Bringing astronomy to all
The first thing I noticed when I walked into Dr. Lorne Nelson’s crammed office at Bishop’s University was the large blackboard covered in complicated mathematical equations; I certainly couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Yet Dr. Nelson, a renowned astrophysicist and distinguished researcher, has helped
make the complicated subject of astrophysics easier to understand and easier to enjoy, not only for his students but for the Eastern Townships community as well.
Dr. Nelson is responsible for the Bishop’s University Observatory that was built on the roof of one of the campus’ tall buildings in 2006. “We have had over four thousand visitors to the observatory since it opened. Anyone can come and visit it,” said Dr. Nelson in an interview with the Stanstead Journal. Groups of high school, Cegep and university students as well as several community organizations have taken guided tours of the observatory, seeing the planets and stars like they’ve never seen them before through the powerful telescope. Small groups of five or six individuals are equally welcome to schedule visits to the observatory.
“We built the observatory for two reasons: to educate our students and to educate the public about science and astronomy. When it was first constructed six years ago, the observatory housed a ten inch (the diameter of the mirror) telescope. Last year we were sufficiently confident with our site that we upgraded to an eighteen inch telescope. It has performed wonderfully,” said Dr. Nelson enthusiastically.
Besides being on top of a five story building, another reason the site is good is the type of outdoor lighting in the vicinity. “The University spent $25,000 to make the exterior lights around the campus less bright,” explained the professor. The Ministry of Transport also changed the lights along College Street and on the bridge to fixtures that shoot light straight down. “They did that for our observatory and because we are in the International Dark Sky Reserve which is centered at Megantic. Telescopes are very sensitive to light. When looking at the faintest of objects a little ambient light is a real problem.”
That’s why, as an astrophysicist, Dr. Nelson has lent his support to that of his colleagues at the Mt. Megantic Observatory following the installation of new lights at the nearby United States border post. “They installed a new lighting system for security reasons and they are clearly visible from the observatory. They installed lights that were approved by light pollution experts, but the problem was they installed so many of them that the light reflects off the ground and back to the sky,” said Dr. Nelson. “We’ve had a very constructive meeting with the American Consul General,” he added.
Although Dr. Nelson grew up in Montreal, his family roots were in the Townships. The Thwaites, on his mother’s side, arrived in the Townships from England in the 1800’s while the Nelsons (an Anglicized version of Nilsson) came to Waterville from Sweden in the early 1900’s. “Growing up I spent my summers and many weekends in North Hatley. In 1988, I came to Bishop’s University as a professor. I wanted to return to the Townships,” said Dr. Nelson who received his PhD from Queen’s University and held a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT’s Centre for Space Research.
“I had an interest in Physics, how the universe worked, from when I was young. I’ve always had a fascination for the subject; I wanted to understand how the universe is evolving, how it all began and how it will all end. We have learnt a huge amount in the thirty years since I graduated.”
An important researcher, Dr. Nelson works with scientists from some of North America’s top universities. His research focusses on the evolution of stars: how they are born, how they live, and how they die. “Here at Bishop’s we build computer models to simulate what happens to stars. We have access to one of the fastest super computers in the world, at the Université de Sherbrooke.” That computer is currently ranked 71st in the world.
“One of the big areas of research, where new discoveries are being made, is in the study of exoplanets, planets outside our solar system that are orbiting other stars. There have been nearly 1000 exoplanets discovered worldwide.” Asked what made them so special, he commented: “The first one was discovered a little more than ten years ago. It was the first time that we inferred the existence of a planet around another sun. People started to think about life; could other planets support life?” Dr. Nelson was excited about one exoplanet in particular that was discovered by his collaborators at MIT last year. “It has a sixteen hour orbit around its host star. We concluded that it was not much larger than Mercury and that it was evaporating. We worked on that theory here at Bishop’s.”
Asked why astrophysics was so important, Dr. Nelson didn’t hesitate: “Astronomy has opened our imaginations as to what the universe is, how it began, and how it is changing. It’s mindboggling! In a practical sense it’s allowed us to understand how nature works and about the physics of the universe. That’s allowed us to make tremendous advances in our technology here on earth. For example, it has provided us with the insight to understand how gravity works and without that, there would be no space travel. We have also learnt about the nature of light. When astronomers look at the universe they use all types of telescopes: optical, radio, x-ray, gamma ray. Every part of the electro-magnetic spectrum is observed by astronomers.”
“As a result of all this research we’re quite certain about several things. The universe was created as a result of a Big Bang about 13 ½ billion years ago and it is expanding. We know our sun was created five billion years ago and will survive another five billion years before it becomes a ‘red giant’, swallowing up Mercury and Venus. We’ve also learnt that hydrogen is being fused into helium in the core of the sun. We’re trying to emulate that process now on earth, it’s called nuclear fusion, and hopefully we can produce the energy that we desperately need.”
He certainly makes a convincing argument.
Anyone interested in astronomy is encouraged to visit the Bishop’s University Physics Department’s website at physics.ubishops.ca/observatory. To schedule a tour of the observatory you can contact the department by email at email@example.com.
Astrophysicist and Physics professor Dr. Lorne Nelson adjusts the powerful telescope at the Bishop’s University Observatory.