President's Message for May 2011

I’ve been a member of RASC Vancouver for only four years, and look what has happened to me!

Clarification: I’m thrilled to be serving as Vancouver Centre President! And in the past four years, I’ve become so deeply submerged in astronomy, for public outreach at RASC Vancouver and at SFU, and to scratch my personal itch for astronomical imaging, that my family’s lifestyle has been forever changed (more on the latter in a two part story in NOVA: Part 1 was in the last edition, and Part 2 will appear in the next; elsewhere in this edition, please look for a short piece on my encounter with the Horsehead Nebula!).

So after only four years at RASC Vancouver, I have many members still to meet, and many others to get to know still better. Perhaps more surprising is the number of activities put on by our society that I have yet to experience, despite my deep submersion in astronomy, both personally and as an educator, over the last four years. I am continually impressed and inspired anew by the passionate commitment to public service of so many members of Vancouver Centre, and by the wide range of activities for the public as well as our fellow members that is powered by this commitment.

Since the last regular edition of NOVA, I’ve had the particular pleasure of diving deep into two of RASC Vancouver’s signature annual events: “Night Quest,” put on by Metro Parks at Pacific Spirit Regional Park on West 16th, to which we have been invited to participate for many years, and which this year took place on Saturday March 19; and Astronomy Day, which we held this year at Aldergrove Lake Regional Park on Saturday May 8, at the invitation of Metro Parks, in association with their annual “Urban Star Quest.”

(My first participation in RASC Vancouver’s Astronomy Day was last year, when it was held at SFU in September, though that time out I primarily wore my “SFU astronomy outreach” hat. SFU put on a huge science open house to promote its project to build an observatory and science outreach centre, and RASC Vancouver’s Astronomy Day generating the initial impetus for the event. BTW, did you know that RASC Vancouver has provided significant support for this project in particular, and SFU astronomy outreach in general, including a generous matching donation last year on behalf of membership to the observatory’s capital construction fund, and a major commitment of volunteer time to SFU’s outreach activities? I can tell you that this support is well recognized at SFU!)

Metro Park’s “Night Quest” had a huge turnout again this year, this time in excess of 1600 people! We estimate about half that number paid a visit to the RASC Vancouver area, which was located at a very prominent location designated especially for us by Metro Parks. Our many guests enjoyed telescopic views of the night sky, thanks to council members Suzanna Nagy, Harvey Dueck, and Doug Montgomery, and took home additional insights into the cosmos from conversations with Bill Burnyeat and yours truly, along with handouts including some 200 RASC star wheels, and information on Vancouver Centre. The event was also notable for the fact that by about Noon that day, we had “officially” given up on bringing telescopes, with the forecast from Environment Canada calling for late afternoon thunderstorms and heavy rain into the evening! Nonetheless, our guests were treated to some pretty decent skies, and RASC Vancouver was there with telescopes!

How is it that a bad forecast so rarely turns out to be wrong, while good forecasts frequently (usually?) turn bad?

I took a little time off from our station, during a lull between surges of guests, for my first-ever walk the “Night Quest” trail. There were lanterns along the path; a series of inspiring and thought-provoking quotes from naturalists, scientists, and other writers, posted on trees all along the way; and many volunteers in costume, and staffing hands-on displays about nocturnal wildlife, at many stations on the trail. RASC Vancouver’s site was at an elevated clearing close to the trailhead, and just down the slope from us stood a big tent where grade-school age volunteers served up low-cost treats. All of this came together to create a magical and moving experience. My only regret was that I did not discover “Night Quest” when my son Alexandre was a tot, as it is an experience that must surely leave a young visitor (not to mention their familial chaperons!) with an enduring sense of a profound connection to the natural world.

Incidentally, this was the first Vancouver Centre public event where our volunteers wore our new “RASC Volunteer” red bibs. These eye-catching pullovers can be worn even over bulky winter coats and jackets, and are one of the fruits of having Suzanna Nagy as Events Coordinator; among many other initiatives, Suzanna has been busy reimagining and remaking our public display materials. The red bibs certainly had the desired effect on this occasion, most tellingly demonstrated as I walked along the trail, when I overheard comments from numerous passersby who noticed my bib, despite the darkness of the trail: “Oh, there goes an Astronomy volunteer” – I kid you not!

