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OUTSIDER DIARIES: Passing on a passion for the universe

Award-winning astronomy communicator Paul Heath takes a down-to-Earth approach to explaining the cosmos.
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Paul Heath and Thrive Education students in Dartmouth display their models of different types of possible exoplanets. Exoplanets, or planets around stars other than our sun, are among the topics Heath explores in his astronomy outreach programs. (WENDY BIRT / Thrive Education)

If you want to talk astronomy with Paul Heath, just ask a question.

He’ll take it from there.

Heath’s infectious enthusiasm for all things astronomical is a force to be reckoned with, whether it’s one-on-one or at the dozens of presentations he conducts at camps, schools and public outreach events in the Halifax area and beyond.  

For the longtime member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), it’s all about passing it on.

“To me teaching is one guy at one end of the log and another guy listening at the other end of the log,” Health told me after a recent meeting of RASC’s Halifax Centre.  “That’s a university, it’s a school. Where one person passes their knowledge on to somebody else.”

I’ve seen Heath at work at Kejimkujik National Park during a daytime public outreach event as part of the park’s Dark Sky Weekend. (I also volunteer at Dark Sky but I hide in the darkness with my telescope during the evening observing sessions at the Sky Circle.) Even though there were only a few people around on a blistering hot day, he was engaging and enthusiastic in demonstrating his “walk the solar system” display.

Heath’s decades of outreach have been recognized at the national level by the astronomical society. He’s the most recent recipient of its QILAK award, which honours RASC members who have made an outstanding contribution to the public’s understanding of astronomy.

It’s one of many RASC certificates and awards he’s received as one of its most active members. But this one is special.

“The award itself is not the gratifying thing,” said Heath, a lanky, bespectacled 61-year-old who animates his conversation with gestures and a quick laugh.

“I was recommended by the three most prestigiously awarded people in the centre (Mary Lou Whitehorne, Roy Bishop and Dave Lane). That’s what blew me away — to have that kind of recognition and respect from people I look up to, that really means so much more than the award per se.”

33218549045_6cac1ca9ed_oPaul Heath assembles a display for an astronomy presentation during Dark Sky Weekend at Kejimkujik National Park last August. (ANDREW HASLER)

Heath’s passion for science, which includes a degree in oceanography and marine biology from Dalhousie University, was kindled as a boy in London, Ont. His parents were scout and guide leaders so he spent much of his childhood outdoors and under the stars.

Heath went on to become a scout leader himself, which led to his first experiences in public outreach. After moving to Nova Scotia in 1976, he developed an astronomical education program that’s still used today as part of earning the wood badge for adult leaders.

Heath, who lives in Fairview, also takes his passion for astronomy to his work as a bus driver for the Halifax regional school board. 

“When I finally got a permanent run, the first thing I did was put a chart of the constellations at the front of the bus,” with a different constellation each week, he said. “I don’t make a big fuss. Probably every year I get four or five kids saying, ‘I saw that last night!’ So I know they’re looking.”

But most of the time Heath prefers that his audience isn’t sitting down. His outreach philosophy is simple: Get people involved.

“When I started, it was very unnerving standing in front of kids talking. I found getting them involved made it easier and I got a better response. I develop my programs as hands-on. I could just show slides and it would work. But to actually have the person be Mars, Venus and the Earth” in a demonstration works much better, he said.

He's created a roomful of displays for outreach projects, many based on Mary Lou Whitehorne's Skyways curriculum for teachers. Heath's solar system model includes an Earth that’s two inches in diameter with the rest of the planets to scale. His favourite setting for this display is a big area like a football field.

“I walk out the same distance based on a two-inch Earth so we get to Jupiter by the end of the football field,” he explains. “And I say you’ve got to walk this whole area again to get to Saturn and twice that area to get to Uranus and on to Neptune. And it really comes through when they realize we haven’t even gotten to the middle of the solar system yet and we’re at the end of the football field."

During his busiest times, Heath does up to 50 presentations annually. But it's been a tough couple of years so things haven't been as busy. He lost his wife of 38 years, Patricia, last year. And in December, he suffered a stroke. 

"It was a small stroke, it was all restricted to motor control," said Heath, who has two sons aged 30 and 32, and two granddaughters, 4 and 8.  

"I had to re-teach my muscles how to work. Luckily, I didn’t lose cognitive ability. I’ve had some perceptive changes. My colour vision has shifted. I’ve gone to red to orange red and from green to blue-green."

But the stroke appears to have had an unexpectedly positive side-effect, at least for an astronomical guy. 

Paul 2 thrivePaul Heath, centre, shows Thrive Education students how to use their fingers to measure degrees of arc distances in the night sky. (WENDY BIRT / Thrive Education) 

"I’ve also had an increase in night vision, which I love!" he said.

In recent years, his night vision has been decreasing, which he attributed to simply getting older.  After the stroke, he noticed his ability to see in the dark had improved to the level of about 15 years ago.

"I don't know, (it may be) because it's allowed me to have a bigger pupil dilation," he mused. 

So over several decades of talking to people about space, what's the most common question? It's a toss-up between "When will our sun explode?" (It won't — as a yellow dwarf star, it will slowly expand into a red giant, swallow Earth and the other inner planets in about seven billion years and then contract to a tiny white dwarf), and "Do you believe in aliens?"

In typical Heath fashion, he tosses the alien question back to his participants.

"I don’t like to say for sure I believe in aliens. I believe they’re out there, there’s just too much in the universe not to have something out there but the distances are horrendous. ... You’ve got to make the people think for themselves."

Heath will officially receive his QILAK award at the RASC's general assembly on July 1 in Ottawa. He's looking forward to it and he appreciates the recognition but for him, it's not about the awards. It's about the kids like the six-year-old girl who took part in a presentation on the constellations at the public library in Lower Sackville several years ago.

He asked the children to draw the patterns they see in the sky and the girl came up with a butterfly, which was unusual enough to stick in Heath's mind. Later that year, he did a talk for Brownies in Fall River and there was the butterfly girl pointing out the Big Dipper to other Brownies and how you can use its handle to find Arcturus, "the bright red star in Bootes."

"She turned to me and asked, 'That’s right, isn’t it?' " Heath recounted with a smile.

"To me, that's the gratification. When a young person is so excited that they’re willing to pass information on, to let someone else know what they know. And to help someone else find that bright red star in Bootes."

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Skylights

March 4 - Bright star Aldebaran 0.4 degrees above moon low in late evening west

March 5 - First-quarter moon

March 10 - Bright star Regulus one degree above waning gibbous moon in evening east

March 12 - Full moon known as Worm Moon or Maple Sugar Moon (Mi'kmaq)

March 12 - Daylight Saving Time begins at 2 a.m.

March 14 - Jupiter (rises at 8:27 p.m.) 2 degrees right of moon

March 20 - Vernal equinox at 7:29 a.m. ADT

March 20 - Last-quarter moon

March 20 - Saturn 3 degrees below moon in dawn south

March 26 - Neptune (binocs or scope needed) 1 degree above crescent moon very low in dawn east

March 27 - New moon

 

John McPhee (www.outsiderdiaries.ca) is a nature nerd, astronomy enthusiast and web editor for Local Xpress. 



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