Public astro nights offer chance to explore wonders of the cosmos

By Chris Chipello

Fascinated by the night sky? Intrigued by the wonders of outer space?

A series of public outreach activities organized by the McGill Astrophysics and Cosmology Group now offers the opportunity to learn from researchers about phenomena ranging from the transit of Venus to the evolution of the universe.

Close to 50 people turned out on March 22 for the group’s first “public astro night,” filling a classroom in the Ernest Rutherford Physics Building to hear postdoctoral fellow Ryan Lynch talk about pulsars.

Lynch, a member of Vicky Kaspi’s McGill Pulsar Group, explained what pulsars are (short answer: rapidly spinning neutron stars) – and why they’re so scientifically interesting (the beams of radiation generated within their extraordinarily strong magnetic fields sweep in and out of sight – pulsing like the beam of a lighthouse – at intervals so precise that they rival the best atomic clocks on Earth).

Pulsars “are unlike anything that we can create in the laboratory, so they let us probe completely unique sort of physical environments that we don’t have access to otherwise,” Lynch told his attentive audience. “They let us test extreme physics, like quantum mechanics, general relativity and a whole host of other things, with incredible precision.”

After Lynch finished fielding questions, visitors had a guided tour of the experimental astrophysics laboratory. Some then climbed to the roof of the Rutherford building to check out the MacPherson Observatory and its powerful telescope.

An overcast sky made it impossible to stargaze immediately after the lecture broke up, around 8 p.m. But the several enthusiasts who lingered were rewarded as the sky cleared about an hour later, unveiling views of Jupiter, Venus, Mars and the Orion Nebula.

The Astrophysics and Cosmology Group is part of the Department of Physics. The group, consisting of eight faculty members, close to 30 grad students and more than 10 post-docs, researches a broad array of topics touching on many fields of astronomy, astrophysics and cosmology.

The next astro night is expected to be held during the week of April 16. Members of the group also have begun recording and posting a series of podcasts with visiting astrophysicists discussing their research in non-technical terms. To access the podcasts and learn more about the outreach events, visit:

The group can also be followed on Facebook ( and Twitter (@AstroMcGill).