The Burke-Gaffney Observatory – Cosmoboy’s unveiling speech

11 11 2014

Ecogirl suggested that I post my speech from the press conference – so here it is!

speech“Thank you everyone for being here for this celebration!

While our Observatory Director Dave Lane is going to tell you about the Medjuck telescope and our plans for the Burke-Gaffney Observatory in detail, I just want to take a couple of minutes of your time to talk about the impact of astronomy on campus.

Everything you are is a product of your experiences and choices.

And a great education informs both of these; by exposing you to new – sometimes breathtaking – experiences, and providing you with the knowledge and frameworks you need to make good choices.

press_confThose thoughts are really what drove the renovation of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory. Any student that studies astronomy, whether in introductory courses for non-scientists or the more specialized honours program, will have a chance to use the Medjuck telescope for observing projects. Thanks to our enthusiastic telescope operators you don’t even have to know your eyepiece from your elbow to be able to use the telescope!

laneBut even more exciting is the possibility of robotic control. Dave Lane has done a remarkable job in bringing the observatory up-to-date. He can now control it entirely from home, and as you’ll see today, a social media interface is in the works. Need to get a picture of a galaxy for your ASTR1000 project? Try tweeting.

But access alone isn’t the most amazing thing about the renovation. The gorgeous new 24.5 inch Medjuck telescope is the second largest campus telescope in Canada. With a modern optical design it produces stunning images, significantly better than our beloved Ealing telescope. It is a fantastic piece of research grade equipment – indeed a model just like it has been cold tested for deployment in the Arctic. We know it works down to -35 C, so I guarantee we’ll still be running in the middle of winter!

But to give you an idea of its capabilities, just a day before one of the first viewing sessions with the new telescope, a supernova went off in a neighbouring galaxy (and for those of you that don’t know, the first supernova ever discovered in Canada was discovered from the BGO in 1995). But how far away was that supernova? 11.5 million light years. To put that in context, the light from that supernova left before the great-apes had truly started evolving on the savannah of Africa. There were no humans anywhere.

I’ll leave it to the words of seven year old girl to describe what she thought of seeing the supernova and how old it was: “That’s soooo cool!!!

But this isn’t even close to pushing the limits of the Medjuck Telescope. The most distant object it will be able to see, the not very romantically called 3C273, is 2.5 billion light years away. The light that we are now receiving from it left when the only form of life on Earth was single cell bacteria. No plants. No higher forms of life. The fossil cliffs at Joggins were still 2.2 billion years from being formed.

Just think about this for a second:

BGOYou now have a chance to put light in your eye that has travelled across almost 20% of the entire Universe. To be influenced by something that is unimaginably distant, something incredibly old. That’s a breathtaking experience. It may not be full of heart pumping adrenaline, but it makes you realize something quite profound – that even the most distant of things can have an impact on how you see the world and yourself.

And by now you’ve also realized that astronomy isn’t just about charting the skies. It’s about time-travel too. You probably didn’t think of the Medjuck Telescope as a time-machine, but in some sense that’s exactly what it is.

medjuckAbove all this, we should see the chance to have these experiences, and the knowledge that comes with them, as a gift. Thanks to the generosity of Dr Medjuck the support of the University, and hard work by dedicated individuals, we’re incredibly excited and just a little bit proud in Astronomy and Physics to be able to share these experiences both with everyone on campus, and also the community of Halifax. And through social media, perhaps soon the world!

So please, come to the BGO and be amazed.

The Universe is yours to discover.

Thank you.”


The “All New!” Burke-Gaffney Observatory

1 11 2014

bgopreviewOver the past 18 months Cosmoboy has been honoured to be a part of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory renovations at Saint Mary’s University. Built in 1972 to honour Father Burke-Gaffney, it has become an icon of the Saint Mary’s campus. But in all that time it has never had significant renovations – beyond CCD upgrades – and much has changed in astronomy technology. By the time of the 40th anniversary it was clear that revitalization of the BGO was needed!

Plans were hatched by the Observatory Director Dave Lane and Cosmoboy in the fall of 2012. The ambitious renovation proposal included a new 24.5 inch telescope (from Planewave, their CDK24 model), and adding an observing deck so we could show more of the sky at a given time. That would also increase the student and visitor capacity of the observatory – we’ve had days when the queue went down the stairs… Which doesn’t make it much fun anyone.

