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Letters to the editor, May 2016

Letters to the editor, May 2016


[Allie Vibert Douglas]On Allie Vibert Douglas

Your short piece on A. Vibert Douglas in the Review brought to mind pleasant memories of the only time that I had the pleasure of meeting her.

I began graduate studies in astronomy at Queen’s in the fall of 1968. That winter, I was asked to lead a tour of the observatory on the roof of Ellis Hall for the University Women’s Club, even though I was, at that time, just barely capable of operating the telescope. Because of limited space, we split the tour into three groups. I got through the first two groups without any major problems but when the third group filed into the observatory, I noticed that one elderly lady was carrying a copy of The Observer’s Handbook, an annual publication of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, and I realized that I was in trouble! Fortunately for me, she stood in the back of the group and didn’t say anything during my somewhat incoherent presentation.

The next day, I was at my desk in the office in Stirling Hall that I shared with two other grad students when that same elderly lady walked through the open door escorted by the senior faculty member of the astronomy group within the physics department, Professor Victor Hughes.

When Professor Hughes introduced Professor Douglas to me, I thought that my career as an astronomer was about to be nipped in the bud. But, being the gracious lady that she was, Professor Douglas simply smiled and thanked me for giving the tour. Even more graciously, she neglected to mention the many mistakes that, with the benefit of hindsight, I realize I made that evening. It was only later that I learned of the many contributions that Professor Douglas had made to the study of astronomy at Queen’s, and indeed in Canada. But I will always remember her as an extremely gracious person who was appreciative of the fumbling efforts of wet-behind-the-ears graduate students.

Don Stevens-Rayburn, PhD‘72
Baltimore, Md.

After completing his PhD in astronomy at Queen’s, Dr. Stevens-Rayburn went on to post-doctoral work in the U.K. and the U.S. Later he worked at Goddard Space Flight Center’s Laboratory for Planetary Atmospheres, studying the upper atmosphere of Venus and working on several space missions, including the Solar Maximum Mission and the Cosmic Background Explorer. In 1989, he moved to the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, where he helped manage the computing and networking systems used to control the Hubble Space Telescope. He retired in 2003 and is now “a near full-time volunteer” for Habitat for Humanity in Baltimore.

On the physics issue

Wow. What an interesting issue of the Review! I read it cover to cover. It was wonderful to reminisce about my own tour of SNOLAB in 2014, to find out more about the research of some of my favourite physics profs and also read about the up-and-coming next generation of physicists. I was pleased to see that many of them are young women. Who knew you could use spheres in experiments to find dark matter, or that James Fraser who, I thought, only cut stuff up using light, is actually building things with laser light? It was great to learn about Nathalie Ouellette’s research: I know her from her work as Queen’s Observatory coordinator.

This issue was page after page of people I knew – no matter how many honours and titles he had, he will still always be “Donna’s husband” to me; may Ron Watts rest in peace. And Mark Chen; he may be the director of SNO+ and the Gray Chair and all that, but to me he is the guy who made the time for me when I needed academic advice while suffering from post-concussion syndrome. I walked into his office thinking I might actually fail a physics course, and walked out with his plan for me to earn the newly designed (and smallest) physics degree on offer at the same time as I completed my math degree. Thank you, Mark.

Though I may have the smallest physics degree offered by Queen’s, I am very pleased that my daughter Hannah, Artsci’09, has one of the largest – SSP Astro. This spring, I flew out to Victoria, with a copy of this issue tucked in my knapsack, to hear her successful open doctoral defense at the University of Victoria on star formation in the Auriga-California Giant Molecular Cloud and its circumstellar disk population.

Another section of the Review that I appreciated was the tribute to Allie Vibert Douglas, Queen’s Dean of Women for 20 years. I believe she was the first Canadian woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics. The article mentioned that a crater on Venus was named after her. All craters on Venus are named with female names, much like cyclones and hurricanes tend to be. (Venus is the hottest planet in our solar system and is named after the hottest Roman goddess, the goddess of love and beauty.) Some of the craters are named after famous women, mostly poets and artists. I have to wonder if Dr. Douglas would not have preferred having a crater on the moon named for her. Those craters are often named to honour mathematicians and scientists. Though under 10 per cent of those honoured are women, a number of them were fellow astronomers. I think her name would fit better alongside the likes of Annie Jump Cannon, Caroline Herschel, Edwin Hubble, Johannes Kepler and Henrietta Leavitt (and one day, Hannah Broekhoven-Fiene).

Siobhain Broekhoven,Artsci’12 (Math and Physics), Ed’13
Director, Math Quest: Queen’s Math Camp for Girls


[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 2-2016]