President’s Report

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Winter / hivers 2019)

Dear CASCA Members, 

This fall has been a busy few months! I hope you have had a chance to recover from the efforts of proposal writing on top of detailed LRP consultations.

Since I last communicated, we have a welcomed the new CASCA Administrator, Jessica Marsano, and I’d like to encourage you to both welcome Jessica and say a big thank you to Susan Di Francesco who officially steps down on December 31st. On the administrative side we have finally solved the headache that PayPal was presenting, and I’m glad to say as of late November we are again able to accept payments via that route. I encourage anyone to take a read of a Kafka novel and then to send an email to PayPal, as that seems appropriate preparation for dealing with them.

The awarding of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for work in astronomy was especially exciting, albeit with the caveats of the known issues with the Nobel awards. After much discussion within the CASCA Board we have the following to say:

The CASCA Board was delighted to see that astronomy and cosmology were the focus of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics. The work of Jim Peebles (who was born in Manitoba) played a foundational role in many areas of cosmological physics (including the large-scale structure of galaxies and the cosmic microwave background radiation). The other laureates also richly deserve their prizes: the discovery of 51 Pegasi b by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz opened up the field of exoplanet observations and helped turn it into the spectacularly vibrant area of astrophysics that it is today. We wholeheartedly congratulate Drs Peebles, Mayor and Queloz for their exceptional accomplishments.

Following the awarding of the prize, there has been a number of questions about which particular exoplanet should be acknowledged as the most key discovery. The existence of pulsar planets (e.g.
Wolszczan & Frail, Nature, 355, 145, 1992) and particularly large gas giants/brown dwarfs (Latham et al., Nature, 339, 38, 1989) were known prior to the 51 Pegasi announcement.

In the midst of this, the CASCA Board thought it appropriate to remind members of the work of Bruce
Campbell, Gordon Walker, and Stephenson Yang (ApJ, 331, 902, 1988) which also played an important
role in founding the field of exoplanet research. In particular, we would like to highlight their work on gamma Cephei b. Their long-term monitoring program on the CFHT from 1981 to 1993 had sufficient sensitivity to discover Jupiter-like planets, and with modern statistical methods the 1995 follow-up work of Walker et al. (Icarus, 116, 359, 1995), which included a new analysis of gamma Cephei b data, would be considered a strong detection. The estimated period of 2.52 yrs in that work is very close to the now accepted value of 2.47 yrs.

However, following the 1992 analysis which speculated that the gamma Cephei b signal was close to a
possible pulsation mode, the 1995 work was treated with some skepticism. There is no argument that
the work of Drs Mayor & Queloz, as well as their collaborators, created an unexpected and important avenue of exoplanet research, and while celebrating Mayor and Queloz, we think it appropriate to also celebrate the pioneering work of Campbell, Walker and Yang.

CASCA “Seeds” Program

I’d like to highlight the CASCA “Seeds” program that was announced at the AGM this summer: each year, the CASCA Board will allocate up to $5K of seed funding to activities spearheaded by CASCA
members that benefit the Society. All initiatives and/or events that are consistent with CASCA’s Mission Statement are eligible to receive CASCA Seed funding, though an emphasis will be placed on activities that are difficult to fund via other mechanisms. The intent of the CASCA Seeds program is to support new and/or unique opportunities for CASCA members; the same initiative is therefore unlikely to be funded more than once. 

Full details of the program and application process are available here (English) and here (Francais). We hope that some great new initiatives can grow out of this program!

Sustainability

Anyone who has read through the tremendous list of white papers submitted to the LRP process cannot
have failed to have noticed a very significant number of recommendations put squarely in the hands of CASCA as an organization. On one hand I feel buoyed by the great faith in CASCA that you are showing by making these recommendations, although on the other hand I confess that the entire suite comes across as somewhat daunting. The Board is currently working on determining what to do about these many recommendations, especially given that these recommendations are input into the LRP process, and we need to let that process take its course.

