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FeatureLiving Well

(What if) We had the universe at our fingertips (?)

“I don’t just see stars. I see signposts and memorise angles and patterns,” shares devoted astronomer, Rod Stubbings.

Dec 22, 2023

Words: Shelley Banders

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“I'm still gazing at stars that I started looking at 20 years ago. So if I don't go out one night, I feel like I'm going to miss out. It’s an obsession. A passion and an obsession.”

Rod Stubbings has been recording cosmic observations in West Gippsland since 1993 and is a self-described “amateur astronomer who observes variable stars”. For us non-astronomers, a variable star is one whose brightness as seen from Earth changes with time, and Rod has made over 390,000 observations of these shifty sparklers. Officially, this makes him the second living person to reach such numbers in the history of variable star astronomy. If there are enough clear nights over the summer, Rod will be on a trajectory to have made the most observations ever.

“We live in a galaxy of cold and vast distances, with a whole lot of nothing.”

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‘Variable stars’ are essentially stars that change in brightness and provide valuable information in understanding our universe. “I observe them pulsate, spin around each other, have a surface explosion and then fade,” explains Rod. “I'll wait years for the same star to do it again.”

Rod is a visual observer; that is, he is not a robot. “When I look up, I don’t just see stars. I see signposts and memorise angles and patterns.” Night after night, Rod makes observations in real-time through the eyepiece of his custom-built SDM telescope. In an era of digital detection, it is the role of a visual observer to create their own projects, working with under-observed or underappreciated stars. “They’re sort of like my little friends,” beams Rod. "I know their behaviour.”

I spotted the private observatory in Tetoora Road years ago on one of my many drives ‘down the hill’ into Warragul, and I found Rod’s website while waiting for my morning latte at Main Street Cafe – it has been on my mind ever since. What is it like to have that kind of access at your fingertips? How would such a familiarity with our universe affect our understanding of our own scale and significance? It is possible I had drunk too much coffee, but here I am, several years later, visiting Rod and posing these very questions.

“I get more of a picture of our insignificance in the universe compared to the average person. I get to see where we are in the scale of things,” explains Rod. “Most people think that we are the centre and that's it. We’re not.”

Rod has worked as a plumber by day for close to 50 years, servicing West and South Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley region. In 1986, armed with a newly ordered telescope and the book Stargazing: Astronomy without a Telescope by Patrick Moore, purchased at the local newsagency, Rod ventured outside. “I remember the first time I found Mars at 3am one chilly morning; it looked like an orange peel.”

He has been moonlighting ever since.

Influenced by fellow stargazers at the Latrobe Valley Astronomical Society, Rod was introduced to the observation and recording of variable stars. “At this point, I was looking at the same objects each night, so I thought I could put my time to better use. I decided I wanted to look at every exploding star that I could think of in the range of my telescope, study them and make a contribution to science.”

Today, the obsession flows steadily, and every clear night Rod continues to make record-breaking volumes of observations. “I'm following 700 stars over the course of the year, which I've fully memorised. I know their names and locations… So, I sort of star-hop through the sky.” It is a dedication that few can lay claim to. “One New Year's Eve party, I snuck out halfway through. I went home, did an observation and came back. No one knew I was gone."

I’ve wondered if the idea of what some psychologists call the ‘overview effect’ is something Rod had experienced. It is a term used to describe a cognitive shift experienced by some astronauts and researchers who describe a profound emotional response when studying space. Many report an overwhelming sense of an interconnectedness of all life and responsibility for the future of our fragile planet.

In fact, William Shatner wept when he returnedfrom billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin spaceflight. Having landed moments prior, he held Bezos by the shoulders. “What you have given me,” he said quietly, “is the most profound experience.” Shatner, aka Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, referred to the strong sadness he felt as he looked down on our planet for the first (real) time and witnessed the contrast between “the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below”.

“It makes you wonder: why are we wrecking this planet?” Rod questions. We live in a galaxy of cold and vast distances, with a whole lot of nothing – it would take 20,000 years for a probe to reach our closest star. “There’s so much life on this planet, everywhere you look,” Rod continues. “We’re pretty unique, really.”

In awe of the sheer patience and perseverance Rod embodies to do this kind of work, repeatedly, over the course of almost four decades, I had to ask him – why?

“I’ve always thought I’m not that clever, being a plumber, dressed in dirty clothes. I found out I could do this easily and make a contribution to science. I’m sending scientific data to international organisations and they’re using that data. That’s the driving point.”

To learn more, shift your gaze to Rod’s website

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