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Feature - Down to Earth

Studying the cosmos gives John Nemy a sense of place

So where are we, anyway?

Ask an astronomer that question and be prepared to feel a little smaller after you hear the answer.

We live in Whistler, British Columbia, a tiny mountain town in the northern hemisphere of Planet Earth, third planet from the Sun – about 92 million miles out – in our young solar system.

Our solar system is itself located about a third of the way out on the western arm, also called the Orion-Cygnus Arm, of the Milky Way, our home galaxy.

The Milky Way is immense, stretching more than 100,000 light years from end to end. That means it would take a spaceship travelling the speed of light 100,000 years to fly from one side to the other.

Our galaxy is of the spiral type, which means that it has a huge and incredibly dense bulge in the centre and tapers off towards the edges, like a celestial fried egg. On clear nights, well away from the glowing lights of town that get in the way of star gazing, it’s easy to see the white band crossing the roof of the sky, like a long cloud that stretches from horizon to horizon. That milky river is actually a side view of our galaxy, the white of the egg, where gases, interstellar dust and stars are denser.

The universe doesn’t end when we reach the edge of our galaxy. Back in 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble proved that some of the objects we see in our night sky are actually distant galaxies.

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest neighbour, about 2.3 million light years away. It’s visible to the naked eye as a blurry mass just two stars to the left and two stars up from the top left-corner of the Square of Pegasus.

Billions of years into the future, Andromeda and the Milky Way will slowly collide, drawn together by the forces of gravity.

We won’t be around to see it, but it should be spectacular.

I learned the basics of modern astronomy and a lot more in just two hours with Whistler’s John Nemy, an amateur astronomer who has taken his passion for the night sky to another astral plane, combining his unique ambient music and love for night photography with the science and beauty of star gazing.

Many long-term Whistler residents will probably remember Nemy and his partner Carol Legate from a series of multimedia stargazing presentations at the top of Blackcomb Mountain from 1992 to 1995. After the presentations in the Rendezvous Lodge, everyone would head outside to view the cosmos through Nemy’s 16-inch reflector telescope.

They left Whistler in 1996 to spend some time in their home province of Ontario, where they conducted wine and astronomy tours at Stonechurch Vineyards in Ontario’s wine country.

After moving back to Whistler last fall "for the night skies," Nemy and Legate wasted no time getting back into the swing of things, starting with a presentation for the Whistler Naturalists last October. Since then, the pair has launched a Whistler Astronomy Club, co-hosted a second presentation for the Naturalists, and pitched an idea for a full-time Whistler observatory that would be open to the public.

This Saturday evening (May 10) Nemy and Legate are hosting an international Astronomy Day festival in Whistler centred around the Spruce Grove Field House.

Astronomy Day, which gets underway at 7 p.m., will feature one of Nemy and Legate’s legendary multi-media presentations, a barbecue, and, if the sky is clear, a star walk and a chance to look through some big telescopes.

I sat down with John Nemy last week to discuss astronomy, Whistler’s night skies, and his vision for a Whistler observatory.


: How did you first get into astronomy?

John Nemy:

Both Carol and I are from Ontario, and we moved to Whistler – in 1986 I guess it was – because of our love for the mountains, and we just fell in love with the night sky. I didn’t know anything about it before I moved to Whistler, but we did the backcountry thing and went for walks with our binoculars in the summer, and one day I realized I wanted to learn more about this beautiful sky.

My friends at the time knew I was getting into astronomy, and when they asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I said "get me a telescope." They didn’t, but one Christmas they all ganged up and gave me a whole bunch of books on astronomy.

After that, Carol and I were pretty much addicted, and spent all our free time looking through telescopes, taking pictures, taking trips to different places. You really get into the whole lifestyle. Instead of being ski bums, we were doing the astronomy bum thing.


: What was the progression? How do you go from being an astronomy neophyte to making presentations at the top of Blackcomb?


It’s overwhelming when you first sit down and try to find your way around the night sky. You can maybe recognize a few constellations and the moon, but it takes a while to figure out where things are in relation to other things. It’s like driving around a new town – you get to know the landmarks before you know the street names.

I started with a few books, notably NightWatch (NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe) by Terence Dickinson. He really takes the overwhelming complexity of the night sky and makes it simpler to understand.

You start with the simple things, like the Big Dipper, which is a constellation everybody knows. From the Big Dipper you can find the Little Dipper and Polaris.

