The truth may well be out there, but Lawrence Anslow's lifelong interest in astronomy has more to do with his love of science than a fascination with the supernatural. Harvey McGavin met him
In 1959, the space race was under way and 10-year-old Lawrence Anslow was an eager, if ill-equipped, spectator. Clutching a pair of plastic binoculars from Woolworths, he and his father scanned the skies from the back bedroom of their house. They were looking for Lunik II, a space probe the size of a television set, as it hurtled towards the moon.
Lawrence didn't see a thing that day, but the experience whetted his appetite for the unknown. Spurred on by the intergalactic exploits of comic-book hero Dan Dare and gripped by the tussle for extraterrestrial supremacy between the US and the USSR, he became an avid stargazer. Lawrence bought his first telescope as a teenager for Pounds 14, upgraded to a "proper" telescope in his twenties, put a sliding roof on the garden shed, called it an observatory and got down to some serious astronomy. The heavens above have been a happy hunting ground ever since.
The study at his home in Farnham, Surrey, houses hundreds of books on astronomy, various optical instruments and a bowl of pipes. "Most of my heroes have been pipe smokers," he says. "Dan Dare, Albert Einstein, Sherlock Holmes, and, of course, Patrick Moore.'' Lawrence learned much of his interplanetary craft from Patrick Moore, striking up a correspondence with the Sky at Night presenter based on their shared enthusiasm for obscure constellations and the shifting canopy of the night sky. "One of the great things about astronomy is that there's something happening all the time and the sky's constantly changing," he says. Current attractions are Jupiter ("nicely visible in the south") and Saturn ("coming up in the east in the early hours"), although you'll need some magnification and a clear sky to enjoy them.
This summer's spectacular Hale Bopp comet reawakened public interest in astronomy. Like Halley's Comet, last seen in 1986, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "Imagine these things appearing in the sky to ancient civilisations," Lawrence says. "They would have been petrified. The great thing about living in the 20th century is that we can appreciate them without being terrified.'' What about the mass suicide by members of the Heaven's Gate cult in March? "That was more on the basis of faith than science. You're always going to get groups of people and religious minorities who see these things in the extreme."
The two American amateur astronomers who spotted the Hale Bopp comet, and gave it its name, came upon it by chance. So far, that eureka moment has eluded Lawrence (the closest he came was when he identified a double star), but he met Mr Bopp recently and has a signed photo (of the comet) to prove it. "He's a very straightforward character and a very calm and interesting speaker. He's got no pretence to greatness, and I think people warm to that.'' There are more cosmic lightshows coming our way soon. The annual Leonid meteor showers in mid-November promise to be particularly impressive this year and next, and Lawrence reckons we might see a supernova some time in the next century. "The last one was in 1604, so we are due one,'' he says. The next big thing, astronomically speaking, takes place on August 11, 1999, when Britain will experience its first total eclipse of the sun since 1927. The "path of totality'' - that's the shadow of the moon - will pass over Cornwall before moving across central Europe. "It's going to be a big media event, and Cornwall is going to be rather crowded. If people want to see it they had better start booking their accommodation now,'' he advises.
Hale Bopp, The X Files, and such like may be good for recruiting pupils to the GCSE astronomy course at Winston Churchill School in Woking, where Lawrence is head of science, but he is worried that the fashion for all things alien will obscure the real wonder of what is happening. After all, it's only a coincidence that the eclipse comes when it does in the calendar. Isn't it? "The prophets and doom-mongers are out in force already. I'm afraid astronomical events are going to be used to foretell disaster."
Lawrence has no time for the kookier theories surrounding astral phenomena. While he hasn't ruled out the idea of life on Mars ("I'm quite willing to believe that conditions were right billions of years ago for some life to start but not to get a hold") UFOs lost any credibility after a reported "sighting" while he was at college. "I had a room next door to a bloke who was really into UFOs. One night we went out with a telescope into the grounds. Suddenly he said, 'Look at that!' And sure enough there was a a light suspended above the college roof. It was the weather vane reflecting the street lights! The ironic thing about UFOs is that the people who spend more time than anyone looking at the night sky - astronomers - hardly ever see things they cannot identify. "
Astrology is best not taken seriously, he reckons, although it does have one saving grace: "It was because of astrology that people first began to chart the movement of the planets so we have a lot to thank them for."
The build-up to the millennium doesn't excite Lawrence. The only dome that matters to him at the moment is the off-the-shelf observatory he is having constructed in his south-facing (an important consideration for house-buying astronomers) back garden. When it's complete and fitted with a 12-inch reflecting telescope, he will have his best vantage point yet for watching celestial comings and goings. And one day he might get an even closer look. Now that space travel is a real possibility, he'd love to go to the moon, the first planet he saw and still his favourite. On one condition. "I'm not a very good traveller. As a youngster I was always travel sick. But if someone could give me a pill to stop it I would be off like a shot.''