of Astronomy in Canada
Just as Canadians today do not all interpret the universe in the same way, the first people to inhabit this part of the world also had a variety of ideas and legends about the night sky. The astronomical knowledge of the Inuit has been explored in a recent book by John MacDonald but there is no comparable guide to the astronomy of other native people.
Explorers, mainly from England, were intent on finding a Northwest passage to the orient between 1576 and 1847. As they probed the Arctic for a suitable route, they looked to the Sun, Moon and stars to fix their latitude and longitude. However, it was the Jesuit missionaries, who often spent many years of their lives here, who really introduced astronomy to Canada.
They not only observed eclipses and comets, but taught surveying, navigation and hydrography in Quebec in the mid-seventeenth century. European astronomy came to western Canada in 1769 when two astronomers, Dymond and Wales, observed the transit of Venus at Churchill. On Wales' advice, the Hudson's Bay Company appointed its first surveyor, Philip Turnor. He, in turn, trained two younger men, David Thompson and Peter Fidler at Cumberland House, Saskatchewan, and they went on to survey much of the west.
Observatories equipped with refractors sprang up in the mid-nineteenth century near Montreal and in Kingston, Quebec and Fredericton. Providing correct time from observations of the stars was one of their main services. Though universities in each of these cities soon began to offer astronomy courses, the University of New Brunswick was the first to have an observatory and to teach astronomy.
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, presently numbering about 4500 members in all parts of the country, traces its roots to the Toronto Astronomical Club formed by a little group of amateurs in 1868. While the RASC members are still mainly amateurs whose common bond is a love of the universe, the Society has been influential in the development of astronomy in Canada. One of its most important leaders was Professor C. A. Chant.
At the start of the twentieth century, Chant realized that the future of astronomy lay in astrophysics and established a separate astronomy department at the University of Toronto. At the same time W. F. King, Canada's first "Chief Astronomer," also recognized that research was expanding beyond the traditional fields of time and position. He persuaded the federal government to establish the Dominion Observatory in Ottawa and to equip it with a 38 cm refractor. This was Canada's first centre of astrophysical research with solar and stellar spectroscopy being the main areas of study.
The limitations of this rather small telescope in a poor environment soon frustrated one of the astronomers, J. S. Plaskett. He knew that a large reflector telescope was needed and through his efforts, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory was opened near Victoria, B.C. in 1918. Its 1.8 m telescope was one of the largest research instruments anywhere for several decades. Plaskett's work on the rotation of our Galaxy brought world-wide recognition to him and his observatory.
Meanwhile, Dr. Chant achieved a lifelong dream in seeing a major observatory established at the University of Toronto. The David Dunlap Observatory opened in 1935. It housed the second-largest telescope in the world! For many years, it was the only facility in the country where a student could get specialized training in astronomy. Spectroscopy and photometry have been the basis of most research carried out there with Helen Hogg's work on variable stars in globular clusters and C. T. (Tom) Bolton's convincing 1972 research on Cygnus X-1 as a black hole being especially notable.
After the Second World War, surplus radar equipment began to be used in Ottawa by A. E. Covington to study radio emission from the Sun. This was the start of radio astronomy in Canada. Two large radio observatories were inaugurated in the 1960s at Algonquin Park, Ontario and at Penticton, B.C. They were linked in 1967 and provided an early success in long baseline interferometry, a technique which allowed small features of radio sources to be resolved. The Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory in Penticton has added arrays of radio telescopes to its arsenal and these are used for high-resolution imaging of discrete sources and mapping of the galactic plane.
The intense East-West competition for scientific supremacy was one aspect of the Cold War of the 1950s and '60s. Canada entered space soon after the first Sputnik was launched in 1957. We were the third nation to have a space satellite — a communication satellite named Alouette. Beginning in 1953, there was a tremendous surge in university enrolment, especially in the sciences and doctoral studies in astronomy.
In the 1970s the old Dominion Observatory in Ottawa was closed and all government astronomy became the responsibility of the National Research Council in the newly organized Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics, named for a Nobel laureate. Professional astronomers now numbered over one hundred, and the community decided to form their own organization - Canadian Astronomical Society.
As larger and larger, and more and more expensive, facilities became necessary for research at the edges of the universe, the only way that institutions could afford to keep up, was to cooperate in shared ventures. At present there are three international observatories in which Canada has a share - the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (both in Hawaii) and the Gemini Observatories in Hawaii and Chile. Two other important collaborative projects are the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (based in Toronto) and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory.
Of course, much useful and interesting work continues to be done by astronomers using modest equipment. Even amateur astronomers can make valuable contributions to science using backyard telescopes. Canadian astronomers also now have their own microsatellite, MOST, to study variable stars from space.
Canadian astronomers have a long-range plan for the future which includes participation in the Next Generation Space Telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the Square Kilometer Array for radio astronomy.
with files from Peter Broughton (2003)