The big thing is when you realize that you’re not actually looking at a group of stars on the same plane, but stars that are thousands of light years apart from one another, some in the foreground, some in the background. One of the stars we see in Big Dipper is actually a cluster of stars that happen to line up. Suddenly the night sky becomes three dimensional to you.

The really big revelations come over the next few years. One that completely changed me was the revelation that the Milky Way that arcs over top of us is actually the galaxy we live in, and beyond that are the infinite depths of the universe. And we can begin to probe that even with our small backyard telescopes.

The light from those stars originated millions of years ago, and we’re catching that ancient light in real-time in our buckets – that’s what a telescope is, just a big bucket for collecting starlight – which is just mind-blowing for me.

I get a kick sharing that kind of magic with people, turning people on to the universe.

One of my favourite things to do is to get people to look into the eyepiece of the telescope and see the rings of Saturn for themselves. Or, one of the sexiest things I think is to show somebody a distant galaxy. It’s a little smudge of light, but that smudge could be light that left a galaxy 40 or 50 million years ago, and it’s just reaching our eyes now.

Carol and I have looked at galaxies that are almost a billion light years away. You’re not going to see that with binoculars or anything, but it’s still within reach.


: And the presentations on Blackcomb? How did they come about?


As I started to learn more about astronomy, I wanted to get a closer look. As you know, all the world’s biggest telescopes were put on mountain tops to escape the effects of the atmosphere.

At the Roundhouse elevation, the stars are brighter, the Milky Way is clear, the planets are crisper.…

We actually watched the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crash into Jupiter back in 1994, and the picture was just incredibly detailed because of the altitude. We could see these black bull’s-eyes where debris hit the planet for days afterwards.

The night sky here really is incredible, and we got the idea that we wanted to share it with others.

There was a little group of amateur astronomers in town at the time who supported us, and we kind of stumbled along for the first few years from 1992. People would take the lifts up at night, and we’d do a little presentation in the Rendezvous, and then head outside to look at some stars through the telescope.

By 1994-95, we had some big sponsors on board with us. We turned a space at the bottom of the Rendezvous into a little multimedia theatre with music and projectors with the help of Kodak, and we would host different speakers, people like (astronomer and comet spotter) David Levy, Ray Villard from the Hubble Space Telescope, (NightWatch author) Terrence Dickinson, some really big names.

One of the highlights was Ken Hewitt-White, who is Canada’s number one deep-sky guy. He regularly publishes articles in Astronomy (magazine), Skynews (magazine), and does quite a few presentations around the country.

We had a really beautiful local following that made it to every event, bringing picnics and bottles of wine. We had a few regulars from the Lower Mainland, and the unique appearance of tourists from everywhere in the world.

We didn’t promote it that well, but people would find out about it by word of mouth and we had some good crowds.

I remember one guy from New York who saw me outside at the Roundhouse looking at Venus in the daytime. He was so impressed when I let him look through the telescope that he just handed me $20 and brought his whole family out that night.


: Speaking of the Shoemaker-Levy comet, I understand that you’ve done some work for David Levy in the past.


It’s a pretty cool story actually. David has always been known as this amazing comet finder who makes all these cool discoveries out of his backyard.

I actually called him at home in Arizona and asked him up to Whistler to do a talk for us. He was super-busy at the time and had to decline.

A few years later Carol and I went to a star party outside of Los Angeles at the Griffith Observatory, and he was there. I introduced myself, and handed him a pretty clear photo of a comet he discovered in 1990. He asked where it was taken, and I told him it was taken in Whistler, and that kind of captured his imagination. He agreed to come that summer.

Between the time he agreed to come here, he discovered Shoemaker-Levy 9. That totally changed his status, and overnight he became a household name. He became this well-known, international comet finder, alongside Carolyn Shoemaker, who is the most successful comet hunter of current times with I think about 30 comet discoveries by now.

We really hit it off, I guess. He was in such demand around the world at that time, and I knew he would be consumed for the next year at speaking engagements and universities. So basically, I helped him to book public appearances right up to the comet crash, more than 40 talks across North America, and he appeared here in Whistler in August. That was a major coup for us.

Another cool thing is that Levy is a Montrealer, although he’s living in Tucson – he still makes a point of reminding people he’s Canadian, and he still loves his hockey. He’s a great guy.


: The field of astronomy is constantly evolving, with new theories and discoveries, so there’s a life-long learning aspect to what you do. Is that part of its appeal?


