A Shared Sky: the RASC 1868-2018

RASC—Eyes on the Universe for 150 Years


RASC 2018—A Shared Sky: the RASC 1868-2018

(aka RASC 2018—the history book).

How well do we know ourselves? Viewing our past enables us to see the foundations upon which the modern RASC is constructed, and to build for the future. The better we know the nature, variety, and range of the astronomy experienced within the RASC across time, the better we can know ourselves, and the possibilities for renewal and innovation. Significant anniversaries can provide significant opportunities for reflection, and reassessment. They can also spur new efforts to bring to light stories previously unknown, to complete stories only partially known, and to discern what we've missed in stories we thought we thoroughly knew.


This RASC 2018 initiative aims to celebrate our century and a half of engagement with the heavens, through a fresh look at our history. The results of this project will be presented in two stages.

The first stage will  occur at the RASC General Assembly (GA) to be held in Calgary in 2018. It will take the form of a symposium held on the first, and the last days of the GA. The invited speakers will present the results of commissioned research on aspects of the RASC's astronomical history, and heritage, through oral presentations, a panel discussion, and interaction with GA attendees.

Friday June 29

Session I 10:30-12:00

  • A. Rosenfeld, The RASC at 150: a History of Advancing Astronomy and Allied Sciences, or Sleeping through the Night?
  • Andrew Oakes, Communicating Astronomy: C.A. Chant and the RASC
  • Peter Broughton, J.S. Plaskett & the RASC
  • Alan Batten, The Roles and Importance of Scientific Societies

Sunday July 1

Session II 13:00-14:00

  • Clark Muir, Astronomical Expeditions: the RASC in Travelling Mode
  • Chris Beckett, Styles of Observing in the RASC Since 1868
  • Chris Gainor, The RASC and the Space Age—Participants and Spectators

Session III 14:00-15:00

  • Judy Sterner, An Anthropologist Looks at the RASC
  • David Turner, A Half-Century of Involvement with the RASC and Other Pro-Am Groups
  • Heather Laird, Varieties of Female Participation in the RASC

Round Table 15:00-15:30

  • So much for the first 150 years—will there be another 150 years? This is an open discussion of our possible future(s) with reference to our past



R.A. Rosenfeld, “The RASC at 150: Advancing Astronomy and Allied Sciences, or Sleeping through the Night?”. Introduces the themes which will be explored in the symposium, and looks at how we might answer “what is the RASC”?

Andrew Oakes, “Communicating Astronomy: C.A. Chant and the RASC”. Clarence Augustus Chant was one of the prime shapers of the Society in the first half of the twentieth century, and his influence arguably still plays a role in the RASC. This presentation explores some aspects of his achievements, and how he brought them about.

Peter Broughton, “J.S. Plaskett & the RASC”. John Stanley Plaskett was the first Canadian astrophysicist of international standing, and his is the most likely Canadian career to receive mention in current international histories of astronomy dealing with the period up to 1940. His long and varied relation with the RASC is surveyed here.

Alan Batten, "The Roles and Importance of Scientific Societies". Scientists have always found it useful to collaborate in societies, the first of which emerged soon after the so-called scientific revolution began in the seventeenth century. Many of them were initially informal and probably many did not survive. Specialist societies began to emerge in the nineteenth century, when there was little distinction between professional and amateur scientists (or “philosophers” as they called themselves until the middle of the nineteenth century). Originally groupings of like-minded people who met together to share their knowledge and to encourage each other, societies soon found it useful to take on a more formal role, to publish their findings in journals, and to educate the wider public about their particular sciences. The balance between professional and amateur in our own Society was altered by the foundation in 1971 of the purely professional Canadian Astronomical Society/Société Canadienne de l’Astronomie, but many of our members still contribute to the advancement of astronomy both by their work and by their outreach to the general public.

