A love for astronomy from Australia to Iceland

Col Maybury and Snaevarr Gudmundsson are like two distant stars in the same orbit.

Col is president of the Astronomical Society of the Hunter. Snaevarr is an astronomer from Iceland. 

One day in 1996, Col was doing his regular radio spot on astronomy.

“I was looking for someone to talk to from somewhere interesting,” he said.

“It came to me that Iceland is the furthest country that you can possibly get from ours.”

He rang a university in Iceland and spoke to a professor. The professor said, “I know just the person”.

Col made contact with Snaevarr and they’ve been long-distance friends ever since.

“We went to the total eclipse of the sun in 2006 and met there,” Col, of Kurri Kurri, said.

“We photographed an eclipse in the ruined Temple of Apollo at Antalya in Turkey on the Mediterranean.”

In March, Col and his wife Marcy made the 23-hour flight to Iceland to visit Snaevarr and his wife Sibby. 

“Snaevarr took us all around the wild east in the fjord country. It’s absolutely startling,” Col said.

Now the Icelanders are visiting their Australian friends in Kurri. 

Snaevarr gave a talk on astronomy and the aurora borealis at East Maitland Bowling Club, hosted by the Astronomical Society of the Hunter last Thursday.

“The aurora is quite spectacular, especially for people who are not used to seeing it,” Snaevarr said.

“In Iceland they are a common thing, all year around. Frequently, they put on a spectacular display. The light is so dynamic. It’s almost unreal.

“There are a lot of people now coming to Iceland in the winter time just to see the northern lights.”

Nowadays, Snaevarr doesn’t spend a great deal of time observing the auroras. They’re so common, they become part of the landscape. But he does have other interests in astronomy. He has an observatory in his yard in Iceland. In his spare time, he likes to measure eclipsing binary stars and the “transit of exoplanets”.

“For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by the universe and the stars. We can see the movement of distant stars when they are rotating around each other. Or see a signal from a distant exoplanet – a planet in a distant star system.

“We are the first generation to be capable of measuring this or seeing this.”

Snaevarr is also a glaciologist.

“Glaciers are now widely retreating because of climate changes. My job is to monitor them,” he said.

He researches glaciers for the South East Iceland Nature Research Centre.

“I was fascinated by mountains and glaciers when I was a teenager. They have continued to be part of my life,” he said.

“I’m originally a mountain climber. That was probably the root of this. When you are in the mountains and on the glaciers, it kind of gets to you. Later on, you want to study them to learn more about them – how they work, their geometry and dynamics.”

His interest in astronomy stems from “being outside in the night, in the mountains”.

“I work on my glaciological stuff. As soon as I leave my office, I go home and do some astronomical stuff. I'm always thinking about nature in one way or another.”

Wikings and Wegemite  

Col told Topics that Icelanders pronounce v as w, giving “wikings” as an example.

“In Iceland, we met a very bright 15-year-old boy at a bus transfer station. In very good English, he told us about learning Icelandic, Danish and English,” Col said.

As the youngster left, he said: “By the way, your Wegemite is atrocious”.

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