I’m writing this on the way back from Edmonton and the 2017 annual general meeting of the Canadian Astronomical Society, also known as #CASCA2017. The meeting was hosted by the University of Alberta Department of Physics and took place on-campus. There were about 200 attendees, which is pretty typical for a CASCA meeting (the entire membership of the society is about 525 people). The complete program for the conference is here.
CASCA meetings have two main purposes in bringing Canadian astronomy researchers together: networking and discussion of national issues such as observatories, public outreach, and science funding, and presentation of research results. The research presentations are in the form of either “talks” (15-30 minute lectures, almost always with accompanying slides) or “posters”. Science posters are somewhat different from, say, movie posters: they have lots of words, graphs, and sometimes images. (Here’s our poster from the meeting.) Many people consider talks to be more prestigious and important than posters since they usually provide more exposure for the presenter: personally, I think that in many cases, posters are better for information transfer. The presentations are summarized in one-paragraph “abstracts” which are usually written long before the conference and don’t always reflect what is actually presented!
CASCA2017 followed the usual format, including longer talks by Society prize winners, shorter talks by attendees, discussion sessions, and the Society’s annual business meeting. The prize talks were by UdeM’s David Lafreniere (Richer medal), Western’s Fereshteh Rajabi (Plaskett medal); IPAC’s Charles Biechman (Petrie lecture), UQAM’s Pierre Chastenay (Qilak award) and UBC’s Ingrid Stairs (Martin award). The discussion sessions included updates on the state of existing and upcoming facilities: CFHT, LSST, CITA, NRC Herzberg, SKA, and JWST.
Two discussion sessions also featured two more “astro-political” topics: the state of space astronomy in Canada, and the implementation of the Long Range Plan, in particular the state of the Thirty Meter Telescope. I thought that both sessions werepolite and productive; these are big issues which involve the future of both individual careers and our international reputation. It would have been easy for tempers to flare and the discussion to become uncivil, but this didn’t happen. In space astronomy, Canadian astronomers are excited about the upcoming launch of JWST, but very concerned that the Canadian Space Agency has little funding to support participation in future missions. We discussed strategies for improving the situation, including working more closely with members of the Canadian aerospace industry.
The long range plan session involved much discussion about the future of TMT: (where) will it be built, and when? Should Canada continue to be involved or try to join one of the other enormous telescope projects (E-ELT, GMT)? The TMT Board of directors decided last fall that if the telesecope isn’t built on Maunakea as was originally planned, it will be built in the Canary Islands instead. At that point, the scientific implications of that choice were not completely understood. A CASCA committee has recently produced a report which attempts to quantify the effects of a different site and this report featured prominently in the discussion. The discussion also touched on the ethical issues of building the telescope on Maunakea at all, given the objections by some in the Hawaiian community. I think Canadian astronomers want to see TMT on Maunakea, but only if it is welcome there. My sense was that participants believed that it’s up to the people and political process of Hawai’i to decide this issue.
As usual, the conference schedule was packed full of events. I find conference-going pretty tiring even though a lot of it involves sitting in one place. But I still enjoyed the meeting immensely. I caught up with colleagues I don’t get to see in person very often and it’s a lot of fun to feel part of a larger community. It’s great to see students from our own and other institutions grow in confidence and scientific maturity year-over-year. The prize talks celebrated some excellent work being done by Canadian astronomers and allowed me to find out about science I might not otherwise encounter. Edmonton was lovely and the meeting ran smoothly. All in all, it was a great few days and I’m looking forward to CASCA 2018 in Victoria, when we’ll celebrate the 100th birthday of the Plaskett Telescope.