Absolutely. There is always something new out there, or a cosmic event going on, and naturally you want to learn all you can about it. The Hubble Space Telescope has been just amazing for us, because it has really accelerated the speed at which new discoveries are made. Every day there is something new to look at on NASA’s Web site.

There’s definitely an evolutionary aspect to it as well. We’ve spent some time looking into nebulas, which are basically star-birthing regions of our galaxy, the same kind of thing our own sun would have evolved from. And these suns have planets. By now we know of over 100 extrasolar planets, and the number in changing almost daily.

Looking into these regions we get a sense where we evolved from, literally down to you and I sitting here. Our building materials evolved from the same dusty clouds as those planets. We’re just an assembly of the same molecules that are out there in space.

With all these planets and suns made up of the same materials, it’s conceivable that there is or was life on other planets at some point. That makes it very exciting to study what’s happening in space.

From a scientific perspective, we are considered to be amateur astronomers, but all the recent discoveries out there are right at our fingertips on the Internet, which has just been an incredible resource for us. It’s all there for you to study for yourself.

One of the real oversights of astronomy is its failure to relate that information back to people and capture their imaginations, which is something Carol and I and other amateur astronomers can do quite well. We’re not so bogged down in the science that the wonder has gone out of it, and that’s what we share with people.

By learning more about the universe, we know more about our home planet, and that puts our whole planet into perspective, our whole environment. We can look at a supernova explosion and make the idea of it stick in a way that can change our lives, and make us value our experience here more. That’s what it’s all about for me, having that sense of place, on Earth, in time, in the universe. There is something truly unique and beautiful about this planet, and we don’t always appreciate it.


: How did your multimedia presentations come about?


It probably started hanging out in planetariums a little too much. You listen to the cool music they’re playing, you sit back in these cool chairs and you just relax and watch a really neat star show. You can almost fall asleep.

That ambient music really evolved into its own genre of music.

I had some knowledge of how Midi and keyboards worked from days as a rock ’n’ roll guitar player, and I had some idea how to put songs together on the computer. I’m not a keyboard player by an means, I’m really just a two-fingered guy, but I learned to sit back and keep building the songs, making it sound nice.

The music itself is inspired by my experiences in stargazing. I just look up and put that to music.

The first song on my album (Six Billion Suns) is called Mt. Wilson, which is the name of the observatory in southern California where Hubble had observed that we live in a galaxy and that the universe was expanding.

I went there and while I was pulling up to the observatory, about a mile away, I saw this workgroup of prisoners along the side of the road under police guard. It was pretty surreal for me.

I remembered them when I was writing the song, so I put a little bit of a Hispanic twist into the song.


: And the photography? Did you pick that up along with astronomy?


The photography was a separate passion of mine. I had no idea of the importance of it until Rick Clare gave me my first Whistler job at One Hour Photo.

I’m convinced that that was the best place to be to learn everything about photography. You get professionals in there all the time, and so many people were technically strong. The machines we had were pretty good, too.

After a while working in the shop you really develop an eye for colours, exposures. Even with digital photography, all of that is still relevant.

Now I have a library of about 12,000 images.

I’m actually glad to have astronomy, because then I didn’t have to compete with any of the photographer pros out there, the guys like Paul Morrison who are just so incredible at what they do. They focus on the mountains and skiing, and my pursuit is the aesthetic beauty of the night sky, which can be pretty frustrating at times.

In my pictures I always like to show some mountains or trees as well as the sky because it gives them that sense of place. For a lot of people, they are two separate things – here’s the area as far as the horizon, and then there’s an area above. I never saw it that way, because they are not separate things at all, we are part of this galaxy, and part of the universe.

A lot of my shots are actually taken in town, like Alpine, or out at Lost Lake. I think people also like to know where pictures were taken, so they can relate to the place and what’s beyond it a little better.


: How do you photograph the night sky? I’ve tried to take a few pictures, but it never seems to work.


You have to be patient. You can be out there all night to get just one or two photos, because it takes anywhere from a couple of minutes to an hour for one exposure. I have a little motor that allows me to track objects while the planet is rotating, and it does an incredible job of staying locked on a target. It took a while to figure everything out, and not everything works, but that’s part of the challenge. It’s my hobby. For me the real fun is collecting these distant, ancient photons of light, and capturing them on slide film.


: What is Carol’s area of expertise?


: Carol is also a self-taught astronomer, and over the years she has become a really good galaxy hunter. That’s her passion, like mine is photography.

We once spent a four-night stint in New Mexico and she observed and documented over 300 galaxies in that time. You give someone a star chart and people might find five or six galaxies. She found like 50 or 60 on each chart. She was really picking them off, one after another.