Medjuck_familyThe University was supportive from the get-go, but budgets were tight and we were asking for significant funds. In the end, our Office of Advancement came to the rescue and through our President’s Office the well known local philanthropist Dr Ralph M. Medjuck was approached. As many people in town are aware, Dr Medjuck and his wife Mrs Shirlee Medjuck (right with their daughter Linda) have donated considerable sums to Halifax universities in support of education. To cut to the chase, Dr Medjuck agreed to support the project, and we named the telescope in his honour.

I’ve said thank you to our benefactors so many times already, but I can’t write this blog post without saying thanks again to Dr and Mrs Medjuck. Without their support, and that of Saint Mary’s University at large, this project would not have been possible.

bgo_titleBut cut to April 2013, things were moving forward. At that point we decided the project was a “sufficiently big deal” for the university and the department that we should make a short documentary on it. Local filmmaker and astronomy fan Martin Hellmich agreed to take the challenge on! The resulting film can be seen here – watch it in HD! There are some really fantastic time-lapses in there – we were pretty gobsmacked when Martin first showed them to us! Go watch it!

BGO_telescopePainting of the dome and mount happened during the summer of 2013 and turned out to be much more of an adventure than we had anticipated. To cut a long story short, you really need to prime well! But we all think the final look is great – the white of the pier matches the black and white of the Medjuck telescope perfectly, while the blue accents the small details on the ‘scope. Kudos to Dave Lane for picking out the colours! Note, the paint has to stand up to some tough conditions – the observatory gets brutally hot in the summer and cold in the winter (snow will often sneak into the dome through the gap between the rotating and stationary parts).

obsdeckFencing off the observatory deck also encountered a few glitches. The initial drilling was done at the end of exam time and understandably some complaints were made about the noise! So we held off finishing that until all the exams were done. But the end product looks great, and we all agree the view from 22 floors up is simply mind-blowing – especially at night! So if we get parents that aren’t too interested in astronomy bringing their children along to open houses, we still have something to take their breath away.

install_scopeOf course, the most fun part of the whole project was the new telescope arrival and installation! With a 6 month delivery time, we had our fingers crossed it would be delivered just before Christmas 2013 so that we could swap it in for the new term starting in January 2014. Everything went to plan. But installing a new telescope in the middle of December in Canada is a chilly proposition! So we had to borrow a 5kW heater to warm things up. The 40 year old mount bolts were just fine as well, despite us being very worried about the possibility of things breaking!

press_confAnd finally bringing the story up-to-date, this week (October 2014) we’ve been able to celebrate the installation and thank everyone involved! There’s still a lot of work to be done on the social media side, but the hardware is all in place. The press events this week went off fantastic, and some of our friends in the media did an awesome job of letting people in Halifax know about the renovations (here, here, here, here). We’re just over the Moon (sorry! 🙂 ) to have everything get to this point!

So please, if you’re in Halifax and want to take look, reserve a ticket and come to a public night! We’d love to see you there!

Great Lakes, Great Stakes! Part 2. Tilting at wind turbines.

11 05 2011

Lake Ontario is a beleaguered Great Lake. Millions of Americans and Canadians live around the lake and countless others depend on the Lake Ontario watershed for water, fish, transport and shipping. It is inevitable that harmful impacts will arise from all those people relying on the lake’s resources.  But, is it also possible to generate postive impacts?

TransAlta claims so.  They have built one of the largest wind farms in Ontario and are leading the forefront of the so-called, “green energy” industrial development in North America.  The wind farm is on the truly buccolic Wolfe Island, just a short ferry ride from the City of Kingston.

Wolfe Island wind turbines from air

Wolfe Island wind turbines from air

The area around Kingston is one of the windiest in Canada, making it a freshwater sailing mecca, and the host of many sailing  regattas and championships. As students at Queen’s University know, wind and kite surfers are a common sight along the shoreline. To take advantage of this energy bounty, TransAlta’s wind turbines, 86 of them, covers the entire island from head to foot, the description locals fondly use for the western and eastern tips. Every turbine, standing a gargantuan 80 meters tall (24 stories), is located on private land with TransAlta paying a generous fee to the land owner. Many farmers have found the turbines to be a significant boost, allowing them to expand their businesses and produce for local markets. However, many residents find the turbines to be ugly, noisy and harmful to the peace of their cherished island.