Clark Muir, “Astronomical Expeditions: the RASC in Travelling Mode”. The RASC has a long tradition of involvement in astronomical expeditions, both collectively, or through individual members’ participation. The expeditions cover the gamut from largely professional in nature, to largely amateur. It is a tradition which exists to this day. This presentation will concentrate on the solar eclipse expeditions on which RASC members of the Proctor family (relatives of the prominent British amateur Richard Proctor) were involved, while touching on facts of other expeditions.

Chris Beckett, “Styles of Observing in the RASC Since 1868”. Mutually furthering the practice of observing was one of the prime reasons organizations like the RASC were first founded. There were commonalities in the cultures of observing in many organized groups, but the differences in what was observed, how it was observed, how observations were recorded, kept, and disseminated, and how observers were trained, are at least as important as the similarities. Changes over time to the RASC’s commitment to observing are sketched, and several aspects of the Society’s culture of observing are put under the microscope.

Chris Gainor, “The RASC and the Space Age—Participants and Spectators”. The anticipated yet surprising advent of the space age profoundly affected amateur and professional astronomy. For amateur societies, it gave a boost in membership, new opportunities for pro-am collaboration, a source of inspiration, and reflected glory and increased notice in the public sphere. This talk looks at the RASC’s response to the Space Age, and the nature of the involvement of several members.

Judy Sterner, “An Anthropologist Looks at the RASC”. Astronomers in association, like any other group, can be viewed through the anthropological lens. The insights gained can help us see elements of our life in the RASC in ways we are unaccustomed to. Such changes of context can be revealing, sometimes entertaining, and useful.

David Turner, “A Half-Century of Involvement with the RASC and Other Pro-Am Groups”.  As a member of a variety of professional and pro-am special interest groups over the years, ranging from the RASC and AAVSO to planetarium associations and professional committees, all with a stated priority of educating the public, the speaker has witnessed a variety of techniques used for instructional purposes, and has also been involved in an editorial role for some of them. It is interesting to note the success or lack of success in such ventures over the years. The RASC has probably been no better or worse than other groups in such goals over the years, which raises the unanswered question: are there better ways of doing it?

Heather Laird, “Varieties of Female Participation in the RASC”. The nature of the Society has been a perennial concern for at least the last quarter century; do we have the right proportion of genders in the Society, varied cultural representation to reflect the changing fabric of Canadian Society, and a healthy proportion of different age groups? Are we unintentionally excluding some groups in Canadian society through our habitual modes and manner of presentation? A full survey cannot be presented here, so I’ll offer a survey of female participation in the Society, with particular attention to the activities female members undertook, whether they participated as fully as their male colleagues, and if not, what barriers (intentional or unintentional) prevented them from doing so. I close with the lessons for diversity we might learn from looking at our past, with an eye to the future.



Andrew Oakes is a long time RASC member, with a particular interest in the history of astronomy in Canada. He has an M.A. in the History of Science from the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology of the University of Toronto, and is currently writing a doctoral thesis on C.A. Chant. He has spoken at the Historical Astronomy Division (HAD) of the American Astronomical Society’s (AAS) sessions at the AAS’s 229th in 2017, and was a recipient of the HAD Student Travel Award in 2016. He is a former contributing editor to JRASC, a former National Librarian of the Society, and is a member of the RASC’s History Committee.

Peter Broughton is the doyen of RASC historians. He authored Looking Up: a History of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (1994), our official history, and his major biography Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett (University of Toronto Press) was published earlier this year. Since the early 1980s he has published significant papers on the history of astronomy in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, Annals of Science, JRASC, and elsewhere, often breaking new ground in revealing aspects of the history of Canadian astronomy. He is also a contributor to both editions of Springer’s award winning Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (2007, 2014). Peter has held every major national office in the Society, culminating with the presidency (1992-1994), and he received the RASC’s Service Award (1987). The International Astronomical Union honoured him with the naming of minor planet 16217 Peterbroughton.

