy and bring it to the top of the science centre’s priority list.

Me & Kirsty in front of the Starball - Photo by Robert Johnstone
Kirsty helped train me when I started as a planetarium presenter. Photo Credit: Robert Johnstone

However, for me and many others, it’s also a sad loss. Our Carl Zeiss Starball provided the opportunity to study the stars under a crystal clear, scintillating sky and it’s where I learned almost everything I know about astronomy.

I’d never taken physics at school or any astronomy courses before starting at Glasgow Science Centre as a casual member of staff in the summer of 2005. I was selected a couple of months later to join the planetarium team and spent hours under the ~£750,000 15 ft dome learning about the night sky and how to inspire others to look up and discover new worlds.

Working in the dark isn’t for everyone. You learn very quickly how to control your voice, to think carefully about your speed and speech pattern. It’s not like a regular presentation, you don’t have body language to rely on. When presenting, there’s nothing more intimidating than asking a question in a darkened room and have silence in return. You had to be able soothe over 100 people at a time, sometimes nursery aged children who were afraid and crying, sometimes rowdy teenagers who like to throw things in the anonymity of darkness.

Planny Team Training
Planny Team Training – Yeah, I can’t remember what we were doing either. I think we thought it was funny. We’d spent a lot of time in the dark.

Back then we had a big team with a range of backgrounds and presenting styles.  Our differences made us excellent at reaching out to a huge range of audiences.  I learned so much from my experiences with different presenters. Kirsty was one of the biggest helps for me here. Her methodical nature and tendency not to pull punches meant my feedback forms came back with not only any error (no matter how small) but also a timed list so I could see where I was taking too long.  It was through doing this I learned that I rushed the end of my sentences, as I ran out of breath. Something I’m now aware of in every presentation I do. Some people might have become upset at the criticism, but I welcomed it. Riccardo and Robert both showed such a depth of knowledge which inspired me to keep learning.  Jon was always incredibly enthusiastic with every presentation, as though each time he presented he was seeing the sky for the very first time. Minto also had a similar enthusiasm and it was infectious. Paul and Cameron were hilarious every single day I worked with them and challenged me to find new, amusing ways to present my shows.  Ruth taught and encouraged me and her love for her role made me want a shot at it myself. Later, as the years progressed I was inspired by Gaby and Derek and their different approach to presenting under the stars, challenged by Emilio and questioned by Dave. There were many, many other people I shared planetarium shifts with and I learned from every single one of them. Everyone had something to offer to the team.

Me, Derek & the Starball
Derek and I were the first coordinator/ssc team after my promotion in 2008 Photo Credit: Duncan Smith

In early 2007 I was promoted and took on the role of assisting in the planetarium.  It meant working closely with Steve Owens (you may know him, he gets around a bit in astronomy circles and is also known as “Author of Stargazing for Dummies” and “Dark Sky Defender”… I kid you not!) and was privileged to learn about the inner workings of the the starball, how to maintain it and the various computers and programmes which controlled it. I programmed the starball for evening lectures, seconded in the Adult Learning class by live piloting the starball while Steve explained fascinating astronomical phenomenon like planetary motion and the position of sunrise and sunset across the seasons. Steve proved to be a great boss, a brilliant mentor and I’m lucky to have had his guidance not only while I assisted him as the planetarium coordinator but also for a time after he left in early 2008 and I stepped up to fill his shoes.

Taking on the responsibility of the planetarium was both exciting and daunting.  My lack of formal astronomy background made this huge task even more complicated. The expectation from my director was that I would take over and continue the level of presenting as my predecessor.  This wasn’t entirely realistic given the years of differences in expertise and as the planetarium at that time was only a third of my remit, I had little hope of catching up. But I studied when I could and worked with Steve whenever possible.  I was enrolled in a part-time online astronomy course but the science centre was to hit on difficult times during my first 12 months in the role with restrictions in funding having major impacts to all teams. Resources were stretched, new responsibilities took priority and my course vanished in to the night.

Simon and the Starball
Simon all suited and booted for the first wedding in planetarium.

