Mt John 50th Anniversary Symposium, Lake Tekapo, 6-8 May 2015

Delegates to the Mt John 50th Anniversary Symposium (image: Fraser Gunn)

Mt John University Observatory celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last week, when the Department held a symposium at Lake Tekapo to mark the event. Nearly 80 participants came from around the world, including UK, US, France, South Africa, Japan and Australia for the event.

The opening on Wednesday evening was held in the Godley Hotel, and Associate Professor Karen Pollard (Mt John director), Prof. Mike Reid (Physics and Astronomy HoD) and Prof. Wendy Lawson (UC PVC Science) made short speeches.

Prof. Ed Guinan

Former graduate students were encouraged to return for the event, and these included Dr David Buckley (MSc 1982) from Cape Town, Prof. Gerry Gilmore FRS (PhD 1979) from Cambridge, UK, Duncan Hall from Wellington (ME 1981), Dr Phillip MacQueen (PhD 1986) from Austin, Texas, Dr Jennifer McSaveney, Wellington, (PhD 2003) and Michael Snowden (MSc 1974). In addition, past graduate students from other universities who did their thesis work at Mt John also came, including Professors Ed Guinan and George Wolf (originally from the University of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s), Dr Yvette Perrott (originally from Auckland, now in Cambridge UK) and several more. The success of Mt John has certainly come in large part from the 175 graduate students who have written theses using Mt John data, 82 of them from the University of Canterbury and the remainder from other New Zealand universities or universities overseas.

Prof. Gerry Gilmore (left) and Dennis Goodman

Former Mt John or Canterbury staff members included Alan Thomas, Rod Austin, Alan Gilmore, Pam Kilmartin and Dr William Tobin (from France). The founder of Mt John was Frank Bateson, who passed away 8 years ago, but his daughter Audrey Walsh came from Wollongong, NSW, and gave an inspiring talk about her father’s work to establish the observatory. Another distinguished visitor from Australia was Prof. Mike Bessell from Canberra, who wrote an influential report for MORST (as it then was) on New Zealand’s need for a national observatory. He talked about his report at the symposium. We also had Dr Stella Kafka from Massachusetts, the new director of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (with whom Mt John has an active collaboration with the robotic telescope), and Prof. Yasushi Muraki, one of the founders of the MOA microlensing project from Nagoya university, Japan.

The whole event was a good opportunity for people with a former connection to Mt John to rekindle old friendships and to learn more about the past research undertaken at Mt John; it was a time for reminiscences and some predictions and advice for the future.

The talks took place in six sessions over a day and a half – 28 talks in all – from the site-testing days to the present, on instrumentation, discoveries, the rigours of observing on long winter nights, how in 2004 we obtained a 1.8-m telescope for microlensing and the MOA project, thanks to our collaboration with Nagoya University and a $7.5M grant from the Japanese government (obtained by Professor Yasushi Muraki). Graeme Murray from Earth & Sky discussed how Mt John was opened up to astro-tourists just over a decade ago, with the result that the observatory is now a mecca for visitors from around the world, numbering some 120 thousand each year.

On Thursday evening we retired to the Godley Hotel for a sumptuous banquet, where William Tobin gave an inspired and witty after-dinner speech, followed by a beautiful song by Bex Murray (daughter of Graeme of Earth & Sky).

On the Friday afternoon we had an open day on Mt John, and this allowed everyone to see the observatory and its four telescopes and a number of instruments, including Hercules. That evening was clear, and most participants returned to Mt John for some visual observing, led by Alan Gilmore and Pam Kilmartin on the McLellan and B&C telescopes.

Overall, this was a very successful celebration of half a century of New Zealand’s only professional observatory for optical astronomy. Whether we can celebrate another half century in 2065 remains to be seen; currently Mt John faces numerous challenges, and its staffing levels for both academic and technical staff are now the lowest at any time in its 50-year history, with the result that innovative new research projects have all but ground to a halt.

John Hearnshaw
President, Rasnz
13 May 2015