Many very important issues have been brought up, especially around ethical considerations for our field, but one concern stood out for immediate action in the view of several Board members, specifically that of sustainability. I am thus happy to notify the community that the Board has struck an ad hoc committee on sustainability and we are in the process of filling that committee as I write. We have agreed to run this committee in an ad hoc form for one year, with a view to reviewing its progress at the end of 2020.

I’d like to end by again thanking all of you – again – for your efforts in supporting CASCA and the
astronomy community. With a couple of exceptions for our staff members, we are a Society of volunteers and depend entirely on your efforts to make our activities possible.

Happy Holidays, and all the best for 2020!

Rob

President’s Report

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Autumn / l’automne 2019)

Dear CASCA Members,

I sincerely hope the Fall term has begun well for you. A new academic year can often bring new and unanticipated challenges. Most of the messages I’ve sent so far have been ones of acknowledgement and/or updates. In this message I thought I’d discuss some difficult issues we face as a scientific community.

I’m reasonably sure that many of us see astronomy as something that should bring people together, be it families, communities, even nations. My grandfather “Dadger” taught me some of the constellations and was the first person to show me a lunar eclipse (my roots are from a small fishing village). But going broader, every culture has their own sky lore and stories. Sharing them is potentially a way to build bridges and a starting point for wider discussions.

Yet that is really a modern viewpoint reflecting astronomy’s wider perception in western societies of having philosophical impacts that outweigh the practical. Of course, astronomy does have practical value today, but it is not immediately self-evident to many. Indeed, I visit Ottawa regularly to make astronomy’s practical implications more widely understood. But go back 100+ years and western astronomy played a very distinct role in ensuring security through timekeeping and the associated surveying. Its practical significance overshadowed its philosophical implications, and in many ways, it can be seen as a tool that furthered colonial agendas.

Therein lies a significant difference between our internal perception of our field vs that held by many scholars outside it. Astronomy is not measured solely by its current research outputs, as spectacular and awe-inspiring as they may be. As the facilities we build get larger, the nature of our field and the perceptions of it change. The term “astronomy industry” may garner a rueful smile when we read it, knowing as we do that our “product” is largely knowledge, and yet outside the field it is a term often used. Once projects reach the billion-dollar level that kind of language is not surprising.

Much of what I’m going to discuss finds genesis in the current TMT situation, but I’d like to take a step back and consider astronomy’s impact elsewhere. Having visited South Africa in 2016, I have found discussions of astronomy’s role within the country to offer several distinct and thought-provoking perspectives. See [1] and references therein for a detailed discussion social and political developments related to the SKA and astronomy within South Africa.

After years of apartheid, the Mandela and later governments sought to establish a “less militaristic” path forward and astronomy was chosen as one of the key science areas. The enormous internal changes going on in the country were also set against an increasingly global perspective, and a desire to position South Africa as an active and deserving member of the global knowledge economy. To this end, South Africa’s 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology includes the following passage:

“scientific endeavour is not purely utilitarian in its objectives and has important associated cultural and social values. It is also important to maintain a basic competence in ‘flagship’ sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons. Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future – the view that we are a second class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.”

In [1] the funding that resulted for astronomy is argued as being a result of “canny marketing of astronomy as a national ‘feel-good’ story.” This is not so much a criticism of the intentions of scientists, but rather an acknowledgement of political aspirations in a global context, and the endeavours of a number of key actors within the government.

Hidden in the above, is one of the greatest challenges astronomy faces. The international “mega-project” nature of many projects positions the field at a policy/social interface where global aspirations conflict against local. For optical astronomy the concerns can be localized to the site and local light ordinances. These can be highly complex of course, potentially having both environmental and human (land) rights concerns. However, for radio astronomy the need for low backgrounds can create severe constraints on local communication infrastructure across large areas. For the often economically disadvantaged communities in the Karoo that desire modern communication infrastructure, is it reasonable to tell them that they must forfeit a cellphone?

