Another Cosmic Night

B-cat and I went to our nth Cosmic Night at H.R. MacMillan Space Centre, this time with his science pals. The theme was the science of science fiction, with “science fiction” being the earliest examples of the genre and… Star Wars.

Someone commented after the event that there was too much Star Wars and not enough Star Trek. My interest in sci-fi doesn’t extend far beyond what I grew up on, i.e. late-1800s to mid-1960s fiction and Laputa, so I didn’t know what an X-Wing was and could’ve used less of either Star.

(Me, A., B-cat, and R.) I’d obscure faces, but this turned out to be a nice shot of them all. Don’t sue.

We made origami X-Wings and played beer-less pong, in which A. was the only one uninterested and the only one who won (prize: H.R. Macmillan-logo asteroid stress ball). Then we caught three presentations/shows:

  • Half an hour on aliens and exoplanets, in the small theatre
  • Over an hour on the early days of science & sci-fi, in the large hall
  • An hour on other worlds in the universe, in the planetarium

The first was just a lot of fun; the host joked about “the type of people [conspiracy theorists and kooks] who’d come to an event like this” and the audience laughed knowingly, confident they weren’t the weirdos described…

The organisers would’ve been pleased with B-cat and A. (a computer scientist), though, for chatting up other guests about moon rocks and radio signals like well-adjusted adults. R. (who’d worked for Microsoft) and I, uncomfortable speaking to/bothering strangers, snuck into the cheese and meat instead.

We skipped the trivia contest to hear UBC’s Dr. Jaymie Matthews, who wore a large plastic banana around his neck and prepared more material than time allowed. Fascinating stuff, lots of Orwell. The planetarium show was narrated live this time and thus not as organised or artistic as Black Holes.

At the end, B-cat piled leftovers on a plate and then passed it to me because of his injuries/crutches. I was standing there with my hands full of stolen cheese when A. drew over a staff member (who, to be clear, said we could take as much as we wanted). Now you know whom not to recruit for a heist.

See the Seven Wonders show, with a lecture by a UBC archaeology prof, at the Space Centre on October 21.


Space-Time: A Reason to Rhyme

First-hand observation of the ill-fated astronaut Inflatey [not actual name]
Saturday, June 4th, was (Summer) International Lolita Day, and the Vancouver community visited the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre before afternoon tea.

I was disappointed the planetarium show turned out to be Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity, the one we saw when it premiered last November, minus the presentation by the UBC astronomer. H.R. MacMillan has already been advertising the dark matter show for months, so I didn’t expect the black hole one to still be on.

Shots of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield in the back

The mini show in the Ground Station Canada Theatre (big name for a small room) was fun, at least; Space: A Dangerous Place, like the Colour of Fire mini show preceding it, involves a lot of burning. The host talks about things like the hazards of space travel while demonstrating the insulating effects of water… and the incendiary properties of torches and fuel, I guess.

Even physicist B-cat learnt something!

B-cat and me (from group shot)

In retrospect, I should’ve stayed for the 4 pm mini show instead of rushing onto the next venue. Our group was early for our seating at Rose House Vancouver, but still waited two hours for food — no explanation/apology from the restaurant, either. It’s amazing how bad customer service can get when a business and its servers are expecting the automatic group tip.

Grumbling aside, I had a good time at the space centre and hope to catch The Dark Matter Mystery eventually. H.R. MacMillan has shows every day — here’s the show schedule if you’re better at planning than I am.

Black Hole Thursday Wash Away the Rain

A nebula on screen
A nebula on screen

For the early portion of his birthday, I took B-cat to Cosmic Nights: Black Holes at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. It was raining so hard he eschewed the motorcycle for a borrowed van. With nice dry feet, we saw the new Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity film in the dome of the observatory.

The dome is tiny compared with IMAX/OMNIMAX at Science World or Canada Place, and the relative proximity of the screen to the seats always makes me nauseous. I last went for the Pink Floyd laser light show around 2011 (just before the Space Centre cancelled laser shows), when, with the music both lulling me to sleep and blasting my eardrums, I barely managed to prevent a biohazard for my then-boyfriend and the venue.

Blackhole beer pong
Blackhole beer pong

The volume control and animation are much better for Black Holes, and while B-cat and the UBC astronomer narrating live* for the evening disagree on whether Hawking radiation or white holes, respectively, are the best theory, I enjoyed the clear explanation of this aspect of our universe. If B-cat hadn’t spent months patiently feeding me tidbits of quantum science, though, I wouldn’t have retained much.

*He narrated the presentation before and after the film narrated by Liam Neeson. Surprisingly, Neeson as a narrator is not annoying at all.

We touch a real piece of moon rock
We touch a real piece of moon rock

Most of all, Black Holes is moving. It will make you feel insignificant in the best way while reminding you of the energy and beauty of this cold, vast universe.

I was holding back tears at times.

Blackhole trivia contest (from left: recipient of prize, winner, 2nd place)
Blackhole trivia contest (from left: recipient of prize, winner, 2nd place)

The night also included blackhole-themed painting, beer pong (get the matter across the event horizon!), and trivia contest.

