With Terence Dickinson's death, we've lost one of Canada's most illustrious sets of eyes on the skies
He was a major figure in popularizing astronomy in Canada over the last half century
Canada lost one of its best this week. Terence Dickinson — astronomer, author, lecturer and prominent advocate of all things astronomical — passed away on February 1 at the age of 79.
Terry became interested in astronomy at the early age of five when he saw a meteor streak across the sky and developed a passion for astronomy that continued throughout his life.
Author of many books and winner of numerous awards, including the Order of Canada, he began working as an astronomer at the McLaughlin Planetarium in Toronto in the 1960s. He became the executive editor of the prestigious magazine Astronomy in the early 1970s, and around the same time joined the education department at the Ontario Science Centre, which is where I first met him.
Terry acted as a mentor to help me develop astronomy programs for visiting schools. Since then, we met at many astronomy conferences. But one memorable occasion was when I visited his rural home near Yarker, Ontario, where he showed me how to do astronomy during the day.
Outside in his backyard, under clear blue skies, was a telescope. I expected it to be fitted with a solar filter so we could look at the sun, but instead he asked, "Would you like to see Venus?"
"During the day?" I responded. "Sure, if you know where to look for it," he replied. Checking the time, and looking at an astronomical table, he pointed the telescope to the proper co-ordinates, then invited me to take a look through the eyepiece.
There, shimmering brightly, was the silvery crescent of the planet Venus. Venus is nearer to the sun than we are so it always looks like a crescent — never full. He went on to explain, "Venus is always close to the sun, so it is up more during the day than at night, so this is a good time to look at it."
That was the magic of Terry Dickinson — he was soft spoken, knowledgeable and able to show the wonder of the universe right from your backyard. His bestselling book, Nightwatch has become a standard guide for backyard astronomers, constantly updated and reprinted over the past 20 years and still on bookshelves today.
In the '90s he co-founded SkyNews, an all-Canadian astronomy magazine, and later helped establish a dark sky preserve not far from his home that is used by amateur astronomers year round.
For more than 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s, Terry was a regular guest on Quirks & Quarks as our "Eye on the Sky," bringing us the latest news in astronomy or interesting facts about unusual objects in the universe. But my favourite episode was in 1994 when we asked him to come on — ostensibly to speak about the Orion Nebula.
The interview was suddenly interrupted by a call from Dr. Brian Marsden of the Harvard Smithsonian Institute for Astrophysics, informing Terry that asteroid 5272 was to be officially named Dickinson in his honour.
Terry was completely flabbergasted. You can listen to that interview here.
Terence Dickinson influenced thousands of people across Canada and around the world, through his writings, lectures and publications. His legacy will live on in the asteroid that bears his name, in the many who have been inspired by his teaching and by those of us who had the privilege to know him.
Clear skies, Terry.