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SFU’s new observatory and plaza a place to meet under the stars

“It’s not just for science geeks, it’s for everybody who loves the sky,” says physics professor Howard Trottier.

By SHAWNA WAGMAN | NOV 03 2015
A photo of the Pinwheel Galaxy taken over three nights at the Trottier Observatory. The galaxy is 20 million light years away, says Howard Trottier, but “right next door as far as galaxies go.”
A photo of the Pinwheel Galaxy taken over three nights at the Trottier Observatory. The galaxy is 20 million light years away, says Howard Trottier, but “right next door as far as galaxies go.”

When you spend a lot of time gazing up into the sky, it can take you places you never imagined. That’s all in a night’s work for physics professor Howard Trottier, who played a key role in the creation of the new $4.4-million Trottier Observatory at Simon Fraser University, which opened in April.

Dr. Trottier says it was gratifying to watch the project gather support since the idea was first floated around the physics department a decade ago to become something much bigger than anyone expected. It’s not just an observatory, he says, but “the anchor of a very public site on campus.”

Dr. Trottier, who is also known as Mr. Starry Nights, a nod to the name of his popular public stargazing program he has run for years at SFU, attributes his unapologetic geeky passion for science to his oldest brother Lorne. A “science nut case,” Lorne is the founder of Montreal-based Matrox, a developer of computer graphics cards and passionate supporter of science education. Through the Trottier Family Foundation he runs, Lorne contributed $2.7 million for the observatory. “My brother was enthusiastic about the idea as soon as I pitched it and his involvement really brought the project to the foreground.”

The outdoor gallery, which features illuminated seasonal star charts and two huge concrete walls that recreate the impression of an ancient observatory, was a collaboration involving students, staff and faculty, along with local astronomers and an architectural team that took the project through several iterations. “The idea is that people come here, they are puzzled, they ask questions, and it really engages them,” says Dr. Trottier.

Photo by Ed Hanlon
The Science Courtyard at the Trottier Observatory “lights up like a Christmas Tree” at night and features illuminated seasonal star charts. Photo by Ed Hanlon.

“I was really happy that some of the most important ideas came from SFU students,” Dr. Trottier adds. One student came up with an idea to use bands of coloured lights to represent the colours emitted by six chemical elements, while an SFU math professor designed the giant sundial that was built by students from the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s mechanical technology program.

Last but not least, when the weather co-operates visitors can get a glimpse of distant galaxies, star clusters and planets through the observatory’s telescope, which is nearly double the size of one typically found at a university, says Dr. Trottier. “When you think about what you’re looking at,” he says, referring to an image of the Pinwheel Galaxy, “you realize that the light that’s landing on your eye has been travelling for 20 million years.”

Dr. Trottier loves to demonstrate the richness of detail, complex structures and colours that can be seen through the wonders of astrophotography. It’s a skill he mastered as a hobby over the last eight years at the small observatory he built for himself in B.C.’s Okanagan region. It’s one of the main things he teaches to both science and non-science students at the observatory with the help of a spectrograph (a glorified prism that splits light into different colours) and a powerful camera.

“The image processing is a very creative process,” he says. “You never quite know what’s in your image in the beginning.” It’s an observation he would readily apply to the observatory project itself.

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