B-cat wanted to observe the game before participating, so he missed the awesome prize of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. In his own round, he tied the person who then beat him at rock-paper-scissors (strangely, being a physicist didn’t help at that), but both of them declined the Star Trek bobblehead and let the loser enjoy it instead. Such sportsmanship!

Five kinds of cheese!
Five kinds of cheese!

Although the Space Centre phrased the ads as if there’d be free drinks, it provided free cheese and chips and charged for beverages. Suited me — we devoured about a kilogram of cheese; I even ate some of the garnish.

Between that and our being late, losing a phone, accidentally throwing two handfuls of marbles off the fabric of space-time model, and misplacing our nebula paintings, B-cat and I are just the worst.

At least, in all the civilizations that probably have existed or will exist throughout time, we probably aren’t. Happy birthday!

Moving marbles showing the warping of space-time
Moving marbles showing the warping of space-time

See Black Holes Saturdays or catch Gentlemen Hecklers mocking Disney’s The Black Hole on Nov. 26 at the Space Centre.

Spotlight (or Lack Thereof) on Vancouver: McDonald Park Dark Sky Preserve

Just over a week ago, on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, my significant other started looking up (no pun intended) local haunts for stargazers. B-cat is a budding physicist/mathematician who is somewhat interested in astronomy; I had dropped out of the New Year planning effort.

“How about here?” B-cat pointed at the map, at the ocean. “It’s a dock that extends out to sea, with nothing around it.”

I saw myself being elbowed off the dock by amateur astronomers and sinking slowly into a watery grave as they counted down.

“Or we could go to Burnaby Mountain. They say it’s nice up there.”

I recalled the mosquitoes attacking my face as I lay by the Burnaby Mountain Park parking lot, the year of the Perseids meteor shower, with 60 other human logs.

The brainstorm session went nowhere. The next day, B-cat and I awoke at dinnertime.

“We only have four hours to get anywhere for countdown!” I wailed.

“GPS says McDonald Park is only an hour away — let’s go there. We have plenty of time to prepare,” said B.

B-cat is no cheetah. We did not set out until slightly under an hour before midnight, armed with three half-eaten bags of snacks we’d already been working on and a towel. One never travels without a towel.

Park sign, photo taken by me

With B-cat’s driving, we reached the park with 15 minutes to spare. What we first saw was that the entrance was squeezed between the two fields of two creepy farms. What we then saw were the locked gates of the park.

“Park open during daylight hours only,” a sign said. A dark sky preserve… closed when it’s dark?

McDonald Park is, to summarise, an hour from Vancouver proper by highway. Located in Abbotsford (approx. 10 minutes out of the city), it is snuggled against the Sumas Mountains and maintained by the government — with the efforts of the Fraser Valley Astronomers Society — as an area free of city light pollution. This is of course so you could better observe the night sky. The park is only open during daytime and FVAS events.

And then B walked around the gate while I ducked underneath, and we were in.

Under a huge, dinner roll-shaped moon, we hurried down the path/road into the park. B-cat suggested spreading our “blanket” (in this order) under the drooping trees in the dark, at the empty campsite in the dark, by the abandoned playground swings in the dark, and further on into the darkness… in the dark.

B doesn’t watch that many horror movies.

As I tried to explain horror movie logic to him, an owl hooted in the distance, the sound echoing through the mountains. A single metallic creak came from out of the darkness, somewhere by the campsite. And then… silence. I grabbed B and fled.

We set up our picnic in the middle of the road, from which we could see attackers from any direction. B took out his phone; it had an analog clock, with only hour and minute displays. He began looking for a different clock app at 11:55. Predictably, we entered 2015 staring at the app menu. (But we were with each other, and it wasn’t freezing; it was a good night.)

Google Street View of the main path/road as seen from inside the park
Google Street View of the main path/road as seen from inside the park

Ten minutes later, a car pulled up beside B’s, until then the only vehicle at the gate. Two men got out with flashlights and walked rapidly down the only path.

“Should we hide?” I asked.

“Hide where? They can see us anywhere, with the moon this bright.”

“We can at least move off the path?”

So B-cat and I dragged the blanket five feet off the path, into the bramble-filled ditch. There we squatted, less comfortable but no less visible. The two strangers passed us, literally within arm’s reach, without a word or glance. They disappeared into the woods.

Less than 10 minutes later, two figures came running out of the woods without any light.

“Hey, what’s up?” B called out as they passed us. No response.

“Should we get out of here, too?” I asked.

“That might be a good idea.”

So we chased the strangers across the field and back to the gate, where they took the final few steps to their car at a (strangely) leisurely pace before driving away.

What were they running from? Was it safe to go back into the park? I suggested they might’ve committed a crime, and that if we went back we’d be mistaken as the perpetrators. B suggested they might’ve been too spooked by the sight of us to continue their trek. A friend later suggested they might’ve stumbled upon a bear. We may never know.

The stars were nice, though.


You can read more about McDonald Park here: