Close Encounters Series - Bevan Harris likes the Pleiades … A lot

But he assures me that he’s not obsessed. Yes, his car sports a “MESSIER 45” licence plate (The Pleiades had already been taken), and yes it is a Subaru (The Japanese word for The Pleiades), but he clearly hasn’t got a fixation. It can all be easily explained. The first thing he saw in the night sky with his first pair of binoculars was a certain hazy cluster, Pleiades. He points out that it is “a fascinating object highly represented throughout history, cultures and countries. It has a wide variety of legends but all are confined to only two or three streams and being on the celestial equator it is visible to most of the world.” It’s also nice to look at. So he’s not obsessed, just appreciative. Bevan’s love of astronomical terms spread to him naming his email after his favourite nebulae, The Tarantula, and even affected his pet Jack Russell dog. Inspired by his mate calling his cat Cassiopeia he studied the star catalogues to come up with an appropriate name for his canine friend. He discarded Sirius as too common and sadly his wife, Leigh, wouldn’t let the terrier be dubbed “Zubenelgenubi” so he settled with Nunki, after a star in Sagittarius.

Bevan’s fascination with astronomy stems back to his childhood when as an 8-year-old he went to Safety Bay to fish with his Dad and his “Uncle Bill” (his dad’s mate from up the street). He recalls sleeping on the beach looking up at the night sky and making up his own constellations. He came up with a real beauty which combined stars from the Southern Cross and Centaurus and proudly named it “Olympic Torch”. His journey had begun. Bevan likes to look at parallels. When he began to learn about astronomy he was inspired by discovering information about his Great Great Grandfather Alfred Barrett-Biggs.

Alfred Barrett-Biggs moved to Tasmania from London in 1833 and became involved in Astronomy in his late 40’s. He always had an interest in science. In 1874 he helped track the transit of Venus. Then from 1880 to 1900 was very active in astronomical circles in Launceston. He was called Tasmania’s Astronomer Royal. Astronomy was his hobby whilst his day job was as an Actuary in a bank, uncannily like Bevan who has been the Treasurer of the POVG for 15 years. Alfred Barrett-Biggs was famous for immediate observations and contributing them to society. Again, this sounds like Bevan. He liaised with notable astronomers and built his own telescope and microscope, dabbled in seismology and coined the term “Earth Tremor”. He built the first telephones in Australia, built church organs and even wrote hymns. Bevan doesn’t feel that the parallels will extend to him writing hymns, however upon looking at a depiction of Alfred Barrett-Biggs I could see that they even look eerily similar – nose, hairline, moustaches – so you never know what might come next.

Alfred Barrett Biggs. Image Credit: Bevan Harris
Bevan Harris. Image Credit: Bevan Harris

If you would like to read more about Alfred Barrett-Biggs, his story is told in Margaret Giordano’s “Watcher of the Skies” book which is in the Observatory Library.

In 1996 Bevan saw an advertisement in the West Australian Newspaper which read: “Stars in your eyes? Become a Volunteer at Perth Observatory …” and was hooked. He had been an amateur Astronomer since his late teens and in the early 80’s was active in the Astronomical Society of Western Australia for a few years (becoming the Treasurer), before moving to Kalgoorlie in 1986 where he started the Goldfields Astronomical Society with a bunch of other blokes (again taking up the role of Treasurer). Sadly this club is no longer in existence as many of the members moved from the area. He began volunteering at Perth Observatory during a year off from university, he was a mature age student doing an Information Processing Degree, whilst working at a pizza store.

Greg Lowe, the last paid staff member to work at the Observatory, fondly talks of Bevan’s voluminous memory and huge interest in astronomy calling him a mad, keen Astronomer. Greg says Bevan knew stuff that he hadn’t even heard of. Bevan several times corrected him on Astronomical data and events and could quote telescope specifications through to the fate of the universe. His active quirky mind kept everyone entertained and he would keep Greg up long into the night talking in the carpark after a viewing session.

Volunteers didn’t become hosts until a few years ago. Originally the volunteers just operated the telescopes during the Public Viewing nights. In 2010 when the Observatory staff decided to ask if anyone was interested in hosting, Bevan put his hand up straight away and did it well. Greg said it all felt very experimental but it took a lot of heat off the staff.

