The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

2008 Winner: Excellence In Science And Technology Public Awareness

Inspiration In The Night Sky

Dr. Phil Langill is still buzzing from the recent open house he hosted at the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory outside of Calgary. “Three hundred people came to the observatory,”  he enthuses.

He remembers specifically a youngster who climbed up the ladder to peer at the night sky through an eyepiece on the observatory’s largest telescope. It took him a while to see anything. Dr. Langill coached him to “jiggle your eye a bit to the left. See anything?”  He received a negative response. “Jiggle it a bit to the right then. See anything?” Still nothing. then suddenly an excited burst of “Holy cow! Look at all the stars!” It’s those magic moments that stay with the wonderstruck child for a lifetime and with Dr. Langill for a long time, too.

Although he admits to being biased about the interest value in astronomy, Dr. Langill hopes the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory will instill in people, youth especially, the wonder of science through astronomy. “If we are able to inspire even one in 500 of our visitors to remember their time at the observatory and become an astronomer, a scientist or a teacher,” he says, “then we are successful.”

Originally the University of Calgary used the observatory as a teaching and research facility. When it received additional funding about 10 years ago Dr. Langill was hired as resident astronomer. He began using the unique facility to educate the public by instituting open houses for the public and tours and seminars for schoolteachers.

Several years later, the observatory hired Dr. Langill as its director and he proposed continuing and expanding public outreach activities at the facility. Given the green light, Dr. Langill proceeded. Now the observatory has grade-specific programs for school children from grade 6 to 12. It has partnerships with Girl Guides, Brownies, Scouts, Cubs and Beavers, in which they work towards various astronomy badges. Day camps have organized sessions and the observatory is open to visitors three afternoons a week. Open houses are also a regular event. All this goes on while the observatory remains one of Canada’s leading astrophysical observatories and a vital U of C teaching and research facility. Its location in the foothills of the Rockies gives RAO the unique ability to scan the northern sky, and to make a valuable contribution to astrophysical research globally.

And next year, The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory will be a major Canadian player in the United Nations-designated International Year of Astronomy. The year will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the improved telescope designed by Galileo, who is considered the father of modern observational astronomy.