Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2017

© Guillaume Poulin

Perched atop a mountain, the Mont Mégantic observatory allows for some of the best stargazing in North America.

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Pitch-black picture-perfect

By surrounding itself in darkness, Quebec's Mont Mégantic lights the skies on fire

I swear, I’m no neophyte when it comes to the stars. I’ve seen them streak by as the U.S.S. Starship Enterprise blasts into warp drive. I’ve watched as TIE fighters dodge and weave past them through the galaxy.

So with all this armchair astronomy experience, why am I having a hard time keeping up with Guillaume Poulin? It seems like nothing on earth can contain his energy, which is perhaps why he spends so much time examining the rest of the universe.

It’s dark out here. Poulin clicks off his flashlight and the skies reveal their secret – a horizon-to-horizon canopy twinkling with pinpricks of light. The occasional shooting star streaks across the blackness. Time seems to stand still; we watch the slow movement of constellations across the sky. I am already completely at the mercy of the heavens, and we haven’t even started to look at things up close.

It takes turning out the lights to really gain an appreciation of where I am. In the inky darkness, the setting at Quebec’s Mont Mégantic comes into focus. Tucked into the far corner of the province’s bucolic Eastern Townships, the Mont Mégantic Dark Sky Reserve (Chemin de l’Observatoire, Notre-Dame-des-Bois; astrolab-parc-national-mont-megantic.org) stretches for a 50-kilometre radius, including the entire Mont Mégantic National Park, and boasts the ASTROLab centre and a world-class observatory, ringed by thick forests and small mountains. It comprises roughly 5500 square kilometres in all.

“The stars are protected here at Mont Mégantic,” explains Poulin, who works at the provincial park as a guide. “The sky is very dark in this area – there is very little light pollution — and it is here that the world’s first dark sky reserve was established.” By protecting the night sky, Mont Mégantic has launched its facility into a different stratosphere as a tourist attraction.

Before stepping outside into total darkness, Poulin leads our small group through a few teasers to give us some basic knowledge and whet our appetite for what will follow. Inside the block-like ASTROLab, a 20-minute film gives us the cliffs-notes version of the Big Bang, dark matter, dark energy, primordial slime and human life as plotted on a one-year timeline. Banish the thought of man ruling the heavens: mankind appears on the 365th day at mere minutes before the chime of midnight. We are but a wisp of stardust.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

“Space is big,” famously wrote the late great science-fiction author Douglas Adams. “You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” Seeing and comprehending that vastness has required the right conditions and technology though. Just a few decades ago, the only known planets were the ones from our very own solar system. As the technology has improved, the known frontiers of the universe have exploded. Today, scientists are closing in on having confirmed the existence of a thousand planets. Science geeks like Poulin and the staff at the observatory have made it their life’s work to pass on their passion for the night sky.

“The only way we can explore the universe today is with the help of telescopes,” Poulin explains. “And the way we comprehend the universe has changed as the way we observe has developed.”

The forested mountain region of Mont Mégantic was chosen as the site for the observatory because of the exceptionally dark sky, the altitude boost that the mountaintop setting provides and the dry climate, which makes for better air quality. Most important of all is the virtual absence of light pollution, the thief that robs city slickers of a proper look at the celestial bodies that make up our universe.

According to Poulin, putting the brakes on light pollution has grown into an international program and a part of the larger goal of protecting the night sky. By sensitizing the public to the issue of light pollution, the hope is that it will foster a respect for the nocturnal environment.

“Lighting is being redesigned in communities so that lower-level illumination is shielded and aimed downwards rather than upwards and into the sky.” In the communities around Mont Mégantic, it has made a noticeable difference.

The facilities at Mégantic are multi-faceted: a mountaintop research observatory outfitted with a 1.6-metre, 24-ton telescope — one of Canada’s largest and the most important in eastern North America — and a smaller observatory with a 0.35-metre telescope atop the ASTROLab building, open year round to the public.

A steady stream of visitors come to the ASTROLab and the smaller observatory to take advantage of the park’s stargazing programs during summer and winter alike. The most popular time of year is the annual Super Astronomy Festival, a “great celebration of the sky” now in its 30th year. For seven Friday nights in July and August, the large research telescope is open to the visiting public. A professional astronomer will be on hand to answer questions, bat theories back and forth and point out the wonders brought into focus by the telescope. This year’s theme is “The Sun and the Auroras.”

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

At twilight, the skies are still cloudy. So far, not a stellar night for stargazing. Poulin recognizes an antsy, restless group and does what any captain of the ship would — he suggests a pleasant distraction. We climb a metal staircase to the roof of the astrolab. Poulin pushes buttons and fiddles with levers; there is a light whirring sound as the roof of the small observatory cracks open. The cold night air rushes in.

There’s a bit of technical chatter and then conversation suddenly comes to a screeching halt. As if on cue, the winds have picked up, blowing the clouds away and opening up a canvas of stars to our view. Right there, on this dark and chilly roof, the purpose of my visit is taking shape. Collectively, we catch our breath.

This is the moment Poulin has been waiting for. He jumps into action, cranking the telescope into optimal position, adjusting the focus until perfect, and then steps aside, sweeping us into his celestial world. We jostle for position, taking turns but secretly eager to hog the eyepiece of the telescope. The things captured by the lens of glass — sizes, outlines and colours — are new to us, thanks to this breathtaking perspective.

“The stars here are protected,” he reminds us. And even though we cannot hope to touch them, we nod in a sign of healthy respect. We get it now. How we tinker on the ground touches the heavens and bodies of fire and gas millions of light years away.

There’s no rush. Things are as they should be. The skies stay clear; the clouds banished. We settle in as our guide begins a visual tour of his neighbourhood. As the stars come into focus, so too does the irony — by setting aside such a seemingly vast area from light pollution, we’re allowed to see just how tiny we are.

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