The IJNR fellows had happened to arrive on Wolfe Island on an important day.  Wednesday May 5 marked the beginning of  a tax-assessment hearing on the impact of wind turbines on property values.  As the Kingston Whig-Standard reported, Wolfe islanders were arguing that the wind turbines had lowered property values on the island.  Other opponents of wind farm developments elsewhere on Lake Ontario had come specifically to sit in the hearing.  As a result, the IJNR had to tread carefully and sensitively to avoid the impression of bias towards any group on the island.

An IJNR fellow photographing a wind turbine tower

An IJNR fellow photographing a wind turbine tower

We toured the island to see the wind turbines up close. They truly tower over the entire island which otherwise consists of farms and 2-story houses. The structures are so prominent in the landscape that local touring companies now have their boats go by the island specifically to view the turbines. Our lunch stop was  a church, which had been carefully selected because it represented neutral ground for all factions on the Island.  Farmers, TransAlta representatives and anti-wind community members then discussed issues with the journalists.  As a Queen’s professor and an observer, I did  not directly participate in those sessions but used this as an opportunity to listen and learn about the issues.

Green energy initiatives are simply not as clean-cut as one would like, or the press would have us believe. Wind power does produce minimal pollution when generating energy, a big advantage in a province that relies on dirty coal-powered generating plants and controversial nuclear plants.  However, having such dominant structures planted throughout one’s community really changes one’s relationship to the land and landscape.  Wolfe Island is now an important case study for all communities and corporations considering wind power developments.

After Wolfe Island, we travelled to Picton where we had a lovely evening meal at one of the local restaurants. Frank Allen spoke in detail and gave some intriguing perspectives on environmental reporting and communicating complex ideas to the public.

Frank speaking on environmental journalism at IJNR dinner in Picton

Frank speaking on environmental journalism at IJNR dinner in Picton

The next day, they joined a fishing trip led by my colleague Tim Johnson, a scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources fisheries research station in Glenora. I said my good byes that evening, but I’ll definitely be following the work of all the journalists I met during this trip.  It was a wonderful opportunity, not only for the journalists, but also for this scientist, to discuss Lake Ontario environmental issues.

My thanks go to the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources for their invitation and hosting.

[Part 1 of this two-part post on the rising & declining fish populations in Lake Ontario is linked here.]

Great Lakes, Great Stakes! Part 1. The rise and fall of fish species.

10 05 2011

Are the Great Lakes important? Should people outside of the region care about our Great Lakes?  The Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources (IJNR) think so.

Last week, a group of American and Canadian journalists travelled around Lake Ontario on an IJNR fellowship.  Travelling on a bus rented from a Montreal hockey team, they started their journey canoeing down the Don River in Toronto. After the canoe trip, they continued along their route, stopping at various sites to meet experts and learn about environmental issues affecting Lake Ontario.

Frank Allen of IJNR invited me to join them halfway through their trip.  I met the journalists in Sackets Harbor in New York and spent a lovely evening talking about science communication and the journalist perspective.  The next day, inspired and energized by the discussions from the night before, I joined several journalists on a charter fishing boat captained by “Megabite”.  The goal for the day was to land some trout, but the heavens opened early.

IJNR Fellows fishing in the rain

IJNR Fellows fishing in the rain

Despite the downpour, it was a good trip. We went to a deep trench in Lake Ontario by an island where trout and salmon congregate at their preferred cold temperatures and caught many fish.  And throughout the day we talked extensively about the science and economics of the introduced fish.

IJNR fellows interviewing Captain "Megabite"

IJNR fellows interviewing Captain "Megabite"

Most trout and all salmon in Lake Ontario are not native. They have been stocked by state and provincial governments for several decades.  They are the cornerstone of a thriving multi-million dollar sportfish and recreational fishing industry around the lake.