The South African government has decreed that areas of land can be set aside for astronomy projects. The “Astronomy Advantage Areas” are regions of land controlled for the purposes of scientific progress, while several key areas were also directly purchased. These decisions might seem a reasonable step to us as international collaborators, and indeed were done in consultation with the San Council and other groups representing interests in the Karoo. Numerous public consultations were held by the SKA. Yet we are very distant from the local concerns and aspirations of the Karoo communities who feel their voices were not heard.

Astronomy is firmly in an era where the “costs” involved go beyond just monetary, into the social, political and legal (human rights). Of course, there remain some places without human habitation, but for most of the remote places astronomy seeks to build infrastructure, there are indigenous peoples or local residents and questions we must face. While issues surrounding a given project/region are always distinct, they can span the spectrum of development concerns from too little to too much.

For all the challenges outlined here, I remain resolutely behind the scientific goals and the value of the knowledge being sought. I have conducted hundreds of interviews in support of the amazing research we do. But the routes to gaining this knowledge are becoming ever more layered and can have impacts that we may not anticipate. Precisely how the global to local interface is approached may become the defining factor in the future success of our field.

Ultimately, it is astronomy’s very nature to seek pristine and frequently remote lands for facilities. That means the issues we see being raised in Hawai’i, South Africa and other places are likely to become bigger concerns in the future. While we might look to political routes to solve these problems for us, the harsh reality is we are the individuals that develop and propose facility concepts. Engineers take ethics courses, have ethics committees review projects and undergo community consultations, but this is not a route to avoiding conflict or demonstrations. Just consider the many hydroelectric dam projects or oil pipelines that are contested. And to make matters even more complex, no society whether western or indigenous, is always uniform in its viewpoints. That said, I appreciate the issue of differences of viewpoints can be highly nuanced for indigenous peoples and profoundly influenced by colonial legacies.

Awareness and respect of local/cultural issues combined with truly active engagement and learning is something that we must continue to build. It’s one thing to say that knowledge from astronomy benefits everyone, but there’s a growing onus on astronomers to make connections that fulfil that promise.

[1] Cherryl Walker, Davide Chinigò & Saul Dubow (2019) Karoo Futures: Astronomy in Place and Space – Introduction, Journal of Southern African Studies, 45:4, 627-639

President’s Report

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Summer / été 2019)

Dear CASCA Members,

Summer is upon us and by the time you read this the Annual General Meeting in Montreal will be over. So I think it fitting to begin this President’s Message with a huge thank you to the McGill organizers, beginning with the Co-Chairs Nicolas Cowan and Daryl Haggard, as well as the local organizing committee members, Carolina Cruz-Vinaccia, Emmanuel Fonseca, Louise Decelles, Émilie Parent, Taylor Bell, and the scientific organizing committee members, Vicky Kaspi, Andrew Cumming, Tracy Webb, Jonathan Sievers and Kelly Lepo. And I have to put in a thanks to CASCA Vice-President Sara Ellison for acting as the Board contact. The conference program is chock full of some great science and the theme of “Emerging fields in Astrophysics” is particularly apropos as LRP2020 moves ahead.

LRP2020

The LRP process is in full swing, and I will pass on thanks to the Co-Chairs Pauline Barmby and Bryan Gaensler, as well as the panelists Matt Dobbs, Jeremy Heyl, Natasha Ivanova, David Lafrenière, Brenda Matthews, and Alice Shapley, for taking on this immense effort. By the time you read this we will have had the initial discussion sessions at CASCA, and I can’t wait to see what kind of input we’ll get. While I can’t say there is ever a good time to write a Long Range Plan, as research is always in flux, it feels like there are an enormous number of projects looking to get started at the moment. As part of LRP2010 we reviewed over 50 different possible experiments/facilities/projects but it is clear that LRP2020 is going to eclipse that!

The response to the expression of interest for white papers was truly exceptional. With over 80 titles, and growing by the minute, the Panel is going to have its work cut out reviewing everything. I’d also like to encourage the whole community to work together as much as possible. We’re not particularly large and there is much to gain by working together on things as opposed to replicating effort.

