Bring­ing as­tron­omy to all

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Len­noxville

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 ob­serv@ubish­ops.ca.

As­tro­physi­cist and Physics pro­fes­sor Dr. Lorne Nel­son ad­justs the pow­er­ful tele­scope at the Bishop’s Univer­sity Ob­ser­va­tory.

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