Nonetheless, in my five years as planetarium coordinator I managed to have a lot of fun, try out a load of new things, and secure various funding streams for the development and delivery of an array of astronomy related activities. However, one thing I didn’t learn was how to celebrate the successes.  I was guilty of getting through one project and moving straight on to, if not overlapping, the next dozen. I’ve now learned that it’s worth taking a moment to reflect and enjoy what you’ve just finished. So, I’m going to take the opportunity to reminisce a bit about stellar times and tell you a bit about some of the incredible and sometimes unbelievable things that we got up to when I was in charge.  Things I will never have the opportunity to repeat…

  • 2009 was the International Year of Astronomy and we developed and delivered the UK’s largest science centre programme to celebrate it.  There were so many different things happening that year, these are some of my favourites:
    Planetarium at the Finding Albert Album Launch
    Gig Under the Stars – The Finding Albert Album Launch
    • Astronomy themed sleepovers- we let the kids draw ALL OVER the science centre windows… I believe that was Gaby’s idea…
    • Written in the Stars poetry reading events with Liz Lochhead – an amazing event where people came to hear poetry and left looking out for Venus and Mars
    • Stellar Sounds music nights – my hilarious team-mate and friend Simon wowed unsuspecting gig goers with astronomy in between bands and I piloted the starball freestyle to the live music
    • Capture Space – originally an astronomy themed photography competition with entries from all over the world. It then became the title for activities over World Space Week for the subsequent years  filled with multiple cosmic workshops including a bathtub filled with cornflour and what were essentially light bowling balls that the kids chucked into the tub with varying degrees of force.  Messy? Not even close…
    • Helped Professor Martin Hendry (MBE!) turn Scotland in to a model solar system with Glasgow Science Centre representing as the Sun and other astronomy societies and planetaria the orbiting planets.
    • Did an interview for the She is an Astronomer project for IYA2009
Visitor and a big spark at the Royal Concert Hall
Amazing visitors at the Royal Concert Hall x

I also had the opportunity to:

  • Develop a bespoke show and programmed the starball while Simon delivered the first ever wedding in the planetarium complete with light up flower bouquet and the Beastie Boys Intergalactic played for the exit.
  • Help coordinate the Finding Albert album launch underneath the stars.
  • Team up with the OnTour folks and Glasgow University to deliver astronomy fun at the Royal Concert Hall.
  • Write a planetarium show with Ratty the Space Rat in it.  Yep.  A puppet rat in a space suit was given to the best presenters and they entertained early years audiences with it.  It went down a storm.
  • Create “visual delight” at The List’s Gig of the Year 2011 for a Stellar Sounds event that year with Detour. I was definitely more behind the scenes here and let the music experts take the reins but when it came to controlling the stars, I will always love some live piloting to music!
  • Take part in the first phase of Explore Your Universe and developed planetarium shows, science shows and workshops. More astronomy and physics than you can shake a stick at!
  • Co-present the Winter Night Sky course for Adult Learners with Steve Owens and managed to deliver a lesson myself at last minute while also programming the starball.

All of the programmes and events were amazing fun and brought with them a certain sense of satisfaction.  Especially when we went out on a limb and tried something new.  I tried a lot of different things during my time at GSC and granted, there were plenty of flops.  But there was always something new.  A risk to take and a chance to find a true gem in something we’d never done before.  For me, that first wedding in the planetarium, the astronomy event with Liz Lochhead, the live music events under the stars and adding a puppet to the early years show who must have high-fived at least a few thousand under 8s in Scotland are things that I’ll always remember with a smile.

Jen in the back booth of the planetarium
Jen was one of the first presenters we selected for the team when I took over. She’s now one of my closest friends.
Simon at Stellar Sounds
Simon was the second SSC I worked with in the planetarium. He looked that excited pretty much all of the time.

If I’m really honest though, when I think back on my time in charge of the planetarium, the thing that I enjoyed and miss the most is working with such an amazing group of presenters. I loved looking out for the new voices who would be able to inspire and educate our visitors. Getting to know them and taking them through their induction in the basic operations of the starball. Walking them round the cove and showing them the maintenance and upkeep required. Providing them with an outline for their shows and watching them evolve. Giving feedback and encouraging them to develop their own style and then training the best in the more difficult shows and programmes.

For every presenter we trained, astronomy became something of an obsession.  Everyone started spending more time outside, more time researching the cosmos and more time learning new facts to add to their shows and improve their understanding.  They became authorities on the subject and I learned so much from listening to the facts and figures they added to their presentations. A mark of an excellent presenter is adding the things they are passionate about to the show and using them to convey this passion to the audience.  If it captured their attention and imagination then surely it would do the same for the thousands of visitors they would present to.  Genuine passion is infectious and I do not know of a single planetarium presenter who didn’t have that for the stars.