RASC Vancouver’s most ambitious public outreach event of the year is Astronomy Day, and this year a remarkably high number of volunteers came forward to deliver an outstanding slate of activities. Not including Council members who turned out in force, 26 RASCals contributed their time, either in the preparations leading to the event, on event day itself, with many working both ends of this undertaking. Our masterful Events Coordinator, Suzanna Nagy, orchestrated the whole effort with skill and poise! If you see Suzanna at any of our meetings or events, please give her kudos, not just in connection with Astronomy Day, but also for the many events that she coordinates on behalf of RASC Vancouver throughout the year.

Better yet, why not contact Suzanna and volunteer your time, if you haven’t done so already? This can be for any degree of commitment that works for you, from casual to continuing! After all, this is what we are all about. Did you get into astronomy thanks to someone who satisfied your curiosity about some topic in space science, or who introduced you to observing the night sky? If so, then you have a special reason to volunteer your time, either behind the scenes or out in front. No matter how you got into astronomy, email Suzanna at [email protected], so you can give back to the community at large!

So about Astronomy Day … what the weather gives to astronomers on one evening (in this illustration, consider our “Night Quest” evening in March), the weather seems to take back in spades on another. Hence it seemed almost preordained that the skies would open up, as they did, with a torrential downpour the morning of Astronomy Day. This included hail in some regions of greater Vancouver, and the rain did not let up until after our Noon start time.

Needless to say, plans had to be adjusted accordingly. The original program was to feature an all-night star party, thanks to our Metro Parks hosts, which was scrubbed the day before based on the dismal forecast. Happily, our Noon-6PM slate of activities went ahead without a hitch, thanks to a large collection of ginormous tents, a multitude of electrical power connections, and bathroom facilities, all provided by Metro Parks. Did I mention that Metro Parks underwrote and managed the entire logistical effort for Astronomy Day, with a bargain entrance fee of just $2?! Our volunteers had only to set up some tables and chairs, along with a couple of our own tents, to then get busy engaging the public with our many displays and activities.

I imagine that at this point one might like to know the attendance. At last year’s Astronomy Day we had over 1,000 guests , and this year … about 140 . But we had alot of very positive feedback from those that came despite the morning downpour, and this kept our volunteers and participating groups in very good spirits. And lesson learned: next year, as with last year, we will choose a venue with a fully enclosed interior space in case of rain.

I’m going to take a stab at describing a few of the many highlights of our Astronomy Day program (and you can find more information in Suzanna Nagy’s article elsewhere in this edition of NOVA). But first I want to thank our sponsors, and first and foremost that means the Metro Parks team led by Parks Interpretation Specialist Lori Bartley. Lori and her crew went above and beyond the call of duty to run a professional logistical operation that made all the difference. So on behalf of RASC Vancouver, I want to shout out a ginormous “Thank You” to our friends from Metro Parks.

A set of ginormous “Thank You”-s goes out to our sponsors: the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Vancouver Telescope, and Canadian Telescope. Their generosity showed in our large collection of first-rate raffle and door prizes. See RASC Vancouver Treasurer Wayne Lyons’ article elsewhere in this NOVA for the full set of prizes and the lucky winners.

I also want to single out Sharon Guilford for special mention. Sharon’s kids and their Grade 2/3 elementary school class participated in an SFU astronomy workshop way back in February of 2009. Her family’s continuing involvement in SFU’s outreach program “Starry Nights @ SFU” eventually led them to attend one of Vancouver Centre’s first “What’s Up?” functions at the Space Centre, in March. “What’s Up?” is a new series that is designed especially for newcomers to astronomy, particularly young ones, and which precedes our regular monthly lectures. Sharon was moved to donate  a portion of the Bob Thirsk memorabilia in her possession to RASC Vancouver, including pins from an ISS flight, and autographed pictures of the man himself, the Canadian astronaut who has logged the most hours in space, and who has also spent the longest time in space on a single mission. Sharon knows Thirsk from when her family lived outside Houston. In 2009 Sharon got Thirsk to connect from the ISS via video with the elementary school class attended by her kids. Hence the memorabilia. Sharon gave RASC Council complete latitude to use these items in the most effective ways we could come up with. After much discussion, Council decided to use this treasure trove to acknowledge the work done by RASC Vancouver volunteers. At our May 12 public meeting at the Space Centre, our Events Coordinator Suzanna Nagy will present one of these items to one of our Astronomy Day volunteers, drawn at random.

