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Dave McCarter

President, London Centre
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada
Ontario, Canada

Are you a professional or amateur astronomer?

I am an amateur astronomer, a backyard astronomer, star gazer, a naturalist of the night, interested in observing the environment above our heads.  I enjoy looking at aurora, meteors, man made satellites passing overhead, the moon, planets and other moons in our solar system, comets that trail their gossamer tails across the sky, the Milky Way and our stellar neighbours, and the thousands of other galaxies that are visible in an amateur telescope.  I promote this fascinating hobby to others, but I don't make a penny out of it.

Professional astronomers also love the night sky, but they are paid to do original research by universities and large corporations or foundations.  They may spend much more time staring at a computer screen full of data than actually through a telescope.  Their research may take them to the big telescopes in Hawaii or Chile, or to the Hubble Space Telescope Institute in Maryland, USA.

What is your occupation?

I teach electronics at a local community college.

What were your favorite subjects when you were in elementary and high school?

My favorite subject was Physics because it is understandable, makes sense and is so predictable.  While there are many facts and formulas that need to be memorized, the subject is not as reliant upon categorization and memorizing names and terms as, for example, Biology.

How did you become interested in astronomy?  Did you have a telescope as a child?

One summer my family was camping and I saw a young man setting up a long thin telescope on the beach.  I asked him what he intended to look at.  He pointed at a cream coloured star low in the east and said "I'm going to be looking at Saturn.  Would you like to see it?"  One look at that ringed marvel and I was hooked!  But it was many years before I could afford to buy a telescope, so I learned the star constellations, kept track of where Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were in the sky, and just always looked up in wonder.

What does the London Centre of the RASC do?

The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is an organization of people from all walks of life who are interested in astronomy, space sciences and in sharing that interest with others.  There are currently 26 local clubs, called Centres, across Canada.  London Centre has about 120 members who observe the sky together, attend monthly meetings where we discuss interesting astronomy topics, get to ask astronomy experts questions that puzzle us, share observing experiences, and have fun.  We take our telescopes to schools and community groups so that they have a chance to see neat objects in the sky first hand.

How long have you been involved with the RASC and what is your position in that organization?  How much of your time is required of this position?

I first joined the RASC in 1993, and I am currently the London Centre President, having also served as Observers Group Chair, Amateur Telescope Maker Chair, and Vice President.  I probably spend 10 to 12 hours a week doing things to improve the club.

What languages do you speak?

Early attempts at becoming bilingual in high school were frustrating and unproductive.  Being fluently bilingual would be useful at times, and I regret not having the type of mind that soaks up other languages.

If someone wants to become an amateur astronomer, where is the best place to start?

The absolutely first thing to do is join the local astronomy club.  You can find a listing of Canadian astronomy clubs on the SkyNews web site at  At club meetings you will be able to learn from others with similar interests.

Do not purchase an expensive telescope until you have had a chance to see through the scopes that other club members use.  People who own large telescopes are always keen to share.  Don't make the mistake of buying a cheap telescope promoted primarily by "high power" because they are difficult to use, don't often provide satisfying views, and are ultimately a big waste of money.  If you must purchase something optical, buy a nice pair of 7x50 or 10x50 binoculars.

Go to your local library and borrow books by Canada's premier astronomy writer Terence Dickinson.  First on my list of books is "NightWatch", then "The Backyard Astronomer's Guide" and "Summer Stargazing".  Once you have read these and spent a few clear nights under the stars, and can start finding your way around the night sky, you are well on your way.

Is it an expensive hobby?

Any hobby can be inexpensive, or expensive, depending upon how deeply you wish to immerse yourself.  Small reflecting telescopes with eight inch, 20 cm, mirrors can be quite affordable.  Large telescopes and specialty eyepieces can be very expensive, particularly when new.  Amateur astronomers are always trading up to a bigger, better telescope, and you may be able to purchase a second or third hand telescope for a small fraction of the new price.  A well looked after telescope can be in great shape, and will last a lifetime.

Simple telescopes are often the best, in terms of easy set up and take down, and a truism is that the best telescope is the one that is so easy to use that it is used often.  The simple Dobsonian Newtonian is made with a plywood mount, cardboard tube, glass mirrors and metal or plastic focuser.  Because they are so simple they give the most optical performance for the dollar.

There are a few amateur telescope makers who have turned their love for this hobby into a business, and make telescopes for others.  The influx of good and reasonably priced telescopes made in China has reduced the market for small home made telescopes, but there is still a small market for large (>30 cm mirrors) and very large (>50 cm) telescopes.

What has been the most interesting or exciting thing that you have ever seen through a telescope?

I was thrilled by the sight of shock waves in the long tail of Comet Hyakutake, seeing the earth sized debris clouds of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter in 1994, watching the colours of innumerable aurora flicker across the sky, tracking asteroid 2002NY40 as it zipped past the earth, this time.  I have seen brilliant flaming meteors cross the sky, and heard their sonic shock waves minutes later.  The rings and moons of Saturn still hold a fascination after almost fifty years.  I enjoy watching the moons of Jupiter continue their ancient dance and trying to discern details in Jupiter's cloud tops.  Seeing faint new stars in the star forming clouds of the great Orion Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula is always intriguing, particularly when I realize that planets may be forming too.  Space is full of interesting things to find, observe and understand.

What suggestions do you have for children who would are interested in astronomy and want to pursue it as a hobby or career?

Read as much as you can about the things that interest you, in magazines, in books, and on the web.  Talk to adults who are already doing the kind of things you are keen on, because they will be willing to help, to share, and to guide.  For example, it is possible to build your own telescope out of plywood, cardboard, metal and glass.  There are great books and web sites devoted to this activity, and there may be someone in your community who has built their own telescope.  Nothing beats observing the sky with your very own telescope.

Do well in school and plan to go to university, taking math, physics and chemistry.  Canada needs more astronomers to help answer some of the most interesting and compelling questions that have ever been asked.

Do you have any thoughts or wishes for children around the world?

Knowing about space helps us to know about and appreciate our own world.  Once you understand that the earth is the only place in our solar system where we can live, maybe we will take better care of it, and learn to get along with each other.

Cool Links:
London Centre Members' Scopes
Mike Boschat's Astronomy Page

- 15 February 2003


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Last Updated:
19 February 2003

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