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Photo by J Michel Carriere (Apt613 Flickr Pool)

Canadian astronomers from across the country are gathering for the annual General Assembly of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

By Brian Carroll on June 30, 2017

unnamedThe Ottawa Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) is hosting the 2017 General Assembly (GA) from June 30 to July 3. Canadian astronomers from across the country are presenting cutting edge information to their colleagues. As well, the Ottawa Centre is showcasing many talented local speakers to give them national exposure. One of the presentations, the Ruth Northcott Lecture, Astronomy from Coast to Coast to Coast, by Dr. Eric Steinbring on July 1, is open to the public.

The organizers, Tim Cole, President of the Ottawa Centre, and Brian McCullough, Chair of the GA, know that all work and no play makes Jill a dull girl and Jack a dull boy. So they’ve also scheduled time for events that show off Ottawa: Canada’s Birthday Party on Parliament Hill, a star party and tour at the Diefenbunker, a visit to the ByWard Market and a tour of the Holleford meteorite crater, 145 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.

The combination of cutting edge presentations and local events in the Ottawa area has attracted astronomers from all over Canada. Originally planned for 135 attendees, the GA has 221 registered, 64% over target.

Brian Carroll interviewed Cole and McCullough for Apt613.

Apartment 613 has reported on RASC Ottawa’s monthly meetings in the past. But we’ve never told our audience about a General Assembly of the RASC. How does the GA differ?

Tim Cole: The GA is the annual event for the entire nationwide organization. Part of it is a legal requirement. We have to have an annual general meeting for the entire national RASC. You’re bringing in people from all over the country. There’s always some intention to get some value out of the trip. You’ll want to talk about some things of interest to the general membership. And while you’re in town, since you’ve come all the way, you want to show off where you’re going to be holding the General Assembly.

It’s expanded a lot over the years from just a simple place to hold the general meeting. Now it’s become a series of talks. For example, every year there’s an alternative talk, either the Ruth Northcott lecture or the Helen Sawyer Hogg lecture. These are public talks, not strictly restricted to the RASC, but open to the general public. It’s very wide scale. Things that the speaker and organizer would believe to be of interest from an astronomical and related science area.

It’s quite different from the monthly meetings, in that it’s for the Society as a whole.

Looking at the agenda for the GA, many of the speakers are local speakers. Can you talk about that, please?

Brian McCullough: When I volunteered to chair the GA, I had a vision for a maple-flavoured GA, because it’s going to be Canada Day, on Canada’s 150th birthday. I’ve been to a couple of other GAs. I knew that we have a lot of talent in Ottawa Centre. A lot of these people would not normally get any view time by other members of the RASC across the country. So, I thought, we’re going to showcase Ottawa Centre.

We do have outside presenters. We have our big three, one from Hawaii, two from BC. But we’ve got enough talent here that we should showcase it.

The first person I asked to present was Rick Wagner. Right after the 2006 Ottawa GA, he started one of the best amateur astronomer observing programs I’ve seen since I joined in 1989.

Dr. Nadine Manset (Nadine Manset/Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation)

Dr. Nadine Manset (Nadine Manset/Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope Corporation)

TC: We made a point of going for… excellence in Canadian astronomy. You can see that reflected in the people we’ve invited. Our banquet speaker is Dr. Nadine Manset, who’s staff astronomer with CFHT (Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope). She’s also had a long history with astronomy in Canada itself, partly at Observatoire du Mont Megantic (in Quebec).

There a little known link between Mont Megantic and CFHT. CFHT is now using an incredibly advanced spectroscopy system, ESPaDOns. This thing is high enough quality – it does stuff that can’t be done elsewhere. They run a fibre optic link from Gemini North (telescope in Hawaii) to CFHT to feed ESPaDOnS. This thing is cutting edge. The technology was finalized at Mont Megantic.

B McC: We even have David Levy (the famous comet hunter) Skyping into the banquet to make the toast.

I knew who I wanted for the keynote (address) was Ken Hewitt-Whyte. Everybody knows him. But he was a member of the Ottawa Centre in 1967. He was here for Centennial Year. He’s now the associate editor for SkyNews (the Canadian astronomy magazine).

The other person that we have coming in for the Ruth Northcott lecture is Dr. Eric Steinberg. He was setting up small telescopes for use in the Arctic.

TC: He was also on the siting committee for the Thirty Metre Telescope.

So tell me more about some of the local presenters.

TC: We wanted to make sure there was some value for local people to come. One of the things we dreamed up was bringing in someone from ARO, the Algonquin Radio Observatory. It’s near enough that it’s of (local) interest, but it’s also not something you’re going to get at a regular meeting. It fits into Canadian Excellence.

B McC: That’s Dr. Brendan Quine.

We had another situation where one of the members of Council, Gerry Shewan, had contacts with Canadian Space Agency. So that’s how we were fortunate to pick up Dr. Denis Laurin.

We have Dave Turner from Halifax. He has a nice little mini-presentation on Mu Cephei’s pulsation in 2016. Rick Wagner is talking about similar types of things so we work them as a tandem, Wagner first, followed by Turner.

Al Scott is talking about the solar eclipse. Ron Macnaughton likes to talk about the history of how the ancients looked at these things. Al Scott has the main presentation. Ron Macnaughton has the short version after that.

Janet Tulloch is working with Gordon Webster and Paul Klauninger. They’re (currently) doing (a photo exhibit) at the Shenkman Centre for the Arts. She’s supposed to show a video of the astronomy photographs (at the conference).

18 year old Kelly Jordan is a monthly meeting chair. Photo provided by RASC (Brian McCullough)

18 year old Kelly Jordan is a monthly meeting chair. Photo provided by RASC (Brian McCullough)

We’ve gone with very experienced speakers like Simon Hanmer. He’s one of the faves at the monthly RASC meetings. But we also wanted to get Kelly Jordan in. She’s 18 years old. She’s our (monthly) Meeting Chair. So let’s get the youth side of things.

What’s turned out to be really popular is the Holleford Crater tour.

TC: That mushroomed. We had to close down registration because we couldn’t take any more.

B McC: We have 51 on the bus.

TC: We actually had to get a bigger bus.

Who’s doing the tour?

TC: Charles O’Dale

B McC: He’s our scientist rock hound.

TC: The Big-Holes-in-the-Ground guy.

B McC: He’s done reconnaissance. He’s talked to the landowners around the rim of the crater. He’s got access there.

TC: He’s also got a professional geologist to help him work out the tour.

Is there a question I should have asked?

B McC: We had a number of people who said, “Why on earth are you doing a General Assembly on the Canada Day Weekend, in Ottawa, during the Sesquicentennial?”

The whole point is, not so long ago, Tim and I were sweating bullets, thinking, OMG, the registration just made it up over 80. I had a magic number of…

TC: 135 was our nominal number for planning.

B McC: Things have piled on. We’re well over 200 people.

TC: We’re 221 actually.

B McC: We’re going to have 175 at the banquet. We’re having 150+ at the Friday evening barbecue.

TC: We’ve got 140 heading out to the Diefenbunker…

B McC: And the star party. So people are piling on. They know this is the place to be.

The whole point is: we’re going to have lots of people coming into town. There are things to do. We’ve left lots of time in the schedule for people to explore the (ByWard) Market, to go to Parliament Hill. Otherwise, why come on this weekend?

This interview has been edited for length.


The Ruth Northcott Lecture: Astronomy from Coast to Coast to Coast by Dr. Eric Steinbring is open to the public and takes place Saturday, July 1 from 1:30-2:30PM in Salon A at the Woodroffe Campus of Algonquin College (1385 Woodroffe Avenue). Admission is free.