Surrey resident Terry McComas loves to share his passion for astronomy, and does regular outreach events as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. (Tracy Holmes photo) Surrey resident Terry McComas loves to share his passion for astronomy, and does regular outreach events as a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. (Tracy Holmes photo)

Stargazing ‘keeps you humble,’ says Surrey astronomy enthusiast

Terry McComas shares his passion for the celestial

Terry McComas doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to astronomy.

Take the plate-shaped galaxy Andromeda. There’s good news and bad news, he says – and the bad news is about as bad as it gets.

“It is coming absolutely straight at our galaxy and there isn’t a darn thing that anyone can ever do about it,” he says.

On the upside, that catastrophic collision is “about four billion years down the road.”

“There’s your ‘phew’ moment.”

The tidbit was just one of many McComas, a Surrey resident, shared during a recent interview with Peace Arch News.

Another is that it will take several minutes after the sun dies before anyone on Earth – assuming there is anyone here to notice – realizes it has happened. Yet another is the fact that had Jupiter – fifth rock from the sun and the largest planet in the solar system – been just a hint bigger, we’d have two sunrises.

“Isn’t that cool?” McComas says, the excitement in his voice unmistakable despite the fact his night-owl lifestyle means hasn’t seen a sunrise in around 10 years.

Still another fun fact relates to telescopes – and it’s not one you’ll find jotted in any instruction booklet detailing what the equipment is capable of, either. In short, they could be described as time machines, McComas gleams.

“When you put your eye to a telescope and look at Andromeda, that light left Andromeda about 2.3 million years ago. And that is before evolution even approached the idea not only of coming up with humankind, but even coming up with any of our ancestors,” he explains.

“The first time I heard that, it threw me. It took some measurable time to wrap my mind around it – a telescope is quite literally a tool for rolling back time.”

Sharing his passion for astronomy has been an exercise McComas has delighted in for the past decade – including during a visit to White Rock Library in January – through his involvement with the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. The organization, launched by eight men in Toronto on Dec. 1, 1868, today has a membership of more than 5,000.

RASC “supports men, women and youth in their quest to learn more about the universe,” according to the organization’s website.

And that quest, McComas notes, doesn’t have to involve massive spending on super high-tech equipment. In fact, one thing he tells families who are interested in exploring the skies with their kids is, start with binoculars. It’s something many families already have, he says, and offers a wider scope that makes it easier to take in and understand what’s being observed.

“So if I look at the sky with my binoculars at say, Cassiopeia, which is a really easy constellation because it looks like a big W… I can see all of Cassiopeia at once, so I will know the relationship of those five bright stars.

“If I take out my telescope and look at Cassiopeia, chances are extremely high that I’m going to be looking at one, two, maybe three of the stars. So, having binoculars really gives one a sense as to how constellations fit together. It gives you an idea as to how small patches of the sky are organized and from that, it makes it that much easier to figure out how all the constellations are organized.

“Binoculars are where it’s at.”

McComas, 73, describes himself as a lifelong “science guy,” someone who was hard-wired with the interest. He got hooked on chemistry during high school, when a teacher wowed the class with an experiment that produced “pops and bangs, and ballooned smoke,” with a crescendo of hot iron pouring out of the reaction vessel.

The interest led to a career with Health Canada, where he says he was “the guy that helped police actually decide if they’d picked up heroin or someone’s baking powder,” and even testified in court about his findings when asked.

“It was very cool initially,” McComas says. “But after you’ve seen your millionth bag of marijuana, it kind of loses its cachet.

“It does happen,” he adds, referring to the heroin/baking product issue.

Retired since 2011, McComas’ other interests include global warming, animal advocacy and the Vancouver Jewish Film Festival. A longtime sponsor of the latter, which most recently took place last month, McComas says the films he takes in – and in this case, there were 28 of them – “provides me things to kind of ruminate over for months.”

His interest in astronomy exploded a decade ago, after he finally got something he’d “lusted after” for 50 years – a Questar telescope. Reading about them as a kid in Scientific American is what first sparked his interest in all things celestial, he says, in particular learning that the brand is what NASA chose when they first decided to give hand-held telescopes to their astronauts, he says.

“It’s widely considered the best little telescope, period. I wanted one for literally 50 years.”

Asked to define astronomy, McComas says it is “the observation of everything in the sky.” And stargazers, he says, come in “all different sizes and flavours” – from those like himself who are interested in all things bright, to those who are fascinated by far-away, dim things, to those who dedicate their entire careers to studying dark matter.

READ MORE: B.C. university to launch mini-satellite, study dark energy

“To be a stargazer, you have to kind of shift gears, you know – like, scale,” he says, describing the relative insignificance of White Rock, the Earth, the sun and even the Milky Way to the bigger picture that astronomy entails.

“Perhaps the biggest benefit I haven’t mentioned is, it keeps you humble,” he says. “When you think, ‘ah, I’m so worried about my – fill in the blank –’ and then you look at the sky, and you’re so trivial and unimportant. You’re barely an atom on an ant.

“I’m happy being humble.”

For more information about RASC and webinars that are currently being live-streamed, visit rasc.ca/covid



tholmes@peacearchnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Astronomy

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

 

Semiahmoo Peninsula photographer Ethan Dykstra was one of a few photographers who ventured to the White Rock beach early one morning last year to capture a golden sunrise over Semiahmoo Bay. Astronomy buff Terry McComas says if Jupiter were just a hair bigger, we’d be seeing two of these at a time. (Ethan Dykstra photo)

Just Posted

South Surrey’s Darts Hill Garden Park to re-open – by appointment

City of Surrey-run garden will be open to visitors Thursday through Saturday

Video tribute to KPU’s spring grad class also honours Andrew Petter, Bill Wright

‘We still want to celebrate our graduates, their achievements, and their resilience’

Surrey baseball association loses ‘a true giant’ in Bruce Lawson

Longtime volunteer ‘always gave his heart and soul to Surrey Canadian and the game of baseball’

Surrey School District forecasts up to 30 per cent of students will return to class this week

Education Minister Rob Fleming said on June 1, about 60,000 B.C. children returned to school

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

B.C. records four new COVID-19 cases, Abbotsford hospital outbreak cleared

Four senior home outbreaks also declared over, eight still active

RCMP, coroner investigate murder-suicide on Salt Spring Island

Two dead, police say there is no risk to the public

About 30% of B.C. students return to schools as in-class teaching restarts amid pandemic

Education minister noted that in-class instruction remains optional

Trudeau avoids questions about anti-racism protesters dispersed for Trump photo-op

Prime minister says racism is an issue Canadians must tackle at home, too

B.C.’s Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics goes virtual

The annual event partnering RCMP with Special Olympians is dramatically altered by COVID-19

Bateman program encourages people to sketch outside, connect with nature

#MyNatureSketch initiative encourages Canadians to become ‘bright-eyed three year olds’

Be cautious expanding COVID-19 bubble, Dr. Bonnie Henry tells B.C.

Senior homes stay off-limits as schools, businesses reopen

NDP getting COVID-19 wage subsidy ‘indirectly,’ B.C. Liberal leader says

B.C. NDP says Andrew Wilkinson is wrong about federal link

Most Read

l -->