A universe full of wonders

by Lucas Wisenthal, BA'03

McGill’s doors have always been open to the public, but now, thanks to a dedicated collective of students and professors from the Department of Physics, the Montreal community is seeing stars. Literally.

Last winter, a group of astrophysics students partnered with a few faculty members to launch AstroMcGill, an initiative aimed at exposing the public to some of the research on the farthest reaches of space under way at the University.

They have organized a regular evening at McGill's downtown observatory, and they have invited experts from other institutions to talk about their research. They have also compiled podcasts, broadening the reach of the work. And, in the process, they have prompted the public to ponder a few big, existential questions about their place in the universe.

“These are questions people have always been asking, and astronomy can provide at least part of the answers to those questions,” says Ryan Lynch, a postdoctoral fellow working with Professor Vicky Kaspi, BSc'89, one of the engines behind the effort.

Kaspi was interested in organizing outreach initiatives within the astrophysics program, Sebastien Guillot, MSc'09, a PhD candidate, explains. After gathering volunteers, they created a program that they hoped would spur a larger interest in science.

They were successful. “I think both of us probably feel like astronomy, in particular, among the sciences, is a really great way to get people involved and engaged in science, because it’s sort of a natural curiosity with the public,” says Lynch.

With that in mind, they invited the public to the Anna I. MacPherson Observatory, atop the Rutherford Physics Building. They have also hosted a tour of an experimental astrophysics laboratory. And they have begun to bring their work to elementary schools in Montreal. “We had a science day for [a] fourth-grade class,” says Lynch. The students made scale models of the solar system and used dry ice to produce comets. “The kids just absolutely loved it. The principal of the school and the parents all gave very positive feedback.” The AstroMcGill organizers are now building links to other Montreal-area primary schools. In December, they travelled to the Children's World Academy and presented activities based on comets and craters with the young members of the school's space club.

Response from adult participants has been similarly encouraging. “Usually, people are very exciting to go up and observe,” says Guillot. “I’m guessing there’s lots of them that have searched for a telescope, so they’re really, really happy to see the planets through a telescope.”

He and Guillot agree that the sessions afford them and others from McGill the opportunity to hone their skills as public lecturers. They’re also a welcome break from the rigours of research. “Sometimes, when you’re actually involved in research and doing the day-to-day sort of thing, it can get a little bit tedious, as with any job,” says Lynch. “And sometimes you have to take a step back and sort of just appreciate how cool the stuff you’re studying is.”

AstroMcGill's next public lecture will be on Thursday January 17 at 7 pm: "The Space Race: Venturing out of the Cradle on the Wings of Apollo" by Michel Burelle. The talk will be followed by a lab tour and observations of the night sky and the moon. The event will take place in Room 103 of the Rutherford Physics Building. For information on more events, visit astro.physics.mcgill.ca.