ARCHIVED - Canadians share the wonder of the night skies
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July 01, 2009— Victoria, British Columbia
When Galileo first pointed his crude telescope at the sky, he saw details of the moon and planets that no one had seen before. His observations that the moon had craters and mountains, that the Milky Way resolved into countless stars, and that Venus had phases changed forever how we see our place in the universe.
"It profoundly affected human society," says NRC's Dr. Jim Hesser, Canadian Chair for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA 2009) and Director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory at the NRC Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (NRC-HIA) in Victoria. Galileo's discoveries ultimately helped the people of his day to realize that the Copernican model, which places the Sun at the centre of the solar system, was correct. "It's a beautiful example of a scientific discovery that changed the way we think."
Astronomy continues to shape our understanding of the universe with new discoveries, such as the images recently captured by an NRC-led team that show planets circling a star other than our sun (see Seeking answers in the stars). "Based on research over the past 20 years in which Canadians have played leading roles, we as the human race now know that our solar system isn't the only one," says Dr. Hesser.
The ongoing role of astronomy in human culture is at the heart of IYA 2009, organized by the International Astronomical Union. The global event marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo's publication of his first observations with a telescope. IYA 2009 celebrates astronomy's contributions to science and culture, and recognizes that people around the world share a passion for the skies, not just astronomers.
"I think it's because the universe belongs to all of us, and we can all look up and see it," says Eric Chisholm, who manages public outreach at NRC's Centre of the Universe in Victoria, B.C. and also serves on the IYA 2009 communication team.
The chance of a lifetime
To celebrate that passion, IYA 2009 is sponsoring Canadian events such as the IYA 2009 imaging contest, which gives amateur astronomy clubs across Canada the chance to win observing time on the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. "This is a world-class telescope that's going to allow access to the public," says Chisholm. "It's a great opportunity to give something back to the people who sacrifice their nights to make observations of the sky." Last fall, NRC-HIA's Canadian Gemini Office sponsored a similar contest for Canadian high school students, with the winner receiving observing time at the international Gemini Observatory.
A Galileo moment
During 2009, hundreds of thousands of Canadians have had their own "Galileo moment" of personal astronomical discovery, which involves looking at the stars through a telescope or binoculars, participating in an astronomy event, or attending a cultural event with strong connections to astronomy. The Centre of the Universe is hosting open houses throughout the year, and Canada's amateur astronomy community is holding hundreds of local events across the country. "I don't think the public has ever seen the scientific community bring something to life like this," says Chisholm.
The celebrations also include the Galileo lecture series, which has recruited ten of Canada's top researchers to deliver public lectures on topics such as dark energy, black holes and the evolution of galaxies. NRC-HIA astronomers Dr. Luc Simard, Dr. Laura Ferrasese and University of Victoria Professor Chris Pritchet are among the lecturers.
Sharing sky stories
In recognition of Aboriginal sky traditions, IYA 2009 is bringing elders together with young people to share traditional astronomical knowledge. According to Chisholm, placing that knowledge alongside modern understanding reveals the scientific validity of many oral traditions. "Based on the patterns and movements of the constellations, Aboriginal people could predict changes in the seasons that would tell them when to hunt, when to plant crops, or when the animals were going into a mating season," he says. "They may not have known that it was because the Earth was rotating, but they realized that it was cyclical."
One example of this sharing of traditional knowledge is an animated version of a traditional Mi'kmaq sky story, created for IYA 2009 by Mi'kmaq elders and Cape Breton University. The story is available in English, French and Mi'kmaq.
According to Chisholm, people of all ages are insatiable when it comes to astronomy. He speaks to public and scientific audiences, and finds that both groups pepper him with questions about everything from black holes and wormholes to dark matter. "You don't need a PhD to be passionate about it," says Chisholm. "There's something about astronomy that captivates the soul."
Website for IYA2009 in Canada http://www.astronomie2009.ca/. This site includes details on national and local activities, resources for teachers, and a gallery of Canadian astronomical images.
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