Presenter of Night Sky
Star Turn at NZBC-TV - Peter Read
by Hamish Templeton
A schoolmaster at Rongotai collage once wrote in red ink on an essay about astronomy by a fourth form pupil: “ Very interesting; you should try and develop your ideas further.”
The pupil didn’t take much notice of his teacher’s encouraging comment, but a few years later, after war service, he started to look at the “night sky” again.
Today that ex-Rongotai College pupil, who showed a mild interest in astronomy, is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, known to many thousands of New Zealanders for his television programmes on astronomy.
Peter Read is a man of many parts. he is perhaps best known to viewers of WNTV1 as front man for Town and Around. A hobby of his-gun collecting and model soldiers-led him to do seven television programmes, Arms and the Man, With Douglas Drury producing. Radio listeners are familiar with his voice in many productions. But undoubtedly the programmes which give him a continuing satisfaction have been his informative Night Sky and Horizon series.
It was a street corner conversation with producer Roy Meiford, an old friend, now working with DNTV2 that started off this television series. Roy, then in Wellington (and soon to return) said to Peter: “ Have you ever thought of doing a television programme on astronomy? ”
Peter thought about it for a while, and came up with an idea which developed into his first programme, about the moon.
The response was warm enough for the NZBC to think of initiating a regular programme.
Peter Read is one of those rare individuals who was perfectly at ease before a television camera almost from the start.
“I was blooded, as it were, as a performer in public during the war in, of all places, Bougainville in the Pacific, where we had got up a small concert party. And then, of course, I had a good deal of experience talking about “astronomy” at the Carter Observatory.”
Although he had shown that mild interest in astronomy back at college, it was not until about 1948 that he started taking a really serious look at the “night sky.” With his first telescope, he searched for Saturn: he acquired a 3-inch telescope, then picked up a 3 1/2-inch one, a very good instrument, as he remembers it. About 1951 he was induced to join the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand. He bought from a Hastings man a 5-inch telescope that warranted a building, and he put an observatory round it.
“Things really got going when Mr Thomsen at the Carter Observatory asked me to be an honorary observer at the Carter. One of the interesting jobs was the observation with K. D. Adams of the opposition of Mars. We worked on that for three months, publishing a paper. And so I became honorary assistant at the Carter, and lectured on the public nights, when the public were invited to come through,” Peter recalls.
Subsequently, as director of the Lunar and Planetary Observing section, he had the task of correlating work from all parts of New Zealand. Adhering to the International Astronomical Union, this section gets directives from the union, and the results go to an international sitting centre. Lunar work has taken on greater significance because of the lunar landings.
“The Americans have set up teams to map accurately parts of the moon for landings. They call on amateurs to help fill in standard blank maps. That has enlarged the scope of our work.”
In 1958-59 Peter wrote a paper advancing the theory that the planet Venus completed rotation in a period of the order of 15 days. He based the theory on observations that a whitish cap on the planet thickened every 15 days. He published the paper, and later noted that a Russian bulletin contained references to that work.
Another exciting phase in the Read career in astronomy came last year with observations of the eclipse from north of Kaitaia. The BBC showed on television a film made by the New Zealand team, and recognition also came from the United States, where a colour picture of the eclipse was featured on the cover of a Harvard bulletin, and the Boulder Observatory indicated that it was impressed with the work.
on the space race between Russians and the Americans, Peter has this to say: “ The Russians were ahead for a while, but not now. At first the US. techniques were more complicated, the Russians were using simpler, more powerful methods. But now the Americans have ironed out the bugs. Their rockets have been taking off as smoothly as planes. The Americans have made their point with such tremendous feats as the flight of Mariner II to Venus, and marina-iv to Mars, sending back flawless pictures from 131 million miles away. And their moon shots hitting within 10 miles of the target-think of it, a target 240,000 miles away and moving at 18,000mph.”
To the layman whose mind boggles at the immensity of the universe, he says: “After you have worked in astronomy for a long time, distances become meaningless. The fundamental function of science is to observe and record. If you start trying to fit the facts into a theory, you may find new horizons opening up to disprove the theory. There is the example of Lowell who ' discovered' canals on Mars, and interpreted them as definite proof of life on Mars. Afterwards when the theory was disproved, Lowell was never taken very seriously again, even though he did some excellent work. Astronomers have learned to be extremely cautious,” Peter says.
“The old concept of a bearded astronomer peering through the eyepiece has been replaced by the PhD. astrophysicist, doing two-thirds of his work with an electronic computer, interpreting photographic plates. Now, the newest of the lot, radio astronomy, is enabling us to see the unseen. We are learning about things we were only vaguely aware of 20 years ago.
“The radio side and the optical side are coming together. At the turn of the century everything in the universe could be explained. The astronomers could construct their models and explain them rationally, but now so many horizons have been rolled back and most of the ideas proved wrong that nobody anymore tries to tie the whole story up.” For his television programmes, Mr Read finds often that a month’s work goes into each.
“If there is a space shot, one has to go through all the authorities, and chase up information. We get material from NASA and the Moscow Academy of Science.”
He has worked with three producers on the programme: Kevan Moore, Douglas Drury and now Peter Cape, who decided on a change of name to cover its broadened scape.
He enjoys compiling the programme, and the varied response to it, though mail from interested viewers has dropped off since screening has been switched from evening to afternoon.
A telephone call after one Sunday afternoon screening of Horizon came from the Prime Minister, Mr Holyoake, to say that he didn’t often get time to see much television, but that he had caught that particular programme, and found it highly interesting.
Probably the programme Peter Read remembers best is his interview with astronauts Schirra and Brown, which not only was used in Horizon, but also was the first item this year in WNTV's Town and Around.
Let’s hope there are many more Horizons from Peter Read.
From New Zealand TV Weekly September 26, 1966