For more than 16 years, Jennifer Howse has been connecting people of all ages to the universe, as the educational specialist at the University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory.
Her role involves promoting the observatory’s RCT telescope, one of the largest in Canada. “It was originally designed with an extremely narrow field of view to look at a single star at a time,” Howse explains. “We’re working on turning the telescope into a robot. That would mean that astronomers wouldn’t actually have to come to the site. They would be able to link up to access and operate the telescope remotely, and what this means is that we can be a part of a larger network of astronomers and observatories.”
With a job that revolves around gazing into the night sky, Howse is passionate about the issue of light pollution. Many of the children who participate in the educational programming at the Rothney have never seen a night sky unobstructed by light pollution, which is one of the many reasons Howse advocates for awareness, as well as for dark sky preserves. “I had a group of grade six students from an inner-city school come for an evening program at the observatory, which is only 20 minutes southwest of Calgary, and some of these kids had never seen the Milky Way in their life,” she says. “That’s a terrible shame, but that’s just where they live. It’s constantly lit up, all the time.”
A proper view of the night sky is more than just a scientific pursuit; it is a cultural one. As a member of Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3, Howse is passionate about connecting the stars to Canadian history and cultural traditions. “Many scientific facts are imparted from the time of year and the position of constellations in the sky. There’s some very practical information about how to be guided by the stars, knowing when to move from one area to the next, based on seasonal migrations.”
Astronomy, she says, is a great opportunity to connect to oral tradition. “I would argue that many aspects of astrophysics are cultural. The worst thing you can say to an astrophysicist is that there’s even a hint of subjectivity in their work … But it has to do with how you see yourself in relation to what you’re observing, and that is cultural.”