“Just look up at night, and you are part of the hobby already.”
Have you ever felt overcome by a sense of awe while gazing deeply into the night sky and wondering about the planets, stars and galaxies far far away?
Radio DJ Jeremy Ratnam first became all starry-eyed and intrigued with understanding the celestial phenomena that occur beyond our skies after he had picked up a fateful magazine on the universe as a twelve-year-old. Now his life-long passion, he is a staunch believer that astronomy, the science of stars and planets, can be an accessible hobby for everyone.
Here, the DJ and Programme Director for POWER 98 LOVE SONGS shares with NSman why and where he enjoys his stargazing pursuits and how you can start too.
Q: When did you develop a passion for astronomy?
My love for astronomy kicked-off when I was in Primary 6 in October, 1985.
I was studying for my exams in the late afternoon, took a break to look out the window, and saw a first quarter moon (a half moon). I was immediately mesmerised by it and wanted to know why we could still see the moon against the clear blue sky. At the time, my parents owned a library of TIME-Life books, and I took out the one labelled THE UNIVERSE, flipped its pages, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Q: There is a common impression that astronomy is an expensive hobby. Is that true?
It is not true. Astronomy or armchair astronomy is NEVER an expensive hobby.
Honestly, all you need is your pair of eyes.
And with a wealth of information about everything in and around the world of astronomy readily available online in the digital age; you can now satisfy your curiosity on astronomy – from “what’s in the night sky tonight”, to “what comets you can expect to see in the next few months”, or “a Total Solar Eclipse visible 10 years down the road”.
Even when the skies aren’t that clear here in Singapore for a particular astronomical event, information can still be found online from another part of the geographical region so you never miss out on it; it could be a lunar eclipse or even an occultation of a planet by the moon.
In Singapore, there are a couple of Facebook groups that share information and details on major astronomical events, or where the group will next gather for an observation, possibly with more powerful telescopes. These groups include Stargazing Singapore and Singapore Sidewalk Astronomy.
Q: Can you share with us why astronomy makes a great hobby and how to get started?
Astronomy, the science of stars and planets, will forever be accessible to everyone.
Just look up at night, and you are part of the hobby already.
Beginners can start with naked-eye observation (that’s how I started), catching up with the brighter stars seen from Singapore. You can also equip yourself with stargazing apps on your mobile and be guided to spot constellations against the night sky, by scanning your mobile along the horizon.
The next stage is to own a simple pair of binoculars; a 7X50 for a novice would be perfect to see more stars and planets through it.
When you’re ready to take the hobby to the next level, a small telescope that costs anywhere between $100-$200, and with a 3-inch or 4-inch lens, would quite easily fetch you the distinct features of the Moon, the satellites of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, clusters of stars, and so many more celestial objects!
Q: What was your most memorable/rewarding experience with this hobby?
Two experiences top this list.
In 1987, I was fortunate to have caught Supernova 1987A from the badminton court right below my old apartment at Short Street. The story of the exploding star was making waves around the globe, right after Halley’s Comet’s appearance. It was then the next big thing, and viewing it from Singapore was a challenge as the supernova was hovering just above the Southern horizon. To my amazement, armed with my 3-inch refractor telescope which my father bought for me, and after much persistence, the Supernova was clear to be seen as the brightest star just above the horizon.
Later in 1995, a total solar eclipse was about to occur in the early morning skies over Thailand. With my parent’s permission, I flew off to Bangkok together with the team from The Astronomical Society of Singapore, where I was their chief editor at that time. We spent a day in a tiny village in Lop Buri and observed an amazing phenomenon of being under the shadow of the Moon during that total solar eclipse. The feeling is indescribable. You could see the brighter planets come out as the Sun was eclipsed and what was striking was how dark it got at 10 in the morning.
There’s also a third rewarding experience – and I’ll be brief. I was honoured to set up the very first astronomy club in a Secondary school in Singapore between 1988-1989 (in East Payoh Secondary) and had also started the first astronomy club at Singapore Polytechnic in 1991.
