Thursday, 12 July 2018

Becoming President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada

Astrophotographer Alan Dyer,  Canada Post Stamp Advisory Committee member David K. Foot, incoming RASC President Chris Gainor and outgoing RASC President Colin Haig unveil two new Canadian stamps honouring astronomy and the RASC. Alan's image of the Aurora Borealis was used for one of the stamps.

Canada Day this year was a very special day in my life because that’s when I became President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.

I took this national office at the end of the RASC’s annual General Assembly in Calgary after having served for six years on the national executive of the RASC and five years on its board of directors.

For my friends who don’t know what the RASC is about, I thought that it would be a good idea to use my blog to explain.

Today the RASC is Canada’s premier organization for amateur astronomers. We have around 5,200 members across Canada, most of them affiliated with one of our 28 clubs (we call them Centres) from coast to coast and as far north as Yukon. Each Centre holds meetings, observing sessions and other activities for its members and the general public. The National Society supports the centres and publishes the annual Observer’s Handbook, Skynews Magazine, the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, the Observer’s Calendar, and various special publications. It promotes observing through certificate programs, and it works for dark skies with our Deep Sky Preserves.

This year we are celebrating 150 years since the RASC was founded. Just a year after Confederation, a group of astronomers in Toronto formed a club that grew into today’s RASC. We are celebrating this milestone with many activities. Shortly before our General Assembly this year, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a most unusual $20.00 coin honouring the RASC - unusual because it includes a small fragment of a meteorite. At the General Assembly I helped my predecessor as president, Colin Haig, launch two new stamps from Canada Post that mark our anniversary with beautiful views of Canadian skies.

I joined the RASC back in 1966 when I was finishing off elementary school. I was an active member of the Edmonton Centre, and I attended my first General Assembly in 1968 in Calgary. Little did I know that my life in RASC would take me to another General Assembly in Calgary and the presidency 50 years later. 

I left the RASC temporarily when I finished high school and moved on to university and other interests. But I rejoined at the Vancouver Centre in the early 1990s and shifted to the Victoria Centre in 1996 when I moved across the Salish Sea. I eventually became President of the Victoria Centre and then I moved on to the national level of RASC.
In the 1960s the RASC was a different organization. Professional astronomers formed a big part of the Society back then, but when the growth of professional astronomy in Canada caused the professionals to create their own organization, the Canadian Astronomical Society/Société Canadienne d’Astronomie or CASCA, RASC became the voice of amateur astronomers. I’m glad to say that we still have strong associations with Canada’s professional astronomers. Many professionals still belong to RASC, and I was among the many RASC members who took part in this year’s CASCA meeting in Victoria. I’m delighted that the President of CASCA, Dr. Rob Thacker, sits on the board of the RASC.

The RASC has long been run by volunteers, and although volunteers remain at the heart of our activities, in recent years we have hired staff to help us deal with the growing challenges of our larger membership. The capable staff in our National Office in Toronto is headed by our executive director, Randy Attwood, who before taking that job was already known around Canada through his many media appearances promoting astronomy.

As president, I head a board of directors that faces the challenges of balancing our budget, providing services to our members and centres, and advancing astronomy in Canada. Until recent changes to governance legislation in Canada compelled us to establish a board elected by the members, the RASC was a federation governed by a council where all centres were represented. We are still establishing a new role for our National Council that ensures that our 28 centres keep a powerful voice in the running of the Society. We must strengthen our bonds with amateur astronomers in Québec. Our society needs to better attract women and members of our multicultural population to the hobby, and I was gratified that all the featured scientific speakers at our recent General Assembly were women, one of them of Iranian origin. 

I am the first national president of the RASC from the Victoria Centre since Dr. Alan Batten held the job 40 years ago. I was pleased that Dr. Batten was at our General Assembly this year, sharing his knowledge of the history of astronomy gained during his distinguished career in science. I am the first professional historian to be president.

There is no pay for being president, but my involvement in RASC has given me friends and associations in every part of Canada and even some beyond our borders. Through our General Assemblies, which take place in different parts of Canada each year, I have gotten to know our country better. The knowledge I have gained about the universe through my friends in the RASC have played no small part in whatever success I’ve enjoyed as a historian. 

I’m already looking forward to many astronomical activities in the coming year under clear skies, and to the 2019 General Assembly in Toronto in June.

The 1968 RASC General Assembly in Calgary that I attended was a more buttoned down affair than RASC meetings are today.