PAUL Curnow — or “Starman”, as he is more commonly known — can’t remember a time he wasn’t obsessed by the night sky.
He fondly recalls summer nights as a boy on the family’s Torrensville front lawn with his mum staring up at the stars, and remembers the moment in 1969 when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon.
But it was the 1960s sci-fi series Lost in Space that sealed his lifelong fascination with the solar system and constellations.
“As a kid, I’d rush home from school to watch the adventures of the Robinson family … I was hooked and so impressed by these people who were out exploring the universe,” he laughs.
It was a passion Mr Curnow took through to adulthood, landing him with his nickname.
“My mates actually called me Astro Boy for a time but Starman is what really stuck and that’s what I’ve been known as now for many, many years,” he said.
“Even when I do radio or television interviews, they invariably start by playing (UK rock star) David Bowie’s Starman.”
The 54-year-old describes his work as an astronomy lecturer at the Adelaide Planetarium as a “dream job” and one he has a former girlfriend to thank for.
“I was a high school dropout — I was a storeman, driver, dug trenches for plumbers and worked for 14 years as a console operator, doing the night shift,” he said.
“My then-girlfriend told me I should do an astronomy course. At first I said, ‘Oh no, I’m too dumb’ but (in 1991) I got in touch with Michael O’Leary, who was teaching astronomy and now here I am.
“It still feels like a bit of a dream sometimes, it really does.
“I find astronomy appealing because we’re quite literally made up of star stuff … it gives me an understanding of where I reside and a sense of my place in the universe,
if you like.
“When you look up at the Milky Way, you’re looking out into our galaxy at stars that are thousands of light years away. It’s taken thousands of years for the light to reach your eyes.”
Mr Curnow says he never tires of talking about the celestial world, despite getting some odd questions over the years, including an angry phone call from a woman asking why “you astronomers can’t arrange for lunar eclipses to occur at
a more decent hour”?
And does he have a favourite among the 88 constellations of stars?
“I have some constellations I really like. When I was a kid it was the Seven Sisters, which is a cluster of stars in the constellation of Taurus but Orion (where you’ll find the “saucepan”) is always interesting to look at as it’s high in our sky and easy to see,” he said.
“I’ll always point out the Southern Cross to kids, as it’s on our flag and talk about the two bright stars that point to it.
“The brightest, Alpha Centauri, is the closest neighbouring star system after the sun and where the Robinsons were heading off to in Lost in Space.”
Mr Curnow, who is also a qualified teacher, has a special interest in how indigenous Australians view the night sky and has spent the
past 25 years finding out as much
as he can.
“Different groups see it differently. For example, the Kaurnu people of the Adelaide Plains see the Southern Cross as an eagle’s claw, as do the Adnyamathanha in the Flinders Ranges, but the Ngarrindjeri people from the Coorong see it as a stingray,” he said.
So knowledgeable has Mr Curnow become he is often invited to remote indigenous communities to share his understanding.
“I was recently asked to visit the school children at Oodnadatta to teach night sky knowledge to the Aboriginal kids … sadly a lot of the knowledge is being lost,” he says.
Mr Curnow laments the global rise in “light pollution”, making if more difficult to view the night sky.
“Australians often forget how lucky we are to still have dark skies; there are many places — such as China, Japan and Europe — so heavily light-polluted that people can’t even see the stars or, if they can, they only see three or four,” he said.
“I was driving a guy from California back from Stockport Observatory (near Hamley Bridge, north of Adelaide) when he asked me to pull over and he got out of the car.
“I thought he must be ill but he said, ‘No, I’ve just never seen a sky like this’. It just blew him away.”
BUT even here it’s getting more difficult and it’s the reason “dark sky” accreditation, which is like a World Heritage listing for the night sky, is gaining popularity.
So far, there is just one in Australia — in the Warrumbungle National Park, in NSW — but there are plans for a second, near Mannum.
Some of the best places in SA, he says, are the Flinders Ranges, Oonadatta and along the Murray River.
“People around the world are realising that we are beginning to lose the dark sky — I think it would be absolutely tragic for that to happen in Australia,” he says.
“It’s something we need to endeavour to protect. Looking up into the night sky is good for all of us.”
And in case you’re wondering, Adelaide’s Starman still watches Lost in Space … only now he also mixes it up with other sci-fi series such as Babylon 5 and The Orville.
■ Paul Curnow is holding a series of T he Night Sky lectures from January 16. Contact the Adelaide Planetarium on 8302 6611 for more details