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Stargazers flee light pollution to reach for stars (3)

By Tan Weiyun   (Shanghai Daily)

09:00, October 17, 2012

Luo volunteered to teach astronomy in two primary schools in Taicang every week. He compiled his own materials for the pupils and adapted stories from Chinese mythology into astronomy lessons.

He still works and volunteers in Taicang, but every semester Luo organizes field trips to the Sheshan Observatory.

Stargazing can be frustrating when bad weather interferes with observation, especially of rare phenomena.

In May Luo successfully photographed the partial solar eclipse from a deserted bridge in Taicang but was unable to capture Venus transiting the sun in June because of overcast skies. In August, a mudslide caused by heavy rains made it impossible for him to observe the famous annual Perseid meteor shower.

"Astronomy is such an interesting science, and depends mostly on the weather and environment," Luo says. "The most amazing thing is that it's probably the only science you can't touch, smell and experiment on. All you can do is to observe."

Because some celestial events happen only once in a long time, or a lifetime, missing one can mean missing it forever.

"Many observers who miss out are sad for a long time, like me," Luo says. "It's no exaggeration that some fanatics even suffer deep depression. It's such a pity if you miss something that only happens every 100 years, or longer."

But for amateur astronomer Wang Jie, field observation is boring and a waste of time. He, too, is dedicated to the stars but describes his interest as "purely theoretical."

Wang observes stars and deep space objects but seldom goes outside. "Why bother? I can get clear, first-hand pictures from the Internet," he says. "I'm much more interested in different theories of the universe. Those passionate observers chase, observe and photograph. So what? Can they take better pictures than the professionals?"

Theoretical observers often have more thorough and integrated knowledge than astronomical "men of action," says Wang. "We prefer spending our precious time on books to waiting in the cold dark night."

The 35-year-old software engineer has published several popular books on astronomy and physics for laymen.

A volunteer at Sheshan Observatory, Wang is a star among visitors, especially children on field trips.

How many stars are there in the universe? How old is the universe? He is bombarded with questions.

Wang tells them that the number of stars in the universe is the total of grains of sand all over the world. He says that's "1 followed by 18 zeros." As for the age of the universe, he says it's around 13.7 light years old.

Or course, he is asked about UFOs and life on other worlds. His response is that scientists believe there is life of some kind out there, but at this time, there is no proof.

Sweet memory

Gu Xiaochun, a 30-year-old businessman, chases eclipses, booking trains or flights so he will be in position. He has a telescope and observers, but he never takes pictures.

"Sometimes the beautiful moments are best preserved in memory," Gu says, citing all the technical adjustments necessary to photograph the skies.

In the summer of 2009, observers in Shanghai missed the total eclipses of the sun because of heavy rain. But Gu had been prepared because he followed the forecasts. He booked a flight to Wuhan in Hubei Province and caught the eclipse that happens once every 300 years.

Gu recalls his first unforgettable Leonids meteor shower in 2001 when he was a college student sneaking into Sheshan Observatory with dorm mates on a cold and windy November night. Gu lay on the roof.

"I just lay there for the whole three hours as meteor showers flew across the sky, one after another. It was so beautiful and magnificent that words cannot describe it," he says. He still gets excited when he remembers that night.

That night Gu called his girlfriend and they shared the moment under the same sky, though she didn't join him on the rooftop. Today they are married and have a baby.

His father says the first word he learned was xing xing or star.

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