Coalition Activities

Some of you may recall that following the Coalition visit in February we were approached by MP Hélène Laverdière about holding a reception for Canadian astronomy on ‘the Hill.’ Big thanks go to Nathalie Ouellette and René Doyon for stepping-up to interface with Madame Laverdière’s office, as well as Kristina Proulx and Duncan Rayner at Temple Scott and Associates who also helped arrange the reception. Events like this are primarily about awareness, it’s important to remember that there are many different interest groups lobbying the government, so we need to get out there and make some noise!

The reception was held on May 27th and we had representation of several LRP projects at the event, including some virtual reality demos which were a big hit! Big thanks go out to Stéphane Courteau, Matt Dobbs, Maria Drout, Kristine Spekkens and Maclean Rouble for contributing their time and talents! I had some time to give a short speech emphasizing how many world firsts Canadian astronomy has achieved, and importantly for government, the deep innovation that we contribute through our collaborations with industry. At one point we had over 40 people in the reception, and as a measure of its effectiveness we got to talk with more MPs at the event that we normally do in a couple of days of meetings.

In addition to the reception, Nathalie, Rene and I also made some of the more regular visits to MPs offices. We are continuing in the vein of ensuring our message is heard in as many different places and in as many different contexts as possible. We made a special effort to be clear on the fact that while recent investments in the CSA were most welcome, we still need a space strategy that provides clear funding avenues and opportunities for Canadian space astronomy.

With the federal election looming on October 21 we have an interesting time for lobbying ahead. In some ways it is good, those looking to get elected have reasons to listen, but in other ways bad as the focus is on electoral votes and not strategies. However, the Coalition is toying with a couple of potential awareness campaigns that might use this to our advantage. Stay tuned!

Society and Board

The Board is just about to undergo a significant change in its composition. Firstly, I have to pass on huge and heartfelt thanks, I’m sure on behalf of everyone in the society, to James Di Francesco (Secretary), Nicole St-Louis (Treasurer) for their work in these positions over six years! CASCA continues to grow as an organization and both James and Nicole have undertaken exceptionally important roles in that change. The more committees we create and the more awards we have, the more challenging these two roles have become.

In addition to James and Nicole departing, so will Erik Rosolowsky, Samar Safi-Harb and Kristine Spekkens. Great thanks to each of you for all your efforts on behalf of the society and moving forward a number of key portfolios.

At the same time, I have to acknowledge all the tremendous work being done by the various CASCA committees. Your reports and advice are central to our moving our society’s mandate forward, and I know you’re all working harder than ever as the number of pages in committee reports has risen from 34 in 2015 to 92 for the ones submitted this year! The Board has a lot of material to review in our next meeting.

I’ll end with a final thank you to all of the other members who volunteer their time to the operation of CASCA and the success of Canadian astronomy, plus our society Administrator Susan Di Francesco, our IT consultant Jennifer West. We simply can’t function without you.

Happy Summer Solstice!

Rob

President’s Report

By / par Rob Thacker (CASCA President)
(Cassiopeia – Spring / printemps 2019)

Dear CASCA Members,

I hope the new Year is treating you well! With LRP2020 getting underway and the release of the Space Strategy it seems like things never slow down. This message comes with both good and some not quite so good news but let us begin with some great news!

LRP2020

While it feels like yesterday since I wrote my last President’s message, not only have we announced the appointment of Pauline Barmby and Bryan Gaensler as Co-Chairs of LRP2020, we have also put in place the additional panel members, consisting of Matt Dobbs, Jeremy Heyl, Natasha Ivanova, David Lafreniere, Brenda Matthews and Alice Shapley as the external member. I’m sure you will all join me in thanking everyone for taking this important and challenging task on – as we all know, there is much hard work ahead for the panel!

With the white paper call going out, LRP2020 is truly underway and I want to strongly encourage everyone in the community to participate in the LRP process. Having been through two reports I know that some of the most difficult writing assignments are actually those for which there has been limited input. Pauline and Bryan are doing their utmost to ensure as many channels of input as possible are available and everyone in the community should feel that their voice will be heard.

