Editorial: In praise of ... John Fletcher

Editorial: Like a lot of amateur astronomers, John Fletcher got the bug in 1969, through watching the moon landing

Like a lot of amateur astronomers, John Fletcher got the bug in 1969, through watching the moon landing. He was given a pair of binoculars and began spotting stars; then came a telescope, in order to see the rings of Saturn. Finally, he built an observatory in his Gloucester back garden, where he tracks asteroids that are getting too close to Earth for comfort. His astrophotography was eventually used by Nasa to size up the planetary risks. Last week, it also won him the accolade of having a bit of space furniture named after him: asteroid 6137 is now, officially, Johnfletcher. Science hobbyists are sometimes caricatured as marginal creatures - all sheds and Heath Robinson inventions - but Mr Fletcher's work, and his regular school visits to talk about it, gives the lie to that. Besides, Britain has a long tradition of amateurs in science, like the "lunar men" - Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and others - who met in 1770s Birmingham to talk science. "A little philosophical laughing," one member termed it, but between them they invented the steam engine and discovered oxygen. In that other haven for enthusiasts, the internet, YouTube and others have swiftly gone from bedroom to boardroom. Not so Mr Fletcher, whose work was funded from savings (that back garden observatory meant going without holidays for eight years), and all done while holding down a day job as a postman. "I'd start watching the sky at 10pm, carry on all night, and go straight into work," he recalls. A hobby, but hard graft too.


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