Friday, August 23, 2013

Stephen Hume: Federal budget cuts to close renowned astronomy centre

Photograph by: Diana Nethercott , Vancouver Sun


There are people, as Oscar Wilde famously said, who know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

So, with that in mind, I made my way to the top of Little Saanich Mountain last weekend to bid a bittersweet farewell to The Centre of the Universe, due to close its doors at the end of August, one of the least deserving victims of Ottawa’s spending cuts.

The Centre of the Universe is the low-budget but high-yield — at least in public goodwill for the sciences — interpretive centre that was launched just over a decade ago for the National Research Council at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory and the Hertzberg Institute of Astrophysics, Canada’s leading centre for astronomical research.

The centre runs summer astronomy camps, provides engaging instructional support for all grade levels up to Grade 12 physics, hosts public lectures, provides internships for students, and is deeply engaged with the 145-year-old Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the association of science amateurs that is recognized for many important contributions to observational research and education.

I wrote about the centre when it opened in 2001. I even took my 11-year-old daughter up for one of the centre’s “Star Parties,” a sleepover for kids that introduced them to the Perseids meteor shower with tours, sky-watching, a late-night movie, snacks and breakfast, all for $35.

She had a great evening and so did I, watching the immense Plaskett Telescope, once the world’s biggest, rotate to give us brief looks at deep space objects too dim to see, all enhanced into spectacular pictures by the high-tech digital imaging.

Inside, interactive displays let kids pick up a meteorite, experiment with the refraction of light, play with the spectrum and the Doppler Effect, and correct the curve of a telescope lens to eliminate star twinkle, learning hands-on how these tools are used to study quasars, pulsars, black holes and the universe itself.

Other displays highlight the important contributions by Canadian astronomers, from John Plaskett’s discovery — right here in B.C. more than 70 years ago — of the structure of our galaxy to the contemporary work of John Kavelaars. He has an asteroid named after him, is responsible for the discovery of more than a dozen of Saturn’s moons, and is tracking objects in the outer solar system.
The place was packed last weekend for a lecture by Kavelaars on recent discoveries that give new insights into the formation of the solar system and what’s going on out there in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud. Those are clouds of orbiting debris from the solar system’s birth that still send us occasional comets, fireballs and the daily shower of 200 tonnes of ice and dust upon our planet.
Since 1980, the Plaskett Telescope has been a key tool for Spaceguard, an international team of scientists identifying and calculating orbits for more than a thousand asteroids larger than two football fields in diameter.

If one of these were to hit our corner of the earth — and one does strike the planet every 10,000 years or so — it would blast millions of tonnes of molten rock out of a crater deeper than a 500-storey building, drop white-hot ash back over a 150-km radius, ignite all the forests on the coast, and send a 100-metre-high tsunami across the Pacific and more than 20 kilometres inland in low-lying areas.
Already, scientists are at work studying what might be done to deflect such an object from striking Earth, so this kind of research is both practical and of public interest.

Killing such valuable public outreach at such a high-profile science facility seems a classic example of what my mother would call penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking.
Or we could put it another way:

The cost savings to the federal government by closing the Centre of the Universe public outreach and educational facility will be about $250,000 a year. Three high-profile Harper government senators are currently being investigated for about $260,000 in allegedly improper expense claims. And the cost for keeping the centre open for 18 months is about the same as for one full-day’s use of Ottawa’s VIP aircraft.

The federal minister responsible for the National Research Council is our own James Moore, B.C.’s lead minister in the Harper cabinet.

’Nuff said.