The LRP process is a marathon not a sprint. We’ll likely all feel exhausted by the end – so spare a thought for the panelists! But only after we have explored every avenue, considered and debated as many possibilities as we can muster, can we be confident in setting a plan for the next ten years. Equally importantly, the LRP Implementation Committee carries much responsibility to respond to the challenges that cannot be foreseen. So, the next time you voice some concerns about the decision one of these groups may have made, just ponder for second what they’ve likely been going through, and then of course, speak your mind!

Coalition Activities

I cannot discuss Coalition activities without again thanking my Co-Chairs, Don Brooks as the Executive Director of ACURA, and Guy Nelson CEO of Empire Dynamic structures. As always Duncan Rayner of Temple Scott and Associates continues to provide advice. The past few months have been particularly active and challenging as we have tried to move forward awareness of astronomy’s funding concerns while, as everyone is aware, the Government made significant new investments in science through the 2018 Budget.

Following on from a successful fall visit, the Coalition again visited Parliament in February. As I mentioned in my winter report, we have taken an approach of meeting as many stakeholders as possible to build as much awareness of astronomy in Ottawa as we can. This time around we were fortunate to have a meeting with representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as some key members of the Standing Committee on Finance. One interesting development is that some of the MPs chose to request to speak to constituents, so we had fun building “Team Coalition”. So, without further ado, I pass on my most sincere thanks to my teammates René Doyon (Université de Montréal), Judith Irwin (Queen’s University), Laura Parker (McMaster University) and Nathalie Ouellette (Université de Montréal) for giving up their time in support of this important exercise!

Coming away from the day of meetings we all felt things had been successful. Importantly, we received an update on space-science funding and were told that it was a significant priority. Overall, we came away feeling a strong sense the message was getting home, and indeed we now have an open offer to host a reception on the Hill in May. Stay tuned for more details.

Canada’s Space Strategy

Less than a month after our visit to Parliament came the announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada’s new Space Strategy. I invite everyone to go and read the document, but remember it is high-level policy.

As I write this, the precise implications of the space strategy on astronomy are not yet clear. However, we do know that the vast majority of the $2B announcement, over 20 years, is focused on the Lunar Gateway. There are smaller supplementary programs in technology development for lunar exploration (LEAP) as well as a young astronaut program. Of course, new investment in space is always welcome and I’m sure you will all join me in thanking the Government for moving this important part of Canada’s innovation platform forward. This is clearly good news for our colleagues at the Canadian Space Agency.

But I am sure many of you have quickly realized that this announcement does not signal any new investments in space-based astronomy. It’s worth remembering we have not had any commitment to a new space astronomy mission since 2009 (the Hitomi replacement XRISM being excluded) and other than the immensely anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, our direct involvement in missions in the 2020s is currently nonexistent. While we have been able to leverage involvement in Euclid, we cannot hope to have a strong space-based astronomy portfolio if our only route to involvement is secondary support by ground imaging. If we truly wish to build on the expertise and ideas that we have in Canada, ideally to step forward and lead a significant international mission, we are going to need investments to match. Our concerns are also shared by the planetary exploration community. Having been in touch with some of the senior members of that community, it is clear that several important missions in space exploration (whether by massive or massless particles) have very pressing funding needs that the new strategy does not appear to be addressing, at least right now.

That said, I sincerely hope my current skepticism is misplaced. The Joint Committee on Space Astronomy is going to be updated post-Budget on the precise ramifications of the space strategy, and I look forward to talking with my colleagues at the CSA more about the future of Canada in space. It is always possible that the new space strategy investments could lead to reallocation of funds to space-based astronomy.

Needless to say, the Coalition will continue to make our community’s concerns heard.

Thank you!

In the meantime, I would like to thank everyone who contributes their time voluntarily in support of CASCA, and of course our staff as well! Being a volunteer can be a thankless task, so I would like to pass on my heartfelt thanks to everyone that donates their time, particularly our committee members and, as always, e-Cassiopeia editor Joanne Rosvick!

Our community would not be where it is without you!

Happy Vernal Equinox!

Rob