How many earthlings can say they’ve held pieces of the moon and Mars at the same time? Well, definitely the ones who have been to the Hume Cronyn Memorial Observatory at Western.
The quaint campus observatory sees a few thousand guests each year thanks to the community outreach efforts of Western’s Physics and Astronomy Department. Students, families and curious passersby can drop by Cronyn on one of its open-house nights to sneak a peek at the stars through a telescope, take in a talk by an astronomy expert or, as many did during October’s International Observe the Moon Night, hold a fleck of our planet’s natural satellite and a piece of the Red Planet in their hands.
The observatory has been hosting public events since its opening in 1940, but as Astronomy professor Jan Cami, co-ordinator for the observatory, said it wasn’t until a few years ago that public interest in astronomy started to take off. The International Year of Astronomy in 2009 saw professional and amateur astronomers alike coming together to host all sorts of celestial celebrations. According to the Canadian Astronomical Society, about two million Canadians spent time with a telescope, attended a lecture or just gazed up at the night sky that year.
“It was so successful, and the public loved it so much, that we kept hearing, ‘You should do this more often,’” he said.
Apart from Cronyn’s public nights, the department also brings the constellations closer to the London community through the Exploring the Stars program, founded in 2006 by Astronomy professor and department outreach committee head Margaret Campbell-Brown. Four nights a week, groups can book a two-hour private tour and take in a talk by an expert at the observatory – all for free.
Campbell-Brown thinks reaching out to the community is an important part of what the department does.
“Astronomy has the advantage of being one of the gateways of science,” she said. “Dinosaurs and stars are the two ways that people get interested in science.”
Other faculty members and graduate students echo this sentiment, with the program seeing between 40-50 volunteers helping run the events each year. Parshati Patel, one of those grad students, enjoys running the Exploring the Stars program so much that she hopes to continue with outreach work for the rest of her career.
“When I started off in my masters and PhD, I had this idea of going on to be a professor and research,” she said. “I’m actually more inclined to do outreach now.”
Patel didn’t have any chances to learn astronomy when she was growing up in India, so she enjoys giving young people the opportunities she never had.
“I basically came to Canada to study astronomy,” she said. “Back home there are no such programs that would inspire kids at such a young age.”
Inspiring young people is common theme around the observatory. The private events often see high school classes come by to learn about astronomy with a hands-on approach they can’t get in the classroom.
Jessica Buscher’s Grade 9 science class might normally be a chatty bunch, but when the entire roof of the observatory starts rotating above them with a loud ‘clunk,’ all you can hear in the small, dome-topped room were the students saying – ‘Whoa.’
The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School teacher has been taking her classes to the observatory for the past decade. She says it’s a practical experience many students really enjoy, even without the bonus marks they’re getting.
“One student one time came bouncing up to me and said, ‘Miss, I saw Sirius! There it was, Sirius. I just looked up in the sky and it was right where you said it would be,’” she recounted. “He thought it was so cool.”
Like Campbell-Brown, Buscher sees the study of stars and planets as an attractive gateway into the world of exploration, rather than a dull science taught from a textbook. Her curiosity as a kid, looking up and seeing the “big potato chip” moon and wanting to learn everything she could about it, inspired her to share that sense of discovery with her students.
“Astronomy is about romance – people staring at the sky and wondering what is up there, and getting a sense of how big the universe is and how small we are,” she said.
For Cami, every outreach event the department does makes an impact. Whether it’s a few families and their children making marble craters into a flour moon surface, or the more than 2,000 people who came out to witness the transit of Venus across the sun in 2012, each event puts a smile on his face.
“I love it,” he said. “I love it. I can’t help it.”