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Monique Keiran: ‘Impractical’ research lights the way

No lights shine in the Centre of the Universe today. The staff who ran the interpretive centre at Little Saanich Mountain’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory cleaned out their desks Friday, turned out the light and vacated the building.

No lights shine in the Centre of the Universe today. The staff who ran the interpretive centre at Little Saanich Mountain’s Dominion Astrophysical Observatory cleaned out their desks Friday, turned out the light and vacated the building. So ends 12 years of educational programming about astronomy and Canada’s place in scientific research.

The National Research Council, which operates the centre, had the unenviable choice this year of cutting outreach or cutting even deeper into research.

It was one of many challenges the federal agency faces. The government recently adjusted the NRC’s research priorities to match private-sector goals that focus on applied, or practical, research.

Applied research is important. It can lead to patents, jobs, manufacturing and all that good economic stuff.

However, the shift at the observatory is ironic.

In 1910, when astronomers suggested Canada’s government build a new, bigger, better national observatory, they specified it be purpose-built for studying astrophysics.

Not astronomy. Astrophysics.

Astronomy had practical applications in the young country. Astronomers and surveyors from Ottawa’s Dominion Observatory were moving across Canada’s Last Great West, dividing the newly established prairie provinces into townships and sections to be settled and farmed by immigrants. Before GPS and Earth-orbiting satellites, surveyors used the stars to determine longitude and plot their lines.

Astrophysics, on the other hand, is pure science. It consists primarily of basic, curiosity-driven research that might — or might not — eventually yield practical results for business or industry. Astrophysicists generally do two things: They think Big Thoughts about how the universe works, and they observe and determine the motions and properties of stars in hopes of proving or disproving those Big Thoughts.

The stars observed are so distant, their light travels thousands, millions, even billions of years before it reaches astrophysicists’ telescopes.

To paraphrase astrophysicist Saul Perlmutter, one of the winners of the 2011 Nobel Prize for physics, most of us have trouble worrying about something that might affect us next Saturday, let alone what might have happened a billion years ago.

Yet, even early in the 20th century, Canada’s chief astronomer, William F. King, recognized the sun was setting on practical astronomy. He knew that within a few decades, the task of surveying Canada’s west would be complete, and his astronomers would lose purpose.

The Dominion Observatory’s future, King decided, lay in impractical astrophysics. The science was young enough that Canada could make significant contributions with relatively little investment. Astrophysics — and the new astrophysical observatory proposed for Victoria — would, King was determined, launch Canada onto the world’s scientific stage.

King hired the brilliant and ambitious astronomer/astrophysicist John Stanley Plaskett to make it happen.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory on Little Saanich Mountain — and Canada’s world-class reputation for research — is the result.

The observatory was built according to King’s and Plaskett’s specifications — for astrophysics. It was built by a Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Robert Borden. Contracts for the mirrors, the massive telescope mechanism and the dome were let during the worldwide recession that began in 1912. Construction began in 1914 and finished in 1918 — when most other federal resources were earmarked to support Canada’s 66,000 troops fighting in Europe.

It was also built during the same years Albert Einstein was developing his theory of relativity, a classic example of basic, theoretical science.

Which brings me back to Nobel Prize-winner Perlmutter and the need for “impractical” research:

“Einstein’s theory of relativity — I can’t imagine anything that seems more impractical than a theory that tells you what happens when you accelerate a clock to near the speed of light. It seems utterly irrelevant.

“On the other hand, we now have these gigantic industries built around the fact that GPS works. We wouldn’t have GPS or those industries if we didn’t have the fundamental, deep understanding that Einstein’s theory provided.”

Almost all the major advances that have dramatically changed technology and how we view the world are due to basic research undertaken out of pure curiosity.

Without basic research, our universe might come to seem darker for us, too.