Friday, June 8, 2012

WHAT Happened to The Barbados Astronomical Society?

The transfer of Venus across the face of the Sun on June 5th ought to have had every amateur astronomical society worth its salt in the viewing area mounting a full court public observational press. This would especially apply if the particular society had an Observatory to call its own and a telescope equipped with special filters to do the job.

We know that such an Observatory and telescope (C-14) exists in Barbados because I have used it before. If readers will click on my attached profile picture, they will see an image of me from 1985 carrying out an observation using the Harry Bayley Observatory's H-alpha filter. The objective was to identify solar active regions with the most activity visible in H-alpha, and use superposed solar graticules to estimate the proximity to complex (e.g. delta class) sunspots.

Another image of the Observatory's C-14 (in much more active earlier days)  can be found (2nd from top) in this blog from a year ago:

Thus, it was disheartening to recently learn from a long time friend (and former Harrison College colleague) in Barbados, that the Venus transit came and went with nothing done. Indeed, he said that the Astronomical Society couldn't have done anything because the Observatory itself remains closed, and the telescope has been brought to a member's home for safe keeping - following a break-in several months ago.  Worse, the Society itself appears to be on life support, as no Annual General Meeting has been held in the past two years!

What gives? Evidently there is still a nominal president (Ricardo Small) but he hasn't called meetings. Why? We don't know. What we do know, and what my friend has surmised, is that the moribund, inactive state of the Observatory led to the break-in and the police advising the remaining members that the building be closed. But as my friend pointed out, this is an extreme solution. It essentially solves nothing, while turning the Observatory into a lifeless what, I've no idea. 

And what of the Barbados Astronomical Society, to which so many of us devoted so many years and our astronomy passion, what has become of it? Does it exist at all? From my information, the Society is now so moribund and devoid of constructive activity that it's lost the annual government subvention it once received.

But perhaps we all ought to have seen this coming, from many years ago.

As I noted in my book, 'A History of Caribbean Secondary School Astronomy', Chapter 6, some of us could spot trouble from the time a satellite television hookup was installed in 1988. Originally, the plan was only to have a dedicated TV for video lectures ---- no outside television, via satellite or otherwise. But at a members' meeting the "old fogeys" were voted down, and an STV (subscription TV) hookup was approved, supposedly for educational purposes.  As time wore on, the medium more and more became used for friviolity, either watching subscription services, or members bringing their own tapes of comedy shows, movies, etc. Very little astronomy got done.

Ongoing spot checks at the Observatory library showed very few books being read. This despite the fact that, as Editor of the then Journal of the BAS, I'd delivered a number of articles to lead members by the hand and show them how simple research projects - especially on variable stars - could be done. But nothing was.

By the time of my visit in May, 2003, when I gave a guest lecture on Dark energy, I was appalled to see the condition of most of the books in the library - which had become essentially waste on account of being worm eaten, or mold despoiled. Many of those books I'd donated from my own library before leaving the island in 1992.

Over and over I'd been told the problem at its core was a "brain drain" from two ends: 1) the younger, former college -age S.T.A.R. (Student team for Astronomical Research) left for greener pastures in the States or Britain, and 2) many of the older founder members and sustainers had left, including my wife and myself.

With no one there to hold them by the hand, or show them what to do, things quickly went awry. First The Journal died, then the regular lecture courses ended, then finally, the mainstay Friday viewing nights became history. No wonder the Barbados Government pulled its support!

Meanwhile, one of the finest astronomical observing telescopes in the Caribbean sits unused in member Bill Sutherland's home, awaiting word from.....the authorities, presumably....that it can safely be reinstated in the dome of the Observatory.

For now, I can only think of what a sad and sorry spectacle!


miletree said...

You'll be happy to know that the Society has been revived.
A grant from the Sfumato Foundation has allowed for the refurbishment of the Observatory and the purchase of a new telescope.

The official opening will be sometime in the next couple of months.

Copernicus said...

Thanks for the update! I am sure all Bajans and many visitors will like to know this!