The Current

How astronomy has provided stress relief and a sense of community during pandemic

As COVID-19 continues to separate communities, people have looked to the stars and used astronomy as a way to maintain and build new connections.

The night sky is something we all have in common, says astronomy professor

Lou Vegh, left, and his daughter, Julia Vegh. Lou says his family is getting closer thanks to their shared interest in astronomy. (Submitted by Lou Vegh)

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Originally published on Nov. 24, 2020

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Canada earlier this year, Lou Vegh, his daughter Julia and his wife were visiting Lou's mother in Tillsonburg, Ont.

They were only going to stay a short while, but due to the pandemic and subsequent restrictions, their visit was extended for nearly five and a half months.

Stuck with few ways to occupy his five-year-old daughter, Julia, Lou suggested the family turn to the stars for entertainment.

"I put astronomy out there to her just to see what would happen, not really expecting much, and she seemed very interested in it," he told The Current. "She wanted to keep going when I was ready to stop, and it was just something very intuitive to her."

Julia Vegh's drawing of the solar system. (Submitted by Lou Vegh)

Since her first introduction to the cosmos, Julia has been hooked. She and her dad will sit together looking at astronomy websites or watching YouTube videos about the planets, and then go outside to see if they can spot them in the sky. 

Lou says astronomy has given his family something wholesome and science-based to cherish. 

"It just gives you a warm feeling when your child has some of the same interests without being prompted," he said.

All three of us are learning and all three of us are getting closer by our interest in astronomy.- Lou Vegh

Lou and Julia are far from the only ones who've become interested in astronomy during the pandemic. 

Ray Khan, owner of Khan Scope Centre in Toronto, said his store has been flooded with inquiries about their astronomy stock since the pandemic started. 

"We were getting probably twice as many orders in the day that we would normally get, and that was just online," he said. "The phone was ringing off the hook. Emails were coming in. We really couldn't keep up with it."

Khan says his store hasn't been this busy since Halley's Comet was visible from Earth in 1986 — the same year he first opened his store.

The Comet NEOWISE is seen in the sky above Goldfield, Nevada on July 18, 2020. One telescope store owner said his store hasn’t been this busy since Halley's Comet was visible from Earth in 1986. (DAVID BECKER/AFP via Getty Images)

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) has also seen a boost in the amount of people attending their star parties — where groups of people would gather overnight to stargaze together.

Discovering a new passion

Normally, these in-person events would see an attendance of 30 to 40 people. But since moving online to cope with COVID-19 restrictions, the parties have seen more than 100 stargazers turn up.

They include American stargazers such as Lisa Ann Fanning who, like Lou and Julia, became interested in astronomy after looking for ways to stay actively engaged.

"I decided to look into whether or not there were any programs that I could put some formal learning in place around astronomy, because I found myself, you know, standing outside at night … just looking up into the sky and wanting to know more about what was around me," she said.

Lisa Ann Fanning at the Planetarium at New Jersey State Museum. She enjoys the sense of community astronomy has given her during the pandemic. (Submitted by Lisa Ann Fanning)

Fanning connected with RASC through Canadian astronomer John Read. After reading some of his books, she reached out to Read on Instagram to ask about courses, and he directed her to RASC.

Fanning ended up joining a course where participants look for different objects in the sky, including particular stars and nebulae.

"So I was able to find a lot of these deep sky objects and double stars and things that I never thought that I would see on my own, which really helped me put some structure to learning and really ignited a fire in me as far as a new passion," she said. 

So many people come from different places, but we all have the same night sky, and so we all have something in common.- Hilding Neilson

Hilding Neilson has spent many years observing the cosmos. He's a University of Toronto professor of astronomy and astrophysics. He's also Mi'kmaq, so he often brings together Western astronomy and Indigenous knowledge in his work.

The bear and the bird hunters

One example of this is the story of Muin, a bear in Mi'kmaw, and the bird hunters.

The Big Dipper, seen here in 2005, is an important part of the Mi'kmaq story of Muin and the bird hunters. (David McNew/Getty Images)

"If you look in the sky around a couple hours before dawn, every night, you'll see in the West [what] we would consider the Big Dipper, but the four stars of the bowl is a bear, and the first three stars are the first three bird hunters, and if you continue along the line, you'll see the other four." he said.

"And in the spring, two hours before dawn, the bowl is sort of pointing down. And at that point, the bear is waking up from hibernation and is spotted by the birds."

Neilson explains that the bear begins running away from the birds "flat across the land," but eventually stands on its hind legs to face the birds. The bear ends up being killed, and the birds prepare the bear for a feast.

At this point, the bear — now a spirit bear — is lying on its back, waiting for the spring to return.

Through this story and similar stories, Neilson feels a connection to his land and where he's from, as well as the importance of succeeding as a group.

"In the story we learn, you know, about the motion of the stars throughout the year. We learn about nature and we learn about community and sharing," he said.

'We all have something in common'

Neilson says he loves everything astronomy has to offer, from the questions and mysteries it poses to the application of sciences and mathematics. But he also appreciates the human connection astronomy provides.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "So many people come from different places, but we all have the same night sky, and so we all have something in common," he said.

That sense of community is exactly why people like Fanning and the Vegh family have stuck around in the astronomy scene. 

"There's just this familiar group of people that get together through these various programs and are there because we all love the same thing, we're all passionate about the same thing, and we're all looking to share the same thing," Fanning said. 

"I would say it's given us something wholesome and science based that all three of us are interested in, that we can talk about and actually learn together," Lou Vegh said. "All three of us are learning and all three of us are getting closer by our interest in astronomy."

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.


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