Alan Batten served as a Senior Research Officer at the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (NRC's Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre) until his retirement, after a long career of productive research on multiple star systems, and stellar astrophysics. The published results of his work are numerous, and well referenced (>2,400 citations according to NASA’s ADS). He has published several monographs and edited collections, including Binary and Multiple Systems of Stars (Pergamon, 1973), Algols: Proceedings of the 107th Colloquium of the International Astronomical Union, 1988 (Kluwer, 1989), Astronomy for Developing Countries: Proceedings of a Special Session of the XXIV General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, 2000 (ASP, 2001), and he is the translator of Paul Couteau's Observing Visual Double Stars (MIT, 1981). Additionally, Dr. Batten has actively pursued a long-standing interest in the history of astronomy―his authoritative Resolute and Undertaking Characters: The Lives of Wilhelm and Otto Struve (Reidel, 1988), on two of his outstanding predecessors in the field of double-star research, being particularly well-known. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. His latest book is Our Enigmatic Universe: One Astronomer's Reflections on the Human Condition (Melrose, 2011).

Dr. Batten was RASC National President (1976-1978), and a former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (1980-1988). He is a charter member of CASCA, and served as President (1972-1974). He was a Vice President of the IAU (1985-1991), organized the first-ever IAU General Assembly to be held in Canada (1979), and served as President of two IAU commissions. He has received the RASC’s Service Award (1988), and the International Astronomical Union named Asteroid 3931 Batten in his honour.

Clark Muir has published important papers on the primary graphic record of the Great Meteor Procession of 1913, one of the earliest Canadian reports of the Zodiacal light, Canadian memories of the Leonid storm of 1833, a remarkable and forgotten incident which befell the third generation of the family of Alvan Clark and Sons, and the mystery of the fate of the largest Canadian telescope at the turn of the twentieth century (all have appeared in JRASC). Clark received the Ray Koenig Award (2013) of the Kitchener-Waterloo Centre of the RASC for “outstanding service and advancement of amateur astronomy”. He is a member of the Society’s History Committee.

Chris Beckett is among the Society’s most accomplished visual observers. He is a former President of the Regina Centre of the RASC, and former Chair of the Observing Committee. He is regular contributor to the deep-sky sections of the RASC Observer’s Handbook, notably the “Wide-Field Wonders”, and the “Featured Constellation” series. Some of his observations of deep-sky objects (DSOs) have been used by astrophysicists in their papers in professional journals. Chris is particularly interested in exploring earlier observer’s accounts of discovering and encountering deep-sky objects, going from their texts to field replications of their observing experiences, as far as possible, in the belief that there are lessons to be learned by modern observers in doing so. He is one of the architects of the Society’s successful 2012 Transit of Venus program, and the Sirius B Observing Challenge, both of which used historical materials as a resource to inform the experience of modern observers. Chris is a member of the RASC History Committee.

Chris Gainor is an historian and author specializing in space exploration. He received his Ph.D. in the history of technology at the University of Alberta after a career as a journalist and communicator. Later this year he is publishing a book based on his Ph.D. dissertation called The Bomb and America’s Missile Age (Johns Hopkins University Press), which discusses the role of the U.S. Air Force in the development of America’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in the 1950s. He is also writing a book on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope under a contract with NASA. Chris is the author of Arrows to the Moon: Avro’s Engineers and the Space Race (Apogee, 2001), Canada in Space: The People & Stories behind Canada’s Role in the Explorations of Space (Folklore, 2006), Who Killed the Avro Arrow? (Folklore, 2007), and To a Distant Day: The Rocket Pioneers (University of Nebraska Press, 2008). He is editor-in-chief of Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly, a Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society, and he is active in the RASC as First Vice President and as a member of the History Committee, and he has been an active member of the Victoria, Vancouver and Edmonton Centres. He first joined the RASC in his youth in 1967 and attended his first GA in 1968 in Calgary. He now lives in Victoria.

