President's Corner

A Journey in Astronomy and in the RASC
by Michael Watson, President

Saturday, 1961 July 26, was a sunny day at our family’s quite primitive half-century-old cottage on Peninsula Lake in Ontario’s Muskoka region. I wouldn’t turn nine years old for another month and a half. Although I went to bed in the early evening after a day of swimming and other things that kids do—or used to do—outside, my father told me that he would wake me before midnight to see something special—an eclipse of the Moon. He was a schoolteacher who taught grammar and science. Four years earlier, on Thanksgiving weekend in October 1957, he had taken the family out under the dark night sky at the cottage to watch Sputnik 1 pass overhead. Although I was only five at the time, I remembered that special night on this July evening in 1961.

Some time after 10 p.m. (it would be another decade before I permanently switched to the 24-hour clock in my mind), my father awakened a sleepy, grouchy, pajama-clad eight-year-old and took my mother and me down to the dock. There, 10 degrees up in the southeastern sky, hung an orange-tinted partially eclipsed Moon in a slightly hazy but otherwise clear sky. I watched, quite spellbound, over the next hour as the Moon progressively advanced further into Earth’s shadow until only a small sliver was visible at maximum eclipse just after 11:00 p.m. This was a 98.6% partial eclipse.

What amazed me, apart from the magic and stateliness of what I had just witnessed, was that my father had predicted this would happen!

Two summers later came my next astronomical rendezvous. I was at summer camp north of Huntsville for two weeks in July 1963. Some members of the RASC will still remember the total solar eclipse of July 20 that year, the path of which closely paralleled the 1972 July 10 eclipse that passed over the Northwest Territories and south across the Gaspé Peninsula and then into New Brunswick and across Nova Scotia nine years later.

By that time I had learned that my father wasn’t in fact the only person on the planet who could predict when these eclipses would occur. He wanted me to see this eclipse, although it would be only 91% partial from where I was at camp. Since he was a photographer and always had film available, he exposed a roll of black and white film to the Sun, had it developed, and packed several layers of the blackened film with my camp gear so that I could see the eclipse. This was long before people were aware that exposed and developed film, or carbon-smoked glass, were very unsafe ways to look at the Sun, eclipsed or not.

When eclipse Saturday came, the camp director kept all of the kids inside so that they wouldn’t go blind or die. All except one, that is. The director, his wife, and the camp counsellors wanted to see the eclipse, but I was the only one with any means of seeing it, and I let them know. So one ten-year-old camper was allowed outside, surrounded by a group of grateful camp management and counsellors, who passed around my film filter to watch the eclipse—after I had looked first. As far as I know, none of us went blind.

These astronomical events engendered in this pre-teenager an intense interest in the U.S. and Russian space programs over the ensuing years. The culmina¬tion came on the evening of Sunday, 1969 July 20, when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin (called “Buzzer,” then just “Buzz,” by one of his sisters; to which he changed his name officially in 1988) stepped out onto the Moon’s surface and into history just before 23:00 Ontario time. That summer I was working at a gas station in Huntsville, near our cottage, and got permis¬sion from the station owner to watch the moonwalk on a small, grainy black-and-white rabbit-eared television that they had mounted in the gas station’s office. I so well remember watching Armstrong and Aldrin gingerly walking and jumping on the lunar surface, then going outside and looking up in wonderment at a fat waxing-crescent Moon low in the western sky. There were people walking around on it.

The next spring, I used a small amount of money that had come my way at the end of high school to order my first telescope; a Criterion 6-inch f/8 reflector. By that time I had been studying Norton’s Star Atlas for months, learning star names, how constellation star patterns looked, and where the best-known deep-sky objects were located. Finally in June, the telescope arrived from Connecticut, and we took it up to the cottage. My father and I set it up during the day. Heart pounding, I took it outside that night under a dark Muskoka sky for “first light.” I looked up to aim the scope, and then … utterly panicked. I didn’t recognize anything. It took me a minute to understand why. There were no lines of right ascension and declination and no labels on the sky to guide me! That was my first and most important lesson in how star atlases—as invaluable as they are both at the desk and in the field—don’t exactly replicate what we behold with our eyes when we look up. Nonetheless I found Vega directly overhead. It was the first star I ever saw through my new friend, my telescope.

That spring I joined the RASC, and I’ve have been a member for the 53 and a bit years since then.

I learned the night sky using the old-fashioned star-hopping method, and even after I got my first computer-assisted telescope, for years I avoided using the GoTo object-finding function. Only in the last three or so years have I started—reluctantly—to use that very useful tool, but only so that I can quickly move from one astrophotographic target to another, and not waste the precious dark-sky minutes that at my age now seem to be far too few.

What followed in the decades after I joined the Society was a series of solar eclipse trips, including several eclipse expeditions that I organized or co-led, trips with my telescopes to Australia to view and photograph the southern sky, and participation in the governance of the Society as a National Council Representative, Chair of the Constitution Committee for many years, and then as Society Treasurer, Second Vice-President, and legal counsel.

I hit the pause button in my involvement in Society governance for a couple of decades when Helen’s and my children arrived in the early ’90s. These were some of the best years of my life, for sure. Then when a position opened up on the Board of Directors in 2017, my dear friend Randy Attwood, whom I had met at the end of the 1970s and who was then Executive Director of the Society, asked whether I would be interested in filling the vacant position. Two seconds later I said yes. Since that time I have renewed old friendships in the RASC, met new members, and moved up from director to Second and then First Vice-President, and now finally to President and still legal counsel.

But with all of that, I am still in my heart first and always an observational astronomer, and to me the RASC is most importantly an astronomy club of naturalists with an intense love of the cosmos. My best times are out at new Moon in Algonquin Park with my telescopes, my binoculars, and my eyes. I am there with my old and so intimate friend, the night sky.

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Sunday, September 10, 2023 - 5:41pm