Just as I wrote about Lake Erie, Lake Ontario is not the same lake it was 50 years ago.  Invasive species, especially round goby, now make up a high proportion of the trout and salmon diets. After meeting with the charter boat captains and New York biologists we discussed native, introduced and invasive species. The Sackets Harbor captains mentioned that the round goby had very probably revived their fishing businesses in a big way!

Trout caught by IJNR fellows for lunch!

We then drove over the Canadian border to meet with a group of people working on the endangered American eel.  The rain simply would not abate, and we had to huddle under a bridge by small river for shelter. This particular river is an important site for young eels and we were to see a demonstration of electro-fishing. My colleague, John Casselman and his graduate students spoke about their work with American eel, which has an amazingly intricate marine-freshwater lifecycle that is threatened by dams along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In addition, John Rorabeck, an expert commercial fisherman, spoke about the historical importance of American eel to fishing industries. Unfortunately the boat was not working so we could not collect American eel, but the journalists got to listen to top-notch stories by two leading experts.  It was wonderful to listen to John R, especially as he truly has close ties to Lake Ontario and he had worked with one of my graduate students on the Rideau Lakes catching fish for our food web analyses.

Commercial fisherman John R speaking about American eel

Commercial fisherman John R speaking about American eel

By the end of the day the complexity of the lake was becoming very apparent. We had considered introduced fish species which were benefiting from an invasive fish species, the trout and the round goby. We also discussed a native species fast declining in the Great Lakes.  Lake Ontario is changing very rapidly… what will it be like in the future? Even the most knowledgeable scientists and fishermen are not sure.

Tomorrow:  Tilting at wind turbines.

World Water Day 2011

22 03 2011

Spring ice break-up in riverIt is now Spring Ice Break-up time in southern Ontario, a time of great interest to “lake ice phenologists“. As I write this, I am looking out of the window at a very wet scene in the back garden.  There was an early Spring snowfall yesterday, which is now melting away.  The snowmelt is flowing towards the street where it is going down the drains which will eventually lead to Lake Ontario.  While I look outside, I take a sip of my tea, which was made with treated Lake Ontario water from the tap.  Lake Ontario, one of the world’s largest lakes, is interconnected with my life and that of my neighbours in numerous intimate ways. Yet we hardly ever take the time to think about the waterbodies flowing around our city.

Today, we get this opportunity.  Today is the Global World Water DayWorld Water Day 2011 Logo (English) (March 22), spearheaded by several United Nations agencies.  It is a day of global celebration and learning with events in thousands of cities, towns and villages around the world, including many across Canada and United States.

The focus of World Water Day is on clean drinkable water for people.  Water is essential, not only for our survival, but also for our health by ensuring sanitary habitats.  Clean water is also essential for the stability of human societies.  There is no way around it — access to clean water is a fundamental human right.  Without it, there will be death, suffering and widespread chaos.

City of Toronto from airMany Canadians are very fortunate to have access to cheap clean drinkable water from lakes, rivers and groundwater — we even use it to flush our toilets! However, Canada is not except from water access issues.  Many communities in the north struggle with access to clean water with severe consequences. Even in the south, there has been occasional outbreaks of water-borne diseases due to improper monitoring and oversight.   We all must work together to ensure we have access to safe water at all times.

Water is also essential for healthy ecosystems.  Pollution is wide spread. We all are connected through air and through water.  Due to atmospheric Hazard Waste awaiting pick up for proper disposaltransportation, there is chemical contaminants in water bodies world-wide, even in remote sites.  Temperature and nutrient pollution are widespread in large lakes where people live.  Physical pollution such as garbage, plastics and unwanted objects can create havoc for both aquatic and terrestrial biota.

Lucky for us all, there are success stories and we can still share the beauty of our lakes and rivers with the world.  Take a moment to appreciate your neighbouring lakes and rivers, oceans and estuaries.  Whether it is snowing, raining or dry where you live, think about the water you use and where you get the water from.   Water is amazing, and connects us all.  Celebrate World Water Day by drinking a glass of clean water!

Rideau River at Sunrise

Research and the real world? Putting it into practice.