Judy Sterner holds a doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and taught anthropology, material culture, and ceramics at the Alberta College of Art & Design until her retirement. Between 1984 and 2008 she conducted fieldwork in the Mandara Mountains of Cameroon and Nigeria and published a book on the region, The Ways of the Mandara Mountains in 2003, besides numerous articles. She has also contributed to several ethnographic films. She is an active observer, a member of the Calgary Centre of the RASC, and a member of the Calgary Centre’s committee for the Society’s sesquicentennial GA.

David Turner is an expert on Cepheid variables (he is one of the foremost experts on Polaris), and sparse clusters and the groups associated with them, as well as very young clusters containing Wolf-Rayet stars, and pre-main-sequence objects, on which he has published extensively. He is retired from the Department of Astronomy & Physics of Saint Mary's University, which he at one time chaired, and he is also the emeritus director of the Burke Gaffney Observatory. He has been a member of the London and Halifax Centres, the London Astronomy Club (which he helped found), the AAVSO, planetarium groups (international and Canadian), SAS, CASCA, the AAS (including membership on their educational groups), and the IAU. He is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (1995-2000). In addition to his work on variable stars, and his involvement in education and public outreach, he is the lead researcher in the effort to unravel the story of what is probably the largest 19th-century monumental star map ever erected in Canada. He has received the RASC's Service Award (2001), and the International Astronomical Union named Asteroid 27810 Daveturner in his honour.

Heather Laird has a particular interest in education and public outreach (EPO), and how the materials of astronomical history and heritage can be used for EPO mediated through new technologies. She is pursuing an interest in the careers and lives of female astronomers, and making them better known. She is one of the hosts of the RASC 2018 History Podcast, and serves on the Board of the Society as a Director. She is also a member of the RASC’s HIstory Committee.

R.A. Rosenfeld is the RASC’s Archivist. He is a contributor to the second edition of Springer’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (2014), and is a contributing editor to JRASC. He has twice been a winner in the Griffith Observatory Writing Contest (2008, 2013), received the RASC’s Simon Newcomb Award (2012), the RASC President’s Award (2012), and the Society’s Service Award (2017), and the International Astronomical Union honoured him by naming Asteroid 283990 Randallrosenfeld. He was a Peter Sim Memorial Lecturer for the Calgary Centre of the RASC (2016). He is a member of the Canadian Astronomical Society, and serves on the CASCA Heritage Committee. He is Chair of the RASC’s History Committee, and Chair of the RASC 2018 Working Group.


The second stage will be the publication of the results of this research in a multi-contributor edited book, to appear in 2019, or 2020. This will be one of the chief legacy projects of RASC 2018.

Topics include*:

  • An Anthropologist Looks at the RASC
  • Shapers of the Tradition I: C.A. Chant and the RASC
  • Shapers of the Tradition II: J.S. Plaskett and the RASC
  • Shapers of the Tradition III: Helen Hogg and the RASC
  • Styles of Observing SInce 1868
  • So Alike, and so Dissimilar: The Early Leeds Astronomical Society and the Early RASC Compared
  • RASC Astrophotography, from Wet Collodion Plate to CCD
  • Astronomical Expeditions: the RASC in Travelling Mode
  • Education and Public Outreach in Canada Since 1868
  • Pro-Am Collaboration through the RASC
  • The RASC Contribution to Meteoritics
  • Planetarians Among Us—Society Members' Roles in Canadian Planetaria
  • Pushing Glass, Writing Code: RASC ATMs
  • RASC—Participants and Spectators of the Space Age
  • The RASC as a Publisher of Astronomy
  • The RASC & CASCA
  • The RASC Viewed from Outside Canada
  • Gender, the RASC, and Astronomy
  • The RASC Doing History


Back of a menu card from 1924 August 13, autographed by the great & the good of astronomy, Hart House, Toronto

For more information, please contact: randall.rosenfeld <at> utoronto.ca

*subject to change
Last modified: 
Friday, July 5, 2019 - 8:41am