Me & Morna with the starball
Me and Morna, the last SSC I worked with, on our last day working together.

And then there were the planny Senior Science Communicators.  I worked with some brilliant people in at GSC but these guys really made my life very entertaining. I have no idea how many late nights I spent with Derek, Simon and Morna. Fuelled with large cups of coffee after long days presenting or in the office, we would deliver story-telling training, puppet training or spend hours in the dark trying to change the position of the Moon, replace a planet or programme a leap forward in time. I always enjoyed working it out with them. They kept me sane and I’m glad to have worked with them and trained them.

Training the presenters and working alongside them was always my favourite part of the role.  And the part I was possibly the best at.  Encouraging people, helping them get stronger, reinforcing their strengths and working through any weaknesses. I had lots of different personalties to deal with in the planetarium.  Some who required a little push to stand on their own and believe in themselves, others who got a little ahead of themselves or the rest of the team. People who made tears of laughter come to my eyes every time I saw them present and people who kept my imagination going by constantly changing things up. Training nights were something I looked forward to and enjoyed preparing for so when that part of my remit was taken away I knew the rest of my time at GSC was going to be short-lived.

I made the huge decision to change my life and leave GSC at the end of December 2013, finishing as planetarium coordinator in January 2014 and handing over the reins to my colleague and friend Katy. Katy was originally hired as a science communicator to replace me when I was promoted back in 2007.  She was one of the first people I was lucky enough to train and ask to join the planetarium team.  She stayed for just under a year before heading off to become Dr Katy. In 2013 she rejoined the science learning team and I was delighted when she was asked to take over as planetarium coordinator.  Many more hours spent with an amazing lady underneath the stars as I showed her everything I’d learned since I first started.  Even in those last few long nights, the starball still had things to teach me and I left knowing more than I started with.

Me & Katy with the Starball
Me and Katy with our lovely starball. Photo Credit : Nina Cameron

Katy took the planetarium refit to the next stage, building on work that I’d started to pull together and finally making some sense of it all. A vital part in the planetarium’s history. Her talent and ambition meant she moved on to another role in February 2015 but not before settling on the company who would provide the future digital system.  She handed the reins back to none other than Steve Owens, the coordinator before me and now the official Planetarium Manager. GSC’s new digital era welcomes a much desired dedicated team including Planetarium Officer Nina and Planetarium Presenter Paul.  I believe a couple more will be added to that lucky list in the near future.

I spent most of my time at GSC trying to protect the starball and find reasons to keep it. I wasn’t against digital, I’d just been taught to see the starball as an incredible asset and that as coordinator, it was my job to get other people to realise it’s potential instead of looking for something new to replace it. I was most keen on a hybrid system.  A “have-your-cake-and-eat-it” system with both digital and optical-mechanical working to compliment each other. I traveled to different sites, spent lengthy hours in meetings with people from GSC and other companies trying to find a way to keep the UK’s finest planetarium. It seemed that dream was looking almost possible until we got the quotes through for the maintenance of the two different systems. That was the moment I knew we were dead in the water and that the starball’s days were well and truly numbered.

I went along with many others to say goodbye to the starball and stood in my favourite spot (other than the stage of course!) in the back booth beside the noisy whir of the rack of computers which controlled it. It was a short show and focused a lot on what the new system was going to do differently.  It was great to be there and see it one last time but I’m glad that on my very last day as an employee at GSC and planetarium coordinator I took the time with Katy and Derek to turn up our favourite music, lie on the floor at the front of the stage and spin those spectacular stars.  It was the only moment I cried on my last day.

We used to joke about being able to spot the planetarium presenters as they left work in winter.  Our long, dark Scottish skies meant that the end of a day in the planetarium was likely to be met by the chance to see the brightest celestial objects from the moment you left the building.  The planetarium presenters were always the ones who instinctively looked up and while we may feel sad about losing the starball, that’s something we can always do.

Planetarium Presenters and the Zeiss Starball
Planny Presenters old and new say farewell to the Starmaster. Photo Credit: Robert Johnstone
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