i2eye with James Hesser

i2eye with James Hesser

The director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory looks back on 2009, the International Year of Astronomy
December 23, 2009
Previously unseen details of a mysterious,

Previously unseen details of a mysterious, complex structure within the Carina Nebula (NGC 3372) are revealed by this image of the "Keyhole Nebula," obtained with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 1999.

Two years ago, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2009 the International Year of Astronomy (IYA). From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, people around the globe have been marking the 400th anniversary of the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo Galilei.

Laypeople, especially children, have been encouraged to peer through a telescope at the wonders overhead, much as Galileo did four centuries ago.

As the year winds to a close, we checked in with James Hesser, the director of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, north of Victoria. Hesser is the Canadian chair of the IYA. The avuncular, 68-year-old astronomer wears a trim, white beard that might even be described as Galilean. It served him well as he found occasion to wear a costume while encouraging pint-sized astronomers to have a “Galileo moment.”

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): What’s a Galileo moment?

James Hesser (JH): We wanted every Canadian to have the opportunity for a moment of personal astronomical discovery in 2009. It could be through a talk, a traditional star party or a visit to a Science Centre with an exhibit on astronomy. But it could also be a program of beautiful music inspired by astronomy. We wanted to help Canadians appreciate the impact astronomy has in our everyday lives.

IC: How successful were you?

JH: We hoped we might be able to achieve a million Galileo moments during the year. Many of us were rather daunted by this goal. But we met it in October thanks to hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers throughout the country sharing their enthusiasm for astronomy with their fellow citizens.

IC: You’ve attended events dressed as Galileo. What was that like?

JH: We had an open house at the observatory, which we hadn’t done since 1996. It was a family event with lots of children. I rented a medieval costume and we had several replicas of Galileo’s telescopes. The children seemed to really enjoy it. I also dressed as Galileo when the Victoria Symphony Orchestra created a “Music of the Spheres” program.

It was fun to go back and reflect upon the incredible discoveries made by people like Galileo and Johannes Kepler, and what we’ve done as a human race in the subsequent four centuries, marching along the path where they made the first footsteps.

IC: Why have an International Year of Astronomy?

JH: It was motivated by Galileo’s discoveries made in late 1609. He shared his discoveries with ordinary people by writing in Italian for the people, not in Latin. There are many types of international years. In the sciences, they are usually associated with major research initiatives, but the IYA was designed from the outset to be a celebration of human progress, to further understanding of the beautiful, incredibly lovely universe in which we find ourselves.

IC: What will be the legacy of this year?

Rising from a sea of dust and gas like a giant

Rising from a sea of dust and gas like a giant seahorse, the Horsehead nebula is one of the most photographed objects in the sky.

JH: In the near term, we’re hoping more young people will be inspired to study maths and sciences in school. We created new tools which we have made freely available through the Internet and through physical distribution.

IC: Such as?

JH: Four years ago, the National Research Council created a “Canadian skies” poster, which has been widely distributed to schools. The poster has been converted into a hand-held star finder. We also created a set of astronomy trading cards that were distributed across the country.

IC: What was on the cards?

JH: We had a series of seven astronomical objects: the Moon, Saturn, Spiral Galaxy, Jupiter, Nebula, Star Clusters and the Sun. There is a code on each card, so anyone who engaged in a Galileo moment could then register their name on our website. The Canadian Space Agency agreed to put a DVD containing all those names on a satellite to be launched next year. It’s a chance to get your name in space.

IC: How was traditional folklore integrated into the year’s events?

JH: We’re developing long-term partnerships with Canada’s aboriginal peoples. Along with Elders, an artist on Cape Breton Island created a video of “Muin and the seven bird hunters,” a traditional Mi’kmaq night story about what they call the “Great Bear” and circumpolar motion. The story was important in their culture to determine times of celebration. We had it narrated in English, French and Mi’kmaq so the Elders could preserve their story in their language, while presenting it to the world.

IC: The majority of Canadians live in cities where it’s so bright, it’s hard to see many stars.

JH: As a species, humans are losing contact with one of the most beautiful phenomena in nature. Led by the amateur astronomers in the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the Federation des astronomes amateurs du Quebec, a number of new dark sky preserves are being created. When people get away from their cities, they’ll have places where they can see the dark skies.

IC: Where is Canada in terms of making contributions to astronomical research?

JH: For a number of years, Canada has been first or second in terms of the citations in international astronomical research papers. If you had Olympic-style competitions, our astronomers would be on the medal podium every time. They are world class.

IC: What astronomical question would you like to have answered in your lifetime?

JH:I think there’s a good chance that in my lifetime we will find evidence for Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Once we find that sort of planet, maybe — maybe — we’ll be able to find indications that perhaps there is biological life. I don’t think we’ve been visited by aliens and I don’t expect us to be visited by aliens, but I believe we are really close at finding planets that could bear life.