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Artfulness of stargazing scientists comes to Nickle at Noon

Phil Langill of Rothney Observatory shares scientific images that (almost accidentally) capture design splendour of our near universe
November 15, 2016
Away from the glow of city lights, visitors to the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory observe the Milky Way on a warm summer's evening. Several hundred people stargazed under clear skies, enjoying the naked eye views of the Milky Way and telescopic views of deep-sky objects such as nebulas and galaxies. Flickr photo by Alan Dyer for the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

Away from the glow of city lights, visitors to the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory observe the Milky Way on a warm summer's evening. Several hundred people stargazed under clear skies, enjoying the naked eye views of the Milky Way and telescopic views of deep-sky objects such as nebulas and galaxies. Flickr photo by Alan Dyer for the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory

The Blue Snowball Planetary Nebula. A planetary nebula consists of ionized gas ejected from old red giant stars late in their lives. Photo by Bruce Balick, University of Washington

The Blue Snowball Planetary Nebula. A planetary nebula consists of ionized gas ejected from old red giant stars late in their lives. Photo by Bruce Balick, University of Washington

Cicero said that “art is born of the observation and investigation of nature” — an astute observation that works just as well if you swap “art” for “science” — as the University of Calgary’s Phil Langill will showcase in dazzling imagery when he presents at the Nickle at Noon series, Astronomical Discovery, and the Accidental (Almost) Fabulous Imagery that Results.

“Nickle Galleries is pleased to invite Dr. Langill back to talk about his work and the affinities between different ways of investigating the world,” notes Michele Hardy, curator of the Nickle Gallery.

Langill, the director of the UCalgary Rothney Astrophysical Observatory and senior instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, says that he will share as many images as he can fit into the hour-long presentation — to showcase how the pursuit of scientific astronomical discovery has produced dramatic and awe-inspiring images of our vast universe.

To illustrate, Langill will show raw imaging data collected by telescopes at the Rothney, and piece them together the way astrophysicists do to extract the measurements they seek — measurements that reveal the true properties and characteristics of distant phenomena. And then, after standing back, realize that the piecing together has produced a spectacular image.

The technology available to astrophysicists has evolved incredibly over the past few decades. So too have the capabilities of astrophysicists to see and understand more of the universe around us. Langill has been a part of this evolution, joining the University of Calgary’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1996, and then as director of the Rothney in 2006.  

“The first big step forward was employing cameras that used film, but now that digital sensors have replaced film, the signal-to-noise ratio attainable today is mindboggling,” says Langill. What this translates to is previously unobtainable detail and contrast. Langill will illustrate the transition by taking the audience on a stroll down memory lane, and show images of the same object taken with older and newer imaging technology.

Perhaps best known for the highly successful public events that routinely attract hundreds of stargazers, kids and families, the Rothney also has a rich history as a hub of scientific research. Going back as early as 10 years ago, geoscientists were using the Baker-Nunn telescope to search for and track asteroids. And while those geoscientists are now doing this work with satellite, Langill says, “the Rothney is still a viable research facility with remotely controllable telescopes and detectors capable of observing quark nova, exoplanet transits, and galaxy clusters to name a few.”

The Department of Physics and Astronomy, home of the Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, is one of the oldest departments at the University of Calgary, predating the establishment of the University of Calgary with the construction of a Cosmic Ray station at Sulfur Mountain near Banff in 1957 as part of the International Geophysical Year activities — one of three such stations in Canada. The Department of Physics was then instituted in 1963 and has the distinction of graduating the first MSc student in the history of the University of Calgary — continuing to earn a growing reputation for excellence in both research and teaching.

Event details: Nickle at Noon is a weekly lunch-hour event that is free and open to the public, presented by the Nickle Galleries, which is part of the University’s Libraries and Cultural Resources. Past events have included gallery tours, curator talks — and cross-cultural offerings that find the sometimes surprising affinities between art and other pursuits — like that offered by Langill. For more information about this and more upcoming events, visit nickle.ucalgary.ca/events.

  • Nickle at Noon: Astronomical Discovery, and the Accidental (Almost) Fabulous Imagery that Results.
  • Who: Phil Langill, director of the University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory and senior instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
  • What: Astronomers study the universe by collecting and studying the light that comes to the Earth from far away.  The goal of this analysis is not to make pretty pictures, but with the data in hand anyway, mindboggling pictures can be made.  I will discuss some of the aspects of this happy, but serendipitous, artistic outcome.
  • Where: Nickle Galleries, Taylor Family Digital Library
  • When: Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016, 12-1 p.m.