As I write this, the RASNZ conference is just over a month off. As chair of the local committee, I have been closely involved for the planning for this event. The conference will be held in Tekapo from 8 May, a venue that was chosen to enable us to mark the fiftieth anniversary this year of Mt John University Observatory, just 15 minutes’ drive from the conference venue.
I decided that the 50th anniversary needed an additional event where our past graduate students and people who had worked at Mt John could come and share their reminiscences. Over 50 years, as many as 175 students have prepared theses using Mt John data, and most of these have been Mt John observers. These 175 graduate students have come from the University of Canterbury, which has accounted for 82 of the students, and from four other New Zealand universities. The remainder came to Mt John from seven overseas universities in USA, Japan and Turkey.
The Mt John 50th anniversary Symposium (www.mjuo50.org.nz) will take place 6-8 May, immediately before the RASNZ conference and in the same venue. Many of those coming to Tekapo will participate at both meetings. At the time of writing, 62 people have registered for the symposium, 18 of them being from overseas. At the same time, there are 89 registrations for the RASNZ conference. Both these numbers could grow by a dozen or more in the next month. The result should mean the best RASNZ conference ever, and the one with the greatest range of international astronomical expertise present. The keynote speakers will be Professor Gerry Gilmore FRS from Cambridge; he was the first Canterbury student to complete a PhD in astronomy in the 1970s. And Professor Ed Guinan from Villanova University, Pennsylvania, will be the other keynote speaker. He was one of the early batch of PhD students at Mt John in the late 1960s, who came from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mt John was founded in 1965 as a joint observing station of the universities of Canterbury and Pennsylvania. Frank Bateson, who did the site testing, was appointed the first astronomer-in-charge. Frank deceased in 2007 at the age of 97 so cannot be with us. But I am delighted that his daughter Audrey and son-in-law Jim Walsh, from Wollongong, Australia, will be at the symposium and RASNZ conference.
As I stated at the last RASNZ conference in Whakatane, when I became President of the Society, I placed a high importance on RASNZ attracting new younger members who will become the backbone of the Society in the years and decades to come. For this year’s conference I have accordingly invited ten young high school students with a passion for astronomy to come to the conference for free. We had over 40 applications for this scheme, and it was difficult to select the ten best entries. In addition, we are taking six first-year astronomy undergraduates from the University of Canterbury. These 16 young people should represent an influx of new young talent to our annual conference and make a real difference to the mean age of all those who participate. We should monitor how this scheme unfolds and, if it is successful, Council can consider whether we can repeat it in 2016.
The Mt John 50th anniversary Symposium is not the only way we will celebrate the anniversary of this iconic New Zealand scientific institution, which is the only professional optical observatory in the country. Last week a book written by me and Alan Gilmore, the recently retiring Mt John superintendent, was published by Canterbury University Press. The book is ‘Mt John – the first 50 years: a celebration of half a century of optical astronomy at the University of Canterbury’. The book is richly illustrated with almost 200 illustrations, many of them superb photographs from the acclaimed Tekapo astro- and landscape photographer, Fraser Gunn. Mt John – the first 50 years is first of all a history of the observatory. It is also a beautifully produced coffee-table book. It is written for the layman with no astronomical expertise, but there are numerous explanatory boxes to cover technical issues and a glossary of astronomical terms. It covers the often turbulent history of Mt John, with funding shortfalls, personality battles, a violent student demonstration, a destructive fire and a number of heavy snowfalls (to a depth of 2 m) over the last five decades. In spite of this, Mt John’s scientific output can be judged to be an unqualified success, with well over 1000 refereed papers coming from the research work done. A key development in the history of the observatory was the installation in 2004 of the MOA 1.8-m microlensing telescope, in a collaboration with Nagoya University in Japan. It is the largest optical telescope in New Zealand.
For those who want more information on the Mt John book, you should visit http://www.cup.canterbury.ac.nz/catalogue/mt_john.shtml or go to the website of Nationwide Book Distributors, who have the contract to market CUP titles.
Another important development at Mt John has been the agreement between Canterbury and Earth & Sky to develop astro-tourism at Mt John. That was in 2004, and since then, well over one million visitors have set foot on Mt John, either to admire the stunning view, go to the Astrocafe or participate on a guided night tour.
I look forward to seeing you all at RASNZ in Tekapo!
29 March 2015