October 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Broome’s bushman astronomer

By Josephine Rowe
Illustration
Greg Quicke’s mission to help people understand the stars

An hour until dusk, until the buses and Land Rovers set out from the light pollution of Broome for this more star-friendly site: a favourable dark neighbouring a crocodile park. Strips of astroturf have been laid over red pindan sand before a semicircle of three-tier stadium swivel-seating. A troupe of volunteers runs between tiers, whisking brushes over seats. This could be the staging for a bush prophet, and Greg Quicke, with his long silver hair and beard, his bluey and black jeans, seems to fit the frame. The pearl diver turned bush mechanic turned citizen astronomer shoulders telescopes from a shipping container, planting them at intervals on the turf.

“This was my very first telescope,” Quicke says, tinkering with a 10-inch Dobsonian he bought second-hand 25 years ago, a once-sparkly “Magic Happens” sticker encrusted on its flank. “I put coins in a jar for this one,” he reflects, training the scope skywards towards some celestial body not yet visible to the naked eye.

Before showtime, Quicke and his staff of two don the Astro Tours uniform: a white T-shirt emblazoned with a revised pickup line: “Let’s go and watch the Earth turn away from the part of the sky that the Sun is in.”

There are things we learn out of necessity, because our lives or livelihoods depend upon them. Other knowledge we come to passively, through exposure. Quicke learnt about the Moon’s influence over tides in his 20s while working as a pearl diver, navigating 10-metre fluctuations. There were many close calls – the unmanned compressor would periodically pack up, cutting off air supply to the divers – but the final straw for Quicke was more mysterious. While alone on the ocean floor, he felt a tap on his shoulder. “It was like, ‘Hey, you – I could take you out any time I like.’” He quit the following day, taking up terrestrial labour as a station hand. Swagging under the stars, his understanding of the night sky was more accretive. Hundreds of nights passed before he began to notice the trajectories of stars, and then to understand that the shifting in constellations was illusory.

Quicke began Astro Tours in 1995 with the second-hand Dobsonian and whatever could fit into the back of his ute. Eight people was a good night. Twenty-four years later, capacity is 120, and those filing in hail from as far as Scotland, Argentina, Spain. Some are Broome locals entertaining visiting friends. Others have come because Hugh Jackman told them to. “Hugh told me he pinched a few things for his show,” Quicke explains, chuffed.

The Kimberley dark falls fast and moonless. Speaking into a lapel mic, Quicke adopts a night-time voice and genially disavows the sunset (the word, and the ideas inherent to it) as a hangover of flat-earth thinking. Words shape our reality, he reasons. And if we speak in this way – as if the world were not turning, as if it were not revolving around the sun – “it means we still generally go around thinking as if it isn’t so”.

He invokes Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century cosmological theorist whose bronze likeness now stands glowering at the Vatican from Campo de’ Fiori, where he was put to death for proposing something so dangerously heretical as a plurality of worlds.

There is something of the raconteur in Quicke, however softly spoken the patter. He introduces the fleet of catadioptric telescopes in the manner of a gracious musician introducing the band: the 7-inch Maksutovs, the 11-inch Schmidt–Cassegrains, the 20-inch Dobsonians. There are laser pointers and well-timed wisecracks, a delivery honed over thousands of performances. Which is not to say the showmanship, the bush-sage bonhomie, is disingenuous. It’s a livelihood anchored in an ethos, one Quicke embodies onstage: his arms outstretched to demonstrate the axis of rotation, tilting his torso 18 degrees to show our present skew in relation to the equator. He has an auto-didact’s resourcefulness, drawing on whatever common knowledge might be established in order to bring lofty ideas to within collective grasp. Reference points are found in coconuts, grapes and grains of sand, down-scaling the distance of light-years. He makes a gift of the south celestial pole, a staple of navigation steadily exiled from general knowledge. And once you’ve found that, the best way to find north? Turn around.

Equipped with hot chocolate, Anzac biscuits and whatever tenuous comprehension of the infinitude of space might be gleaned in 60 minutes, the audience is invited to descend upon the telescopes. Several dozen strangers amiably shuffle around one another, bowing heads or lifting children towards the scopes for a glimpse of Jupiter, or an open star cluster, or Saturn (which, viewed though a telescope, looks satisfyingly like a glow-in-the-dark sticker of Saturn).

What Quicke hopes to instil in his audiences might seem modest: “Sharing that the Earth turns and that the Earth goes around the Sun is the most profound thing I can do. People can take that and run with it and teach themselves the rest. If they haven’t got those two things, they haven’t got anything – all they’ve got is some abstract idea.”

One wonders about the many other ways our language maroons us. The number of planets – Bruno’s plurality of worlds – remains innumerable. But that way is south. Turn around, and there’s north. That’s a start.

Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe is the author of A Loving, Faithful Animal and Here Until August.

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