Thrill of small discoveries still inspires veteran astronomer

Astronomer Sidney van den Bergh has been witness to a 'golden age' in his chosen field. He spoke with CBC News online about a lifetime of stargazing and other pursuits.

Since starting his career in 1958 as a professor at the University of Toronto, one year after the Russian probe Sputnik launched from Earth, astronomer Sidney van den Bergh said he has been witness to a "golden age" in his chosen field.

Sidney van den Bergh, the Researcher Emeritus at Victoria's Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, will receive the prestigious Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. ((Gibson's Photography, Victoria))

And while it wouldn't be fair, given the scope of the universe, to suggest beyond the figurative expression that van den Bergh has "seen it all", it's safe to say that he has seen farther into the deep corners of space than most.

Over a 50-year career, van den Bergh has written or co-written over 500 papers, earning him a place as Canada's most respected astronomer. Among his discoveries were the dwarf galaxies orbiting the Andromeda Galaxy, the jet-like feature in the Crab Nebula and a comet that now bears his name.

Born in the Netherlands and schooled in the U.S., van den Bergh moved to Canada to teach at the University of Toronto, and later he acted as director of Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria until 1986.

Van den Bergh was also a leader in building the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, the optical and infrared observatory built in 1979 atop the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and served as the president and chairman of the group overseeing the telescope. He also served as the president of the Canadian Astronomical Society, and vice-president of the International Astronomical Union.

On May 22, 2008, two days after his 79th birthday, he will be awarded the 2008 Catherine Wolfe Bruce Gold Medal from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the largest general astronomy society in the world.

He spoke with about a lifetime of stargazing and other pursuits.

Why did you choose a career in astronomy?

I was already interested in astronomy when I was in kindergarten and I learned to read from astronomy books. It sort of never occurred to me that there was ever any other choice in life. There was just some gene I had I guess that made me interested in it.

There's a perception of astronomy as a lonely craft, a lifetime of staring into a telescope. Was that your experience?

It's very different for different people. Some people just thrive on talking to others all the time, for instance [physicist] Niels Bohr was that time. He would work by talking and arguing with people. On the other hand, there were others, and I think [scientist Albert] Einstein was one of them, who thrived on sitting somewhere quietly and thinking and reading. Although I enjoy my colleagues, I'm basically a loner. I tend to write my papers alone rather than being a member of some huge consortium.

If you were starting your career over again today, is there an area of astronomy you would pursue?

I spent most of my life working on galaxies. I think that an area that has become much more exciting since then is planets. We're now beginning to discover large numbers of planets around other stars, finding out how they form. Finding out how our solar system fits in with other solar systems would be a very exciting thing to get into if I were to start over again.

Is there a particular discovery of yours that stands out?

Not really. Every morning I get up I realize this is why I'm doing it. But of course finding something new is always fun, that's probably the most fun thing. There's a special feeling about knowing that you are the only person in the world who knows some small thing that no one else knows. It must be even more exciting if you find really important things like Einstein did or [Sir Isaac] Newton did, to suddenly have a view of the universe that mankind had never had before.

How has your view of the universe changed, in the course of the work you have done?

I would say the two biggest changes in the last 50 years have been: that we've discovered that the universe we see only makes up a small per cent of all of the mass in the universe, so something like 95 per cent of the mass of the universe is in invisible form. The other really big development has been our changing view of cosmology. Fifty years ago there was a real debate going on between proponents of the steady-state universe, like Fred Hoyle, and the proponents of the expanding universe, the Big Bang, and of course now this is settled and we even know when the Big Bang took place with an accuracy of less than one per cent.

Why do you think astronomy has enjoyed broad support from the public?

Astronomy is very lucky that way, the public never seems to get all that excited about discoveries in particle physics or subjects like that. But the public really warms to astronomical discoveries. I don't know what the reason is but somehow the man in the street is able to relate to things like the discovery of planets and the expansion of the universe and that kind of thing.

Although most of your published material dealt with astronomy, you also wrote a paper about the Nazca lines, the huge drawings in the Peruvian desert thought to have been made by the Nazca civilization some 1500 years ago. What did you learn?

I actually spent a whole summer working on the Nazca lines. I studied the maps and looked for astronomical correlations and came to the conclusion, with much regret, that it was very unlikely that the lines had anything to do with astronomy. So basically, I'm completely baffled. Why would people go through such tremendous effort to do this? It doesn't look like it has anything to do with astronomy, and must have had something to do with their religion. I have no idea why. I think it's one of the great unsolved mysteries.

What are you working on now?

I'm just working away at my research. I'm under no pressure at all to produce results and so that gives me an opportunity to look into the things that I'm really curious about and do it slowly but thoroughly. So I find this a very pleasant state to be in. The thing I'm working on this week is the relationship between the diameters of galaxies and their luminosities, which almost under any theoretical scenario are expected to depend quite critically on the environment in which the galaxy formed. But surprisingly, it turns out that this isn't the case. So this is something I'm puzzling with right now and I have no idea whether anything will come of it.

You've been awarded the Order of Canada and received many other honours in your career. What makes this award distinct?

It's very nice because many of the previous awardees were really quite remarkable astronomers, so it's nice to be in the same company.

Is it odd to receive a lifetime achievement award while you are still alive?

Yes, but it's much better that way.