15 11 2010

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to give a keynote seminar at the University oCover photo for the PIIP talk (blackboard with geometric diagrams)f Western Ontario (UWO) for their first graduate “Putting it into Practice” (PIIP) conference. The goal of the conference was to encourage UWO grad students to look beyond the confines of their research / graduate program and consider how to put their skills and knowledge to a broader use beyond academia.  There were two keynote speakers, a series of workshops and job-fair booths in order to allow attendees to learn and explore the range of possibilities out there.

My stripped-down keynote presentation is posted at Slideboom if you’d like to check it out. In it, I discuss briefly my research background and how I combine both applied and basic research. Working with lakes,White water rafting image for innovation water quality and fish inevitably leads oneself to consider the importance and impact of that research on people and our environment. Even if I do basic research on how a particular element is transferred through the foodchain, I seem to find myself talking about the ramifications of exposure and sources of that element on an every-day basis. Concerned people, government managers and industry all want to prevent future environmental issues.

I started off with a U Waterloo degreediscussion of the concept of innovation and how research is important for generating capacity for innovation (e.g., ingenuity gap, quoting Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon) in Canada.  Graduate and undergraduate training in both applied and basic research is necessary if Canada needs to develop its human capacity and the ability to adapt to a fast-changing world.  Highly trained citizens with a range of problem-solving and creative skills ensures a country can deal with a fast-emerging issues promptly.  Moreover,  the ability to innovate requires expertise in your chosen field and understanding of key concepts in other fields. Making connections and discussing issues often leads to important solutions and ideas – you want to be “a jack of all trades and master of one trade”. Your degree can just be a piece of a paper — what you do with your expertise and qualifications during and after your degree is what will lead to success.

Universities provide the ideal environment for developing of those skills. Take time to learn more about your department, but also seek out people from other fields and listen to what they have to say. Talk with these people and learn what they are concerned about.  Assess your passion, skills and what you truly want to learn.  Finally, teaching, research and problem solving skills do not have a clear division. Regardless of whether you are in governmenRobin's nest with three blue eggst, business or academia, you will always doing some combination of all three.

Then I discuss approaches and strategies for being innovative, applying your research within your field and beyond the narrow constraints of one’s discipline. It is important to be an expert in your field, expanding your in-depth expertise as much as you can by reading, writing and presenting.  However, understanding how your expertise fits in the big picture and how you can apply your skills across disciplines is a challenge.  Multi-disciplinary approaches are common and often involves various experts working on projects and each reporting independently — this likely is far from ideal.  True innovation can arise from inter-disciplinary approaches where experts talk about their work with each other and attempt to bridge the gaps.  Even better, and far more challenging, are trans-disciplinary work where experts truly learn and understand diverse approaches needed to solve major issues and attempt to synthesize approaches from across disciplines.

Towards the end, I touch upon the challenges becoming a specialized expert in one’s field while still retaining a broad knowledge base and the obstacles which can get in the way of innovative application of your expertise and skills.  Ideas are cheap, but nuturing and establishing a really good idea in the “real world” can be challenging. Networking, collaboration, persistence and a clear focus are important.

I ended on a personal note talking about the frustrations of doing my MSc research on a mountain lake whCosmoboy_Ecogirl_BowLake (Niki Wilson photo credit)ere fish couldn’t be found and there were huge July snowstorms. I explained how Cosmoboy joined me thinking he lucked into a free trip to Banff. He found himself rowing across rough waters and pondering blisters on his frozen hands as he assisted me.  I showed a photograph of us at this lake taken two years ago and explained that we now look back to that time with some nostalgia and how that started off so many good things despite the frustrations of the moment.

ThisDr. Munir's first keynote seminar at PIIP was an excellent opportunity for me to experiment with new communication styles and approaches. I used a more visual style of presentation incorporating photographic images, and then shared the presentation online.  Dr. Munir was the first speaker, so I also had the opportunity to incorporate a bit of “real-time” aspects of the conference in my talk by inserting a photograph of Dr. Munir’s keynote with one of his quotes.  Also I found out that I cannot embed slides on our online wordpress blog! Apparently you must download wordpress in order to take advantage of all the plug-ins, including the one for embedding files.

Overall, it was a great deal of fun! I appreciated the opportunity to meet the students, faculty and staff at UWO, and the chance to experiment with various approaches.

Gliese 581g: astronomical speculation?