Q: You wear many hats – program and music director for Power98, radio DJ, emcee, singer, artist, and astronomer – plus you are a father of four. How do you find energy, and spare time, to pursue your hobby?
My father once told me, “…reach for the stars.”, and I have never looked back since. I think I have quite a bit of my father in me, being meticulous in what I do, being a workaholic, and planning in advance.
Everything I do, to me, should not feel like a job, and it never has been. It’s a passion, and I keep all my hobbies close to heart.
To summarise, I never slow down and am ready for the next challenge.
Q: You have also combined your radio deejay experience with your astronomy interest into another pursuit – the podcast “Seeing Stars” has been going on for almost two years. Can you share with us how it came about and how you prepare for each episode?
Mixing my ability to present and produce, I thought a podcast on observing the skies here in Singapore would be right up my alley.
Podcasting is vastly different from what goes on, on radio. On-air, a talk-set is meant to be quick and focused, with minimal chance for the listener having to be calculative or think hard. However, in a podcast, you could go on for half an hour, talk about your favourite subject and still draw a decent listenership that is attracted to your content.
I don’t think there is a podcast of this nature in Singapore, and “Seeing Stars” is probably the first of its kind. The weekly podcast dives into the latest astronomy and space news, and adds insights to what is up in the skies for the week ahead here in Singapore.
Preparations for each new weekly episode start on a Sunday, including scripting and sourcing for the latest news – and with certain software online and on my mobile, I track all the planet’s movements including our Moon, and point out important events in the night sky, where these planets meet up or are in conjunction with the Moon. Recording and mixing of the podcast will take place on either Monday or Tuesday and is then packaged and ready for Friday’s broadcast. The entire process is repeated every Sunday.
Q: There have been several space movies made in recent years. Are there any that you feel are a must-watch for people wanting to learn more about astronomy?
There are a few space movies that I like, but most of them are science-horror, like Event Horizon and Sunshine. However, there are numerous documentaries that deal with the subject.
One that hits hard is Ancient Apocalypse which is currently on Netflix. It deals with how, from out of this world, an event could leave an effect on civilisation as we know. The other is Our Universe, narrated by Morgan Freeman, and is also on Netflix. This series looks into the origin of the Universe, 13.8 billion years ago. Both documentaries are current and provide the latest on astronomical advances.
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Q: Do any of your kids enjoy the same astronomy hobby or pursue the same interests you have?
All four of my kids share a little bit of my interests, but have yet to show signs of pursuing astronomy.
My youngest son, Junior, might be the only one who could dive into the subject of astronomy a little more as he has started developing an interest in Geography, and the Earth as a whole. This could be the catalyst for his knowledge expansion and thirst to learn more about our Solar System, and I’ll definitely be there for him, when he starts developing the interest about the heavens above.
Having said that, and watching my kids grow day to day, my youngest daughter Danielle could end up being a radio presenter and a singer too; my eldest daughter Nicole has a love for art and is very skillful in sketching and graphic art; and my eldest son, Kevin can produce video content on the fly. He is fascinated by cars and can easily tell them apart by the difference between make and model.
Q: Lastly, could you share a fun fact about astronomy that you wish more people knew or did not expect?
Never plan for an observation.
Throughout my almost 4 decades of astronomy, I was only able to witness just a sprinkling of planned observation events, with the skies being clear for those particular nights.
Most of the time, and I really mean most of the time, whenever you plan for a night to observe the stars or planets, the skies overhead become cloudy, and sometimes it rains, and your chance to observe is dashed.
So what I have learnt is, when it comes to observing the night skies with your pair of binoculars or a small telescope, never plan for one. Go with the flow.
The trick is to wait for perfect blue skies at around 4 pm to 5 pm and with a quick check with the NEA Weather app, you know that an entire night of seeing stars and planets is going to happen, so get ready your equipment, charge your mobile phone, pack some snacks and you are on your way to a great night of stargazing!
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Join Jeremy Ratnam every Friday night on POWER 98 RETRO from 9pm to 10pm, as he takes you back in time with, your favourite artistes from the 70s and 80s for one hour in your Friday Featured Fan-choice!
Follow Jeremy on Instagram: @power98jeremy