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March/April 2002 issue

Reaching for the stars

Three-year-olds are tactile explorers; they learn by touch. At age three, Sidney van den Bergh recalls wanting to grasp the moon. The fact that he couldn’t gave him his first sense of distance and space. Van den Bergh is now 72 and researcher emeritus at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria. He’s spent a lifetime studying the universe, reaching out to distant galaxies through the lenses of some of the world’s most powerful telescopes.

"I have been interested in space as far back as I can remember," he says. "I learned to read with books about astronomy."


In the 1970s, van den Bergh was teaching at the University of Toronto when the federal government began considering the construction of a major new telescope. The plan was to locate it in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. Van den Bergh and other astronomers suggested an alternative: why not build it at the very best site possible? That site turned out to be a mountaintop in Hawaii. The land would be provided by the University of Hawaii and the costs borne by both Canada and France. But the deal made members of the federal Cabinet squirm.

"Politically, it was very difficult for them to take that much money [about $15 million] and spend it outside of Canada," says van den Bergh. Years of dithering followed before the Trudeau government agreed to forgo the political benefits of locating the facility in a needy or a friendly riding.

Since its opening in 1979, the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea has been used by astronomers to capture exceptional images of the universe, a portfolio of which appear in this issue. It has allowed a generation of Canadian astronomers to make notable contributions to the international scientific study of the universe.

Around the world, amateur and academic stargazers are slowly, steadily helping us understand what is out there. In the past year alone, astronomers have discovered planets orbiting stars other than the sun, monitored a massive dust storm on Mars, assembled new evidence of a black hole at the core of the Milky Way and observed and studied the solar storms that affect satellites and electrical systems on Earth. These discoveries are a powerful and inspiring example of true global scientific co-operation.

And thank heavens that van den Bergh managed to persuade Cabinet to finance the telescope in Hawaii. The government of the day might easily have caved in to regional interests, as did the British. In the 1950s, Great Britain began construction of a large telescope in Sussex. Given the weather there, the result was "a complete disaster" for astronomers, says van den Bergh. Eventually, it was moved, at considerable cost, to the Canary Islands.

Van den Bergh is now officially retired but continues to pursue his studies, working from 5 a.m. to noon every weekday and some weekends. He has just published a classification of 241 galaxies.

"Nowadays, it is fashionable to classify galaxies by computer," he says. "But the quality isn’t the same as looking at them individually." The light signals that strike telescopes on Earth were emitted billions of years ago, meaning that van den Bergh and his colleagues are looking at galaxies as they once were. "It’s a bit like paleontologists being actually able to see dinosaurs prancing about," he says.

His work hasn’t produced a cure for cancer or solved our urban transportation problems or helped us understand how to save the cod. The sum of his lifetime’s achievements is much more profound and awesome. Van den Bergh has fitted maybe a handful of pieces into the giant and perhaps unsolvable puzzle of how the universe works, and in so doing, he has inspired many others who follow in his footsteps. His job is, quite simply, the pursuit of certainty. He is a living example of how science should work.

— Rick Boychuk


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