The stars in the night skies have cast their magic over us since beyond the reach of memory - and as an excited child looking through a telescope for the first time, BBC Stargazing Live presenter Mark Thompson was entranced.
Seeing Saturn and its rings during a visit with his father to Norwich Astronomical Society’s Colney Lane observatory (now at Seething), he was completely hooked.
“It was an absolutely inspiring experience,” he said. “Even now when I see Saturn from some of the best telescopes there are, I still think it looked more beautiful back then when I saw it for the very first time.”
It has led to what he describes as his “dream job” and even though he has now viewed the stars from many different locations around the world, he still believes Norfolk’s dark skies are the best.
Today as part of the Stargazing Live team, the Pulham Market-based astronomer has a reputation for a down-to-earth approach to explaining the complexities of the universe and making it easier to understand. It’s earned him the moniker of the ‘People’s Astronomer’.
“I have never studied astronomy full-time. I did Physics GCSE, but that was it,” he said. “When I left school I just wanted to get out to work. But I have had some very valuable life lessons and probably wouldn’t be where I am now if I had gone done the professional astronomy route. I’m now doing my dream job.”
The varied life lessons came working as a press and commercial photographer, an IT specialist with Norwich insurers Aviva, and then training as a commerical airline pilot. “I suppose it was part of an aspirational dream to go into space,” he said. But as he finished his training, there was a downturn in the air travel industry following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and he was unable to secure a job.
Following another stint at Aviva, his television career then began to take off. An appearance on the BBC’s Sky at Night when it came to Norwich was seen by the One Show and he was invited to join the early evening team presenting regular slots on astronomy beamed live to a television audience of millions.
Other TV, radio and website work followed - for the Alan Titchmarsh Show, BBC Breakfast, Channel Four, radio, and websites such as Discovery News. Mr Thompson has also penned several astronomy books and is branching into other areas with plans for a children’s book, broadcasting for BBC Sport on the science of the tides for the Boat Race, and even film work on conspiracy theories.
On Stargazing Live, he co-presents alongside comedian and theoretical physicist Dara Ó Briain, former rocker and particle physicist Dr Brian Cox, and presenter and biochemist/biologist Liz Bonnin. He said: “It’s fantastic fun presenting with them, but it’s hard work. I am an amateur astronomer taking the concepts that they discuss and making it real. But it can be very frustrating because I am the one who is outside in the cold and wet. It is completely live - it is dark out there and there is no autocue because you can’t see anything anyway, and they chop and change the running order. I love the buzz of it but it’s quite stressful.”
The programme has undoubtedly helped popularise astronomy and Mr Thompson’s advice for anyone starting is simply to get out there and look. “Orion is very easy to see this time of year as it’s really bright and directly in the south, and from there you can pinpoint other stars. I have been on the top of mountains in some of the biggest observatories around the world, but Norfolk is still one of the best places to see the stars because it is accessible and dark.”
He also recommends using phone apps as an aid as there are plenty to choose from at affordable prices.
Since his early days of stargazing, when his father would drive him to the observatory and then wait patiently outside in the car for two hours, Mr Thompson has continued his connection with the Norwich Astronomical Society as a member, secretary, chairman and now its president, and its Friday club nights at Seething still offer the chance to chat to fellow enthusiasts and look through a telescope.
To read up on the subject, Mr Thompson’s book ‘A Down to Earth Guide to the Cosmos’ is currently available on Amazon and he has two more due for publication later this year - ‘Philips Stargazing with Mark Thompson’ and ‘Philips Astrophotography with Mark Thompson’. A third book called ‘A Space Travellers Guide to the Solar System’ is due for publication in January 2015. See www.markthompsonastronomy.com
Information on the Norwich Astronomical Society can be found at www.norwichastro.org.uk