After that first night, we really had the feeling of being out in the universe, being well beyond our own galaxy.

When you think about it, we were using the telescope to time travel out to these distant places, visit them briefly, see them in real-time. After a while, it’s easy to start fantasizing about other solar systems out there, with planets like ours. We saw 300 galaxies in four nights – how many solar systems and planets could that work out to?


: You and Carol have been to places for the night sky; New Mexico, California, Manitoulian Island, the Interior – Is there any place that is better for stargazing than others? Does travel come with the territory?


: Like a lot of people in Whistler, we just like to travel.

New Mexico is nice because the sky is dark and it has a real native aboriginal culture that you can embed yourself in.

In pursuit of dark skies, we went to an annual star party on Manitoulian Island, which is incredibly dark and where people are actually working to keep it that way with bylaws and things.

In B.C., there’s a stargazing party on Mount Kobau, which is near Osoyoos. It’s at about 6,000 feet and you can drive all the way up. That’s a pretty good time, with about 300 to 400 other stargazers from all over North America. It’s a week-long event.

But in all honesty, we don’t have to travel. Whistler still has some of the best night skies of anywhere, and there’s a dark sky committee out there led by Don Brett that’s working to keep it that way.


: Leaving Whistler in 1996 and coming back in 2002, have you noticed more light pollution than in the past?


There is more light pollution. I used to be able to do some pretty good stargazing from my back deck, and I’m right in the village. It’s not as easy to do that now, but if you go out to Alpine or Lost Lake, it’s still pretty good. You don’t have to go far to get a pretty dark sky.

Still, more can be done, and I think people are really starting to see dark skies are important.

It’s a killer resource, a dark sky, and it doesn’t cost anything. It’s an asset, as much as the slopes covered with snow.

A lot of people come here to be closer to nature, for the natural experience, and the dark skies could be a big selling point to many visitors. Some people who live in cities would give anything to have what we’ve got.

They realized it in Tucson and in Calgary, interestingly enough, which is probably ahead of every community in Canada when it comes to light pollution laws. It’s easy to sell to people – not only does it mean a beautiful night sky, it also means energy savings. I think Calgary figured that it would save the city a million dollars a year, but I’d have to check the figure. I’d like to see a law here in Whistler before things get too far along.


: You’re currently working on a plan to build an observatory in Whistler. What’s the idea, and how has it been received?


We just believe that, with the type of community Whistler is, and the type of tourists it attracts, the concept of an observatory would appeal to a wide range of people.

There’s a food and beverage tie-in, the dinner under the stars kind of things. It can help to fill beds with astronomy conferences and star parties. And there are special events that are happening continually, like comets and eclipses. This summer, as a matter of fact, there is the best view of Mars in recorded history. You let people know that Whistler is the best place to come to watch it, and they’ll be here. I think it would complement the town and the kinds of activities already offered quite nicely.

The resort is always looking for attractions to bring people here in the shoulder season, and spring and fall are pretty good times to star gaze – it can get pretty cold in the winter, and in the summer it doesn’t really get dark until 10:30.

I’m of the opinion that Whistler lets people down a little, that it’s not as natural or as family friendly as it could be. But at night we just happen to have this incredible night sky. I believe an observatory, in the right place, will really capture the imaginations of people.

The beauty of astronomy is that it has all the elements. It’s fun, it’s educational, and it can be done by anybody at any age. You don’t need any special physical abilities, or a background in science. All you really need is a guide.

The proposal we have is about $2.5 million, which includes a small building with a retractable roof, and what we hope will be Canada’s largest public telescope. We’re hoping for something in the 20 to 30 inch range, and we’d even go as big as 40 inches if we had the backing. Everyone in the astronomy world who knows what that means would be here.

I’ve pitched the idea to the municipality, and they will be talking it over with Intrawest and Tourism Whistler, and we’ll have to wait and see. Everybody I’ve spoken to thinks it’s a good project for the town, but the timing is probably not great for funding it with Millennium Place, the library project, the aboriginal centre.

We’d like to build it here, but there is a possibility we may have to look outside of Whistler to make it happen.


: So is it safe to assume by now that you’re a night owl?


Actually, not really. I have been at times, but not so much these days. If it’s something you want to do though, you do it. You spark up for the moment.

The last three nights I’ve gotten up in the mid-morning for some really dark skies, looking for aurora borealis. There was a new moon, and the skies were pretty black. It was perfect.