12 10 2010

<<This is the first draft of an article I wrote for “The Mark”. Due to the real time dispute over Gliese 581g and whether it actually exists, I rewrote the submitted article. However, I think the issue of Vogt’s speculation deserves a forum… So here is my original discussion.>>

Last week saw the announcement by a US-based team of researchers that a potentially habitable planet around another star had been discovered. The obscurely named Gliese 581g sits at just the right distance–in the so-called habitable zone–from its star to possibly have liquid water on its surface. Think Goldilocks: not to cold, not too hot, but just right.

Gliese 581g is actually the 6th planet reported in the Gliese 581 (the star) system. All the planets are packed in close to the star as well. You can see an image of the system <here>. In fact, Gliese 581g takes only 37 days to orbit its parent star. Thus in Gliese 581g “years”, you ‘re ten times older than Earth years.

It’s incredibly difficult to see planets around other stars. Think of trying to see a glow worm infront of 100 of the world’s brightest lighthouses.  Such “direct imaging” techniques are in their infancy, although Canadian’s are leading the way. But so far 460 of the 492 planets we’ve discovered have been found using one “indirect” technique in particular, rather unromantically known as the “radial velocity method”.

The mutual attraction between planets and stars makes both of them move around a common point, the so-called barycentre of the system. For the planet, it takes a big orbit. For the star the size of the orbit is very small – inside the star itself: the star looks like it “wobbles”. But the motion is still large enough for us to detect with high precision measurements. The finest speed we can measure over such enormous distances is about that of walking pace, a few metres per second.

But if a number of planets orbit around a star all the different tugs act together. The motion of the star thus becomes very complex. While we have analysis techniques to separate each of the tugs, you need good data and lots of it. In Gliese 581g’s case it took observations over 11 years and combined data from Hawaii and Chile. All in all, this detection is a triumph of careful measurements and painstaking analysis.

“Is there life on other planets?” Is a question the 20th century considered philosophical, in the 21st century it should be answerable.

But when lead author Stephen Vogt commented last week that he was “100% certain” there was life on the newly discovered planet, eyes rolled. There was no need for hype. Gliese 581g is amazing on its own merits. People started to get on a bandwagon criticising Vogt. I found myself wondering had he been egged on by journalists for “the quote”.

Then just a couple of days ago I was emailed a transcript of an interview by Marc Kuchner with the highly reknowned producer of documentaries for PBS, Dana Berry. One section in the interview immediately made me think of Vogt’s comment:

“DB: Don’t be afraid to speculate and imagine on camera. There are many cases when I get someone who won’t guide me into the possibilities of a certain subject by defaulting to, “well, we don’t know,” or “I’m not the expert on that subject…” So I’m forced to ask the question in different ways, and sometimes I still can’t get past “the facade.” This happens because sometimes scientists are fearful that their credibility is on the line. A TV interview is not a peer-reviewed paper, so my advice is don’t be afraid to open up. Dream, speculate, and share your excitement, tell me what it means, tell me why you think its A and not B, and tellme who subscribes to B and what you think of that group. In other words, be a human.

I’m very sympathetic to Berry’s concerns about how scientists communicate on TV, but your credibility is on the line, as Vogt has discovered. The vast majority of science is tax-payer funded. Speaking out in popular programs is exactly where your credibility matters most. Speculation is context dependent and frequently highly qualified. But the act of editing can easily make five interesting words become a soundbite without qualification.

Everyone loves to dream and to ponder what might be possible. Some of the best science comes from the beginning “What if..?” But as science becomes more and more important to society, the need for integrity becomes absolutely critical. Fortunately for astronomy, hype doesn’t really lead to any serious ramifications. But when it comes to global warming, well that’s another story.

My optimistic hope is that in 30 years we’ll know whether Vogt’s speculation is right. It will take a lot of money and technological brilliance, but designs for telescopes capable of measuring the atmospheres of other planets already exist. Perhaps the most well known among professional astronomers is the Terrestrial Planet Finder. An immensely ambitious design that would see five space craft flying together in formation to make a giant telescope, it would allow us to measure with precision we can only dream of today. Right now it’s on hold. TPF is simply too expensive and too risky for the current economic climate.

Watch that space.