Twenty years later, Bevan is the only original member left of the inaugural Volunteer Group which was started from that advertisement in 1996. Quite a feat I think! So I had to ask him what keeps him interested in being a volunteer!

The Observatory for Bevan has always been a place to unwind. When things were tough at work, he’d go to the Observatory to relax. He also did some cool things with the Observatory crew which was a great reward for being there. He saw 2 eclipses in 1999 and 2002. In 1999 Dr James Biggs (no relation), Bevan and some more enthusiasts from the Observatory Group met up with about 100 eclipse chasers from around the world to see the annular solar eclipse in Greenough near Geraldton.

This put a bug in him to chase eclipses so in 2002 he took a nightmare bus ride paid for by the Observatory to an Oyster Farm near Ceduna in outback South Australia to see the 32 second Total Solar Eclipse. This event left him gobsmacked – I watched the YouTube footage of this event and could hear everyone going crazy with excitement. Bevan wrote up both expeditions which were published to the web as “4000km of Bugger All – 32 seconds of Glory”. In 2004 fellow vo­lunteers Frank Bilki and Mike Freeman, who had connections with the Geological Society, along with Bevan organised a meteorite crater trip through the Murchison. They saw the Shoemaker (formerly known as Teague Ring 100km north-north-east of Wiluna) and 4 meteorite craters over 5 days. Bevan says the volunteer group really started to organise themselves from this moment on. The contributions of Mike, Frank and their “founding father” Trevor Dunn did a lot to advance POVG to what it is today.

They had a professional network to draw on. In 2010 Bevan went to Tatakoto Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1200km east of Tahiti, to view the Total Solar Eclipse. He recounts that they were the first tourists the Atoll had ever had, with tourists outnumbering the inhabitants and an economy derived from coconuts. Sadly, there hasn’t been another field trip since, but we can always hope there will be more in the future.

I asked around the volunteer group for tidbits on Bevan, it seems unanimous that he is a top notch bloke with an incredible memory who, you guessed it, likes The Pleiades, and is always willing to have a laugh. He likes all things geeky and astronomical and is kind enough to feed his wife’s addiction to Dr Who. He himself is a fan of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Fellow volunteer Matt Woods likes to commiserate over soccer results with Bevan. He supports Newcastle United to Bevan’s Arsenal. Bevan says his interest in Soccer is still new. After many years of listening to his family’s affection for Arsenal, his “curiosity reached critical mass so he decided to support them” I wonder how long it will take him to have the team renamed to something like … um… Pleiades?

Fellow volunteers speak in awe of the amount of time Bevan has put into his role of Treasurer. The transformation of the Volunteer Group through to its present autonomous state was a frantic time. Bevan doesn’t like to blow his own trumpet and stresses that it was a combined effort, heaps of research went into it and he says he learnt from the group. He admits to working crazy hours and having more responsibility than some and laughs that he made sure that there is a good insurance policy. Over comments that Bevan can be a little argumentative at committee meetings, he says he has a strong viewpoint. “You get a sense of ownership over 20 years, ideas you want to see proceed. I try to see other’s viewpoints.” He reveals that some of the meetings could be very time-consuming, so he has tried to bring them back to a more manageable level (“usually by shutting up”). Bevan confesses that he’s submitted many pages of ideas to Chairperson Diana in a strategy document. “I’ve had 20 years of walking around coming up with ideas and get a little impatient to see framework put in place. It’s all a combined effort and I’m happy to let go of ideas when a better one takes its place”. “I like people to get on and do it. I’m here for the long haul.” No surprises that his favourite saying is from West Wing “Decisions are made by those who show up”.

Bevan says he gets a lot of kicks out of volunteering and that some people’s knowledge just “blows him into the weeds”. But most of all, he enjoys sharing the sky with other people. “Yes, you can look at objects, but just look at the sky with your naked eyes and appreciate the magnitude and scope of it all – trees, meteorites, stars, never-ending folds of vistas at different scales. Visualise it in your mind”.

“See things in 3D rather than as indeterminate dots”

And does he have any advice for new volunteers? Yes of course he does!

“Keep on turning up”