Looking Back at the CASCA 2018 Meeting

From / de Karun Thanjavur
(Cassiopeia – Summer / été 2018)

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Victoria was the venue of this year’s annual general meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA). CASCA 2018 was co-hosted by the NRC-Herzberg Astronomy & Astrophysics (HAA) and the Dept. of Physics & Astronomy at UVic, with substantial volunteer help from members of the Royal Astronomical Society, Victoria Chapter, and the Friends of the DAO. The meeting ran from 22-26 May at the Victoria Conference Centre, situated in the heart of this scenic city. Victoria was chosen to host the conference this year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1.8m Plaskett Telescope at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (DAO) in Victoria. This article summarizes highlights from the various science and centennial sessions, as well as the special events hosted during the conference.

With well over 300 registered participants, this year’s meeting ranked as one of the bigger CASCA meetings on record. The meeting kicked off to a great start with a vibrant graduate students workshop, which included a hands-on exercise on the Gemini Observatory’s Fast Turnaround Program, and an introduction to the high performance computing (HPC) resources for research offered through West Grid/Compute Canada. The afternoon session focussed on networking with industrial partners through a “pechakucha” and rapid fire presentations by the representatives of the industries. The workshop ended with a wine and cheese mixer for the graduates students and the industrial reps, which was then followed by the conference welcome reception for all attendees.

The first day’s proceedings of CASCA 2018 got underway on Wednesday with an eloquent welcome to the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations territory by Tsawout Elder Victor Underwood. Following this territorial welcome, and in a reciprocal gesture of respect and recognition, astronomer Dave Balam (DAO) presented a plaque to Chief Harvey Underwood of the Tsawaout First Nation (TFN) to commemorate the naming of asteroid 402920 as Asteroid Tsawout (see related Globe and Mail article). Dave named this asteroid that he had discovered in 2007 for the TFN, one of the five bands which constitute the Saanich Nation in the Coast Salish lands. The Plaskett Telescope on Observatory Hill sits on the territorial lands of the Tsawout First Nations and was their winter camp, says Dave. This is the reason he has chosen to name the asteroid for the TFN. The plenary session continued with opening remarks by UVic President Dr. Jamie Cassels and NRC/HAA General Manager, Dr. Greg Fahlman, followed by two very interesting centennial talks. First, Peter Broughton (author of “John Stanley Plaskett – a northern star”) offered a biography of John S. Plaskett after whom the 100 year-old telescope in named. Dennis Crabtree then gave a fitting summary of the many major achievements of the Canadian astronomical community over the past century.

The fully packed conference schedule shows the diversity and depth of the centennial and science sessions, which followed over the next four days of the conference. The more detailed conference program with the titles, authors and abstracts of all the centennial and science sessions has also been posted on the CASCA2018 website, which will remain live for the next year (till May 2019). The centennial sessions were offered as plenary sessions while the science sessions ran as concurrent two and at times three parallel sessions. The over subscription rate for contributed talks was a remarkable 3-to-1 in this conference. It is to the credit of the Science Organizing Committee for having allocated the talks well taking into account gender balance, geographical distribution and other diversity and inclusivity policies adopted by CASCA. In addition to these science sessions, teachers workshops (both elementary and secondary schools) were also organized and very successfully run by Julie Bolduc-Duval (Discover the Universe) and Mary Beth Laychak (CFHT) with assistance from other members of the CASCA Education and Public Outreach committee. Of special note was a presentation on the traditional knowledge of the First Peoples regarding the thirteen phases of the Moon given by Dr. Nick Claxton, an indigenous educator from the UVic education department.

Related to education and public outreach (EPO), we were fortunate to have had a moving yet very powerful message from Elder Dr. Barney Williams of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation on the role of education in reconciliation. As a survivor of the residential school system, he was eminently suited to eloquently warn us of the dangers of racial superiority, and to turn the horrors of his own childhood experiences into a message of hope toward reconciliation and mutual respect amongst all peoples based on education.

Several special events were offered during the course of the conference. On the first day, Bob McDonald (CBC Radio, Quirks and Quarks) gave an excellent and well attended public lecture, intriguingly titled “What if everything you know is wrong?”. The conference banquet marked the end of the second day. Held at the Royal BC Museum, the atypical banquet was set up as a series of food stations featuring various cuisines distributed throughout the permanent exhibits of the First Nations and the city of Victoria. Judging by the feedback from participants later, the intention to encourage the conference participants to walk around and mingle during the banquet worked well. On Friday evening, the DAO centennial celebration was held with a special cake (shaped expertly as the Plaskett observatory), dome tours, public lectures and an open house of the Centre of the Universe. The skies too cooperated well and the 200+ attendees were able to enjoy viewing Venus and Jupiter through the RASC 16″ telescope.

The Plaskett telescope, circa 1915.

The Plaskett telescope, circa 1915.

The Plaskett telescope, today.

The Plaskett telescope, today.

The meeting was a huge success judging by the verbal feedback of many participants. Our sincere thanks go to all members of the LOC and to many volunteers for their contributions and to all our sponsors (shown on the CASCA 2018 website) for their generous financial support. We now look forward to the next annual general meeting hosted by McGill University in Montreal June 17 – 20, 2019.

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