Among our many presenters on Astronomy Day, Jim Bernath was on hand with his awesome collection of space rocks, which he insists that a visitor inspect hands-on, as well as through his microscope, and which include a moon rock and a passel of meteorites. And then there was Jim’s mind-bending dark bottomless pit in a box! Jim’s display is well known to many RASCals, and has been seen by countless kids, but this was my first time through his collection, and I’ll be back for more! Another first for me was to participate in Ted Stroman’s passionate and authoritative presentation on the Apollo missions; I came away with a renewed conviction that the best public presentations make minimal or no use of “canned goods” such as “Powerpoint”, and maximal use of imaginations fired by compelling story telling using “real world” props, as Ted does with his models of Apollo-era rockets and spacecraft, including the Saturn V. Council members premiered RASC Vancouver’s new set of professional-looking posters on the Sun and planets, simultaneously eye-catching and informative, thanks to the vision of Suzanna Nagy, and genuinely professional graphic design by NOVA editor Gordon Farrell, and drawing on raw material from our partners at the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria.

Another highlight of Astronomy Day was the “Solar System Walk” put on SFU Student Astronomy Club members Ciara Morgan-Feir, Alanna Shuh, Michelle Murvai, and Rohit Grover (who is one of RASC Vancouver’s newest members). What sets this solar system model apart from many others is that an equal scale is applied to the planet sizes and their orbits. Shrink the Earth down to a peppercorn, and walk one kilometer to reach a pinhead Pluto, an honorary full-fledged planet on this occasion! Our SFU student volunteers were kept busy throughout the afternoon with a steady stream of kids of all ages, including many repeat customers .

I’ve just scratched the surface of our program. There were kids crafts and activity tables, with Jill Breckenridge first to jump in as always at the earliest planning stages; an informative display on Light Pollution Abatement by LPA Chair Mark Eburne; a speaker series kicked off and hosted by yours truly; and impressive displays by our partners from the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Canadian Telescope, the Fraser Valley Astronomical Society, and Space Launch Canada. And finally, not to forget our many top-quality raffle and door prizes.

In case the foregoing account of “Night Quest” and “Astronomy Day/Urban Star Quest” is not enough to raise your eyebrows at RASC Vancouver’s major-league engagement with the public, RASCals have been busy over the past two months with much more!

At our March 10 public meeting we hosted science educator and writer Sharon Proctor, who had a intriguing astronomical tale to tell from Vancouver’s early history, “Grouse Mountain Observatory: an early 20th century dream.” We sponsored and participated in “Galaxy Forum 2011” on April 10 at the Space Centre, an education and outreach event organized by the International Lunar Observatory Association based in Palo Alto and Hawaii. Our April 14 public meeting brought us a Members’ night that included a wonderfully personal introduction to the night sky by Treasurer Wayne Lyons, part of our new “What’s Up?” series. Membership Chair Gavin McLeod gave a wry scientific presentation on the Moon as part of “Vancyclopedia” at the Havanna Theatre on April 23. Education Chair Bill Burnyeat presented a public lecture at the Yaletown Roundhouse on April 29, and recently surpassed a dozen special shows at the BCIT planetarium for this year alone. We’ve held a number of “Sidewalk Astronomy” events in recent months, including a very successful two-day program at the Valley Fair Mall in Maple Ridge on April 30 and May 1, organized by AOMO co-Chair Leigh Cummings (who has also brought astronomy to a number of Girl Guide groups in recent weeks) with major assists by Mark Eburne (who wears three hats on Council), and Immediate Past President Ron Jerome. And Yours Truly flew the RASC Vancouver flag at four daytime SFU astronomy workshops between March and early May, hosting a total of about 200 grade-school age kids from 6 schools, with the assistance of RASCals Leigh Cummings, Ron Jerome, and Steve Megahan; and in addition, on April 27, I visited Sperling Elementary in Burnaby, to take a Grade 2 class along with their teacher and some parents on a half-kilometer “Solar System Walk” up Sperling Avenue, with the Principal’s permission of course!

Finally, and by way of an impassioned summing up, I urge you to consider what RASC Vancouver already contributes to the community, and volunteer your time to make it an even stronger leader in public science education and, perhaps even more importantly, in bringing the experience of science to the public. As I wrote above, this is what we are all about, and your participation can be for any degree of commitment that works for you, from casual to continuing. So please email our Events Coordinator Suzanna Nagy at [email protected]!

Here’s to clear skies, and more time under the stars, with membership and the public!

Howard Trottier

President, RASC-VC

Professor of Physics, SFU