Some impressions of the 2015 RASNZ conference

The 2015 RASNZ conference is now over, and we can look back on a very successful and enjoyable event. The conference was held in Tekapo, and the 50th anniversary of the nearby Mt John University Observatory, operated by the University of Canterbury, was the main reason for the choice of venue. In fact, the RASNZ conference immediately followed on from the Mt John 50th Anniversary Symposium (organized by the University of Canterbury) and held in the same venue. The recently renovated Lake Tekapo Community Hall was the conference venue. Mayor Claire Barlow of the Mackenzie District Council opened the conference.

Dunedin students and MOA

About 140 people registered for this year's conference, which may possibly be a record for any conference of the Society, in spite of Tekapo being a small and fairly isolated community. So much for the drawing power of this beautiful location and of Mt John, which held an open day on the Friday afternoon (May 8) before the conference opened.

Dr Stella Kafka

Several aspects characterized the 2015 conference which made it an outstanding event. The first was that we had invited at first two and then (arranged just two months before the conference) three overseas visiting keynote speakers. They were Professor Gerry Gilmore FRS from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, UK, and Professor Ed Guinan from Villanova University in Philadelphia. Both are world-class astronomers who did their early doctoral work on Mt John in the 1960s and ‘70s. The third overseas invitee was Dr Stella Kafka, the recently appointed director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All three of these speakers gave wonderful and stimulating talks, Gilmore on the Gaia satellite project now collecting large quantities of data on a census of a billion stars in the Milky Way, Guinan on the possibilities and problems for life on a planet near a low temperature M-type red dwarf, and Kafka on the progenitors of type Ia supernovae, so important for the cosmological distance scale.

These were not the only talks from distinguished overseas astronomers. Dr David Buckley (like Gilmore, a former Canterbury graduate, MSc 1982) talked on the science highlights from SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope at Sutherland in South Africa, Dr Phillip MacQueen (PhD, Canterbury, 1986) talked about McDonald Observatory and the Hobby-Eberly telescope where he works, and Dr William Tobin (a former Mt John director) came from France where he now lives, to tell us about Foucault-Secretan reflecting telescopes.

Associate Professor Karen Pollard

From New Zealand speakers there were also some outstanding talks. Associate Professor Karen Pollard gave the Fellows’ lecture on the opening night on the topic of asteroseismology, where she is an acknowledged expert. Professor Denis Sullivan from Wellington also discussed pulsating white dwarfs and Graeme Kershaw gave an account of the proposed renovation of the earthquake-damaged Townsend telescope, an historic old Cooke refractor in Christchurch. My own talk was on the recent history of stellar spectroscopy.

There was also a sizable contingent of Australian astronomers for the conference, and several of them gave interesting talks, notably several talks on occultations. Two further talks deserve mention: Fraser Gunn, the acclaimed Tekapo astro-photographer, showed a beautiful astro-animation of the Tekapo night sky, set to music – a display of pure artistry, and for something completely different, Dr Maria Pozza, a Christchurch lawyer, gave a fascinating account of space law (or the lack of it in New Zealand) from a legal perspective.

The contingent of students

The second aspect that made this conference exceptional was the introduction of a scheme called ‘Students with a passion for astronomy’. Students in New Zealand secondary schools and also undergraduate astronomy students at the University of Canterbury were invited to enter a competition for free registration at RASNZ 2015, by writing a short statement on why they would like to participate in the conference. Forty applications were received, and ten high school students and six university undergraduate students were selected for free participation at the conference. Having these 16 young astronomers come to Tekapo made a huge difference to the conference. They interacted very positively with the more experienced astronomers and had a rejuvenating influence on the whole meeting. The success of the programme has led Council to resolve to repeat this programme next year at the Napier conference.

One of the pleasurable duties of the RASNZ President is to present awards to those who have distinguished themselves in astronomy. Brian Loader was elected to the RASNZ Fellowship for his long and distinguished contributions to occultation observations, and also for his past service to the Society (as a former President, councillor and secretary). Dr Tom Richards (from Melbourne) was elected to an Honorary membership as a distinguished overseas astronomer who has reinvigorated the Variable Stars South section of the Society. And Graeme Kershaw (University of Canterbury) was awarded the 2015 Murray Geddes medal for his contributions to astronomical instrumentation over nearly half a century.

The Saturday evening Society banquet was held at the Godley Hotel in Tekapo, and 128 people participated in this event. Frank Andrews, one of the longer serving members of the Society, gave an after-dinner speech in which he recalled some of the former astronomers of Canterbury and Wellington with whom he has been associated over the many decades of his astronomical career. Professor Euan Mason and his daughter Rhiannon gave us a musical interlude with their highly polished vocals with guitar accompaniment, there were prizes for astro-photography and astro-quiz competitions and an auction was held to sell a Gaia T-shirt, and hence to raise money for the RASNZ Lecture Trust and Beatrice Tinsley lecturer (a role filled this year by Gerry Gilmore, who donated the T-shirt). The winning bid was a splendid $150!

Overall this was a memorable conference, for the number attending, the large international contingent present, the student participation, the excellence of the venue, the proximity of Mt John Observatory celebrating its 50th year (the book celebrating 50 years at Mt John by John Hearnshaw and Alan Gilmore was on sale) and the delicious catering provided by Nicola and Greg of the Tekapo Catering Company.

Everyone went home intoxicated by astronomy, and by the friendships made or old friendships rekindled from such a large gathering.

John Hearnshaw
President, RASNZ
12 May 2015