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Stars in his eyes

A McMaster astrophysicist gets his turn in the limelight.

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | OCT 12 2010

Doug Welch was eight years old when his dad first took him out to peer into the night sky with a telescope. “Seeing Saturn and the craters on the moon just blew me away. I was instantly hooked,” he says.

Now a professor of astronomy at McMaster University, where has worked for more than two decades, he considers himself extremely privileged to have turned his love of stargazing into a career. “It’s not a huge field, in terms of people who are paid to do it,” says the self-deprecating professor with a laugh.

An astrophysicist, Dr. Welch has been involved in trying to answer some of the deep mysteries of the universe, such as the nature of so-called dark matter. But in his spare time he takes off his scientist’s cap to become more of a tour guide, sharing his zeal for the heavens with the public.

“It is one of the few really accessible sciences,” he says of astronomy. “You can go out and see that there is a star there, or a planet, or a meteor.” His contribution, he says modestly, is that “I can explain relationships between these observations.”

His efforts have not gone unnoticed: he was recently named to receive the prestigious McNeil Medal, awarded by the Royal Society of Canada to an individual who has demonstrated outstanding ability to promote and communicate science to the public. Past winners include David Suzuki, Jay Ingram and Bob McDonald.

Among Dr. Welch’s many outreach activities was the revival of McMaster’s planetarium. It was shuttered before his arrival but is now “a thriving concern.” He’s the co-host of the popular Slacker Astronomy podcast, available on iTunes, and participates in local amateur astronomy clubs as well as a public science project called Citizen Sky.

Not surprisingly, as a public communicator Dr. Welch is full of fun facts on astronomy. For instance: “Stars are really terrible fusion reactors and that’s why they last billions of years,” he says. “They’re just getting by, really. If they were any better, we wouldn’t have time to evolve and exist.”

Ponder that next time you look up.

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