Vision in the stars

Astronomer Peter Norman teaches astronomy at U3A. Photo: Gary Sissons.

He’s 87 years of age, and legally blind, but you would be hard pressed to find someone with more vision than Peter Norman, a Mornington astronomer who continues to teach his passion to this day.

“I studied physics at the University of Melbourne but sadly we were never taught astronomy,” said Mr Norman from his Mornington home that he has shared with his wife, Doreen, for nearly 60 years.

In 1957 as a science teacher at Casterton high school, Mr Norman received a request from the Astronomical Society of Victoria to report any details of auroras sighted, because the sun was due to be stormy that year. For that same reason, Russia launched the first spacecraft, Sputnik which was accidentally detected by a new radio-telescope in England. It was these events that began the space race, radio astronomy and Peter’s interest in astronomy.

“President Eisenhower immediately ordered the modernising of all science and maths text books.  He also established NASA and made all their space movies freely available to all secondary schools of the western allies.  When teaching physics and maths at University High School in 1958, I took groups of students to Melbourne Observatory to see the stars of our universe,” said Mr Norman, who moved to Mornington with Doreen two years later. “We bought a block of land here and decided this was where we wanted to raise our family. I had discovered Mornington while I was in the army.
We had to drive down to Portsea and, on the way back, stopped at Mornington. I wandered down to the pier and looked at the beautiful bay and decided this was where we should live.”

When he saw that the Mornington High School had bought a telescope after he started working there, Mr Norman thought it would be a good idea to start an astronomy club with the students.

“I began lecturing science and astronomy at Frankston Teachers College in 1971 and made my own telescope when I joined the Astronomical Society of Frankston,” said Mr Norman, who had found his passion in the stars. “I had studied my bachelor of science, bachelor of education and nearly completed a master of arts and history of philosophy but it was when I learnt that trigonometry really started from astronomy that I thought it should be taught in schools.”

Always one to take on a challenge, Mr Norman became the president of that society for the next thirteen years, setting up an observatory in the college grounds which was used by the astronomical society.

Mr Norman then went on to gain his PhD in physics and work as a senior physics lecturer at Monash University, but always came back to the sky.

“During the last forty years I have presented many research  papers at physics and amateur astronomy conferences throughout Australia, and had articles published in international journals,” said Mr Norman who has also published two text books, one with his wife, Doreen as co-author, on Medication Mathematics for nurses.

Becoming legally blind was never going to stop Peter Norman, who teaches astronomy courses at the U3A to this day.

“I was asked to provide a short course in astronomy here in Mornington, and have continued the tradition for the last 27 years,” he said with a laugh. “As I was no longer able to drive a car, the students came to my home for classes. When I teach astronomy through the U3A, I teach the story of astronomy starting with the ancient Aboriginal legends. I do eight lectures over two months, and the students are fascinated.”

Peninsula Essence – September 2019