Trevor Leaman clearly recalls the beginning of his fascination with the stars and all things space.
“As a five-year-old in a little town on the coast in South Devon I watched the live broadcasts of the moon landings. I don’t remember the first couple of landings, but from 14 onwards I remember watching those all live on TV on the BBC,” said Trevor.
“I remember thinking… Just ,Wow! this huge thing taking off with a huge flame at the back and going to the moon! It was absolutely amazing!”
Trevor said it was hard to escape the excitement around the space program during that period in history. He said countless school projects focussed on space and rockets, which naturally led him to an interest in the stars and astronomy as well.
“I remember going out quite often at night in my hometown in the UK and looking up at the stars and starting to recognise some of the patterns,” he said.
Trevor’s family relocated to Australia in the early 1970s, settling south of Brisbane. After finishing high school, he embarked on his university career and what has been a lifetime of learning ever since.
“I did my first degree at QUT in biology— microbiology, biochemistry then I went to UQ, the University of Queensland, to work and when that went from full-time to a part-time contract I enrolled in a second degree in Forest ecology,” he said.
That led to a job in Forestry with Queensland’s Griffith University, but then he moved down to Tasmania.
“I was a part time ranger at Cradle Mountain National Park for a bit, I did medical imaging, worked in a hardware store, did odd jobs here there and everywhere,” said Trevor.
“One year, I did a double diploma at TAFE in Civil and Mechanical Engineering then I was teaching engineering students the following year.
In 2008 Trevor started his Masters in Astronomy and the following year took up an opportunity to work in Central Australia.
“We worked out at Uluru for a year and I was the astronomer there… we did it for the resort and later the Ayres Rock Observatory,” said Trevor.
It was here, working alongside the local Aboriginal people, that Trevor took his first steps into the world of cultural astronomy; a field that is now the subject of his PhD studies and an area his diverse knowledge background has made him particularly suitable for.
Cultural astronomy is a very broad field with many, many sub disciplines within it. It covers things like Archeoastronomy, which is looking at the alignments of stone arrangements, buildings and other ancient structures, relating them to the rising and setting positions of the sun, moon and certain important stars.
But it also looks at how humans around the world in all different periods of time have used astronomy in their day to day lives.
“So, it is combining astronomy with anthropology and archaeology,” said Trevor, whose PhD research is looking into the astronomical traditions of the Wiradjuri People.
“It is many faceted; cultural astronomy covers a huge wide base of different things. So we look at stone arrangement sites and how the landscape is used astronomically, we also look at how the stars were used as calendars, seasonal calendars, that mark certain times of the years and also how certain stars indicate the breeding cycles of certain animals.
“When you see a particular star in the sky at night that means that this animal is breeding that plant is flowering, this type of fish is available on the coast, or this migration is happening.”
Stars have even been used for weather forecasting, said Trevor, with the colour and rate of twinkling used to indicate what’s happening in the upper atmosphere.
“Some of the stars that appear orange red to us on a good clear night can wash out if there's a lot of moisture up there in the atmosphere,” said Trevor. “Water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs more strongly in the red than in the blue end of the spectrum, so when you see normally reddish orange stars looking a bit pale almost turning to the whitish colour then there is a lot of moisture up there and that can indicate there is a storm front coming.”
While the importance of the stars has been noted and studied in cultures world-wide for some time, Trevor said it is only recently that more astronomers have begun to take an interest and bring their own knowledge to the field.
“That has been the major change in the last few years,” he said. ‘Before it was anthropologist and the ethnographers coming in and being interested in astronomy, now we've got the astronomers coming in and because we have more familiarity with the night sky and how it works we are able to look at a lot of archival records and start pulling out more meaning from them because the astronomy part had been missed by the previous researchers.”
A lot of Trevor’s work involves talking to local elders and scouring historical records with an eye to the night sky at that particular date, even using computer simulations to map the movement of stars and planets with particular landmarks or important cultural sites.
“Sadly, there is a lot of that knowledge that has been fragmented because of colonisation,” said Trevor, who sees his work as a step towards recovering some of that lost knowledge and making it accessible for people today.
“So in that respect we are all working together to try and piece together all these little bits and fragments to build up the bigger picture of the how it was pre-colonisation,” he said.
“I've been doing it for five years on Wiradjuri Country, but still just scratching the surface.”
Trevor runs a local astronomy outreach business Dark Skies Down Under.