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Star light, star bright

Public Astro Nights reach out

Students may not think of the downtown campus as the perfect stargazing spot, but the telescope on top of the roof of the Rutherford Physics building does not go unused: the department’s astronomy and astrophysics outreach organization, Astro McGill, has been putting it to use by hosting monthly observation evenings every third Thursday of the month. The evenings start with a public lecture on a topic in astronomy or astrophysics given by a department member or a visiting scientist, followed by a lab tour and, weather permitting, observing the skies with the telescope.

October’s talk, “All the Colours the Eye Can’t See: Studying the Universe with Different Kinds of Light,” was given by assistant professor Tracy Webb on October 18. The lectures are aimed at the general public, and Dr. Webb’s talk clearly laid out the variety of light in the universe. She discussed how we can gather and process information from different kinds of light to paint a richer, more complete picture of the structure and composition of the universe. Visible light comprises only a sliver of the spectrum of light, and light with shorter and longer wavelengths can reveal different types of material and objects. By looking at a galaxy using different sections of the light spectrum, astronomers can probe different components of the galaxy. Combining all of these types of images gives a more complete and accurate picture of the galaxy than any one image does, and allows astronomers and astrophysicists to more accurately understand the formation of the galaxy and how it fits into larger galactic structures.

The dome on the roof of the Rutherford building houses a 14-inch optical telescope. While the light pollution associated with urban areas washes out most opportunities for observational astronomy, the telescope is strong enough to view most objects in the solar system, including the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter, as well as bright extra-solar system objects like the Orion nebula and clusters of stars.

Unfortunately, the lab scheduled to be toured last Thursday was busy shipping equipment to Antarctica and unavailable, and just before the talk started, clouds rolled in and the telescope couldn’t be used for observing. Instead, two members of Astro McGill gave an informal talk about the method used to discover the planet that was recently found orbiting Alpha Centauri B. Even with the array of technology available to help communicate science, sometimes styrofoam balls on sticks are the most effective (and humourous, when they inevitably fly apart or fall off the table) teaching tools around.

The talk was attended by around sixty people, a number the organizers said is typical for these events. Most of the people who attend are in some way associated with McGill, and though the audience had a mix of ages and backgrounds, the enthusiasm for astronomy was palpable. While the turnout for these events is consistent, and the events themselves are advertised through McGill emails, there’s still a large potentially interested audience that is unaware of the talks. This is a chronic problem with outreach programs: how does a group reach the widest possible audience, often on limited resources?

Astro McGill is an entirely volunteer-staffed public outreach organization organized by postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ryan Lynch and PhD student Sebastien Guillot, both working in astrophysics in McGill’s Department of Physics. It consists mostly of graduate students and post docs. Webb, Lynch, and Guillot all stressed the importance of outreach for the department, the astronomy and astrophysics groups especially. “Astronomy is accessible to the public, and it’s easy to grab people’s attention. It’s a great way to get young people interested and involved in science,” said Lynch.  There are benefits not just to the public, but also to the organizers and faculty involved. “It’s a great gateway to teaching the scientific process,” Webb added.  “[Doing outreach] keeps me excited about the material.  It’s a great reminder of how awesome it is!”

Astronomy and astrophysics are by nature esoteric fields, without a lot of tangible, everyday end products or results. But they capture the curiosity of scientists and non-scientists alike, and Astro McGill hopes to open the door to the public’s imagination. Traditional science communication is not always so engaging. “There’s a gap between the magic of science and what ends up in a press release,” according to Guillot. Astro McGill is working to fill in that gap and give the McGill community a window not only to the wonders of the universe, but also the work being done in the Physics department.

In addition to monthly talks, Astro McGill hosts a podcast on iTunes and works with other science outreach groups on and off campus. The next public talk is scheduled for November 15 and features Stephen Ng talking about “Cosmic Fireworks: Supernova Explosions and Their Aftermaths.” The talks start at 7 p.m. in room 103 of the Rutherford Physics building.