President's message for November, 2011

This edition of NOVA rounds out our series for 2011, and so it presents a natural forum in which to take a look back on a year of astronomy at Vancouver Centre.

The first thing that I did in preparing to write this message was to go back to the first edition of NOVA for this year, and there, in my first President’s message, I found a list that I recorded of the goals that your council had set for itself, and our society, for the coming year (finding that list came as a bit of a surprise – which does not speak well for my memory!). Happily, I think I can say that we did very well, accomplishing almost all of what we set out to do, with one very important exception – a goal that will be first on our plate for next year (more on that at the end).

Top of the list in that article was to ensure a successful year of monthly lectures. Our Speaker Coordinator Barry Shanko set the bar very high with our first lecture of the year, when we hosted Dr. John Mather of the Goddard Space Flight Centre, co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, for a talk on the James Webb Space Telescope. That January lecture was standing room only in the auditorium at the Space Centre! Although we did not fill the auditorium to bursting again this year, we had a series of top-notch speakers on a diverse range of topics, which helped to generate a consistently high attendance record, topping 150 people on two other occasions, and getting in the neighborhood of 100 on a few others. These other high water marks included our annual Paul Sykes lecture, held in October at SFU, when we hosted Jon Lomberg, astronomy artist and long-time collaborator with Carl Sagan; and Kaspar von Braun of Caltech, a world-leader in the exo-planet business, who we hosted at UBC.

Another major goal for 2011 was to strengthen our partnerships with other regional groups committed to astronomy outreach, and we vigorously worked this objective throughout the year! Our major partners were Metro-Vancouver Parks, Simon Fraser University, the International Lunar Observatory Association, the NRC/Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, the Vancouver Telescope Centre, and Canadian Telescopes. In particular, we held multiple events with Metro-Parks all across the greater Vancouver area, from Pacific Spirit Park on the west side, through Deas Island Park in Delta, and out east to Aldergrove Lake Regional Park (where we held our very rainy Astronomy Day in May). All of our collaborative efforts were in addition to our own very active program of community-based outreach, which included multiple presentations at the Roundhouse in Yaletown, at the Maple Ridge Public Library, and at malls, schools and community centres across town.

These events represent the collective work of council members and volunteers from the membership at large, are were managed under the direction of your outstanding Events Coordinator Suzanna Nagy, who deserves special mention for her creative and tireless work, including her successful efforts to enlist new volunteers. Another particular mention goes to your Education Chair, Bill Burnyeat, who this summer once again travelled to numerous provincial parks and campgrounds throughout BC, to bring observational astronomy to the public under dark skies. In addition to support from council for this effort, Bill received a prestigious grant from NSERC PromoScience, a federal government agency that promotes science outreach initiates (and I can tell you from personal experience that they don’t fool around when it comes to allocating support!).

Council also set the goal of reaching novice astronomers, especially young ones! To this end, we instituted a new “What’s Up?” segment, 20-minute presentations that were held before many of our monthly lectures. These were very successful, turning out many newcomers to Vancouver Centre, thanks in part to Simon Fraser University’s extensive contacts with parents and teachers who have attended its grade school oriented astronomy workshop program. (As an aside, for 2012 council intends to pick a few monthly meetings to devote entirely to a “What’s Up?”, rather than staggering short segments ahead of our lectures, as we did this year, since our presentations are generally too tough for a young audience.) Our “What’s Up?” segments included practical tips on observing the night sky, and educational morsels (light but filling!) on a variety of topics, from what amateur astronomers actually do, to unsolved mysteries at the cutting-edge of astronomy and space science, and a light-hearted hands-on, do it yourself expanding universe ;)!

In connection with our efforts to reach young people, a very notable development this year came in the form of a new sponsor: Canadian Telescopes. Babak Sedehi, the owner of this very successful startup in the business of on-line telescope shopping, was an enthusiastic and very generous supporter of just about every one of our activities that were directed to young people. This included a telescope door prize at every one of our “What’s Up?” segments, and a top-quality 8” Dobsonian telescope at our Paul Sykes lecture (only kids were eligible!). But Babak didn’t stop there. He generously subsidized publication of NOVA for much of the year, insisting that this include four pages in colour! And he offered new members of Vancouver Centre a $20 gift certificate from CanadianTelescopes.com.

Rounding out the goals that we set and met this year, we continued to develop our web site, which has a professional look, a well-organized structure, and new content, thanks in particular to our Webmaster and IT Chair Harvey Dueck; our LPA Chair Mark Eburne made substantive progress on this important issue, working his contacts in the media and municipal government; and good progress was reported at the AOMO, including work on a guide scope, and increased use by members and the public, thanks to co-Chairs Leigh Cummings and Mark Eburne.

We fell down on our goals in only two areas: establishing a Twitter presence, and a Biggie: membership. Our numbers are down this year, despite the many new faces that we’ve seen at our many events. Tackling the dual challenges of retaining our existing membership, and attracting new ones, will be job #1 for 2012. Bearing this in mind, at our annual planning meeting in October Council established a short but carefully chosen list of priorities in which to focus our efforts and resources for next year (this process owes especially to the leadership of your Webmaster and IT Chair Harvey Dueck, and your Secretary Alan Jones) – details on our 2012 priorities will be found in my President’s message in the January 2012 edition of NOVA ;).

I think there is much cause for optimism for a successful 2012 at Vancouver Centre, including for a strong return on our planned all-out assault on the membership challenge. My optimism is further stoked by the fact that there will be eight newcomers to council for 2012. Some familiar faces will be stepping down from Council, some after very many years of service, and I want to record here the deep indebtedness of Vancouver Centre towards these dedicated members – in alphabetical order: Doug Montgomery, Gavin McLeod, Pomponia Martinez, and Wayne Lyons. In their place, the eight incoming council members have chosen to follow the example set by the outgoing councilors, in the service of the membership at large, and our public – and I can tell you, the newbies are full of beans! Introductions will have to wait for ratification at the December AGM ;). I can’t wait!

Howard Trottier

President, RASC-VC

Professor of Physics, SFU