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Tales from U of T's Antarctic Astronomer

Professor Keith Vanderlinde lectures at U of T's World Astronomy Day events

Professor Keith Vanderlinde shares his stories from the South Pole on April 20 (photo by Dana Hrubes

He's one of the few people in the world to master the art of astronomy at -70C.

Keith Vanderlinde spent 11 months working on-site with the South Pole Telescope in Antarctica before joining U of T's Dunlap Institute and Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics a few years later.

The newly hired assistant professor, just arrived in January, will share stories from his time at the South Pole as part of the U of T Graduate Astronomy Students' Association's celebration of World Astronomy Day on April 20th.

In addition to Vanderlinde's lecture, the group will also host planetarium showings, viewings through dome and balcony telescopes, demonstrations of the curvature of space-time and more. (Find more event information here.)

Vanderlinde spoke about his adventures and his reasons for coming to U of T.

What will you be discussing at the International Astronomy Day lecture?

A lot of my work uses a 10m microwave telescope located in Antarctica, only about a kilometre away from the geographic south pole. A few years back, I spent a year living and working with the telescope, keeping it running through the long, dark Antarctic winter. I'll be sharing some photos and stories from my time there, and talking a bit about the science that convinced me it was worth spending a year of my life cut off from the rest of the world.

How is astronomy at the South Pole different from astronomy elsewhere?

There are a couple of features that make the South Pole an ideal place for the kind of astronomy I do:

First and foremost, Pole is extremely dry, the driest place on earth, and moisture is the bane of microwave astronomers everywhere. Microwave light is absorbed and emitted by water, so any water vapour in the atmosphere makes it much more difficult for us to see the signals we're looking for.

Keith Vanderlinde's photos from his work at the South Pole

Second, the telescope sits on top of a glacier 3 kilometres thick, so we're as just as high up as most mountain tops, above a good portion of the atmosphere.

Third, the sun only rises & sets once per year, leaving us with a six-month-long day, and a six-month-long night. That means the atmosphere is much less turbulent than elsewhere on earth, where the sun is constantly rising and setting, heating and cooling, stirring things up.


It's probably the best place on earth to see microwave light from space.

Any favourite anecdotes from your time there?

While the cold, dry, calm air is great for our science, it's less great for people. The winter temperatures drop below -70C (-100C with windchill), making every day a bit of an adventure. The telescope is a kilometre from the station where you eat, live, and sleep, and vehicles don't work within those temperatures -- to get to work each morning, you've got no choice but to bundle up, launch into the pitch black, burning cold, and trudge through hidden snow drifts and bone-chilling winds.

There are certainly rewards to spending time outside -- the starscape is unlike anywhere else on earth, so spectacular it's hard to describe, and the Aurora Australis are nearly always present, running horizon to horizon, dancing gently overhead, occasionally flaring up and lighting the world in reds, yellow and greens.

There is an art to operating outside at -70C. Goggles ice over too fast to be useful, so you have to leave a tiny slit to see through between your neck gaiter and hat, then pull the hood on your enormous red Canada Goose parka ("Big Red," in Antarctic speech) as far forward as it'll go. Still, if you blink the wrong way, your lashes will freeze together. Once during a storm my hood blew into an awkward position; my left eye froze shut and then the lashes froze into the fur trim of the hood. I had to stumble around blindly for a while with my face being pulled around by the wind on my hood. Eventually I figured out a way to de-ice, but it was tricky.

What drew you to U of T’s astronomy department?

With both the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics and the Candian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA), Toronto has an enviable record in astronomical research. Now, the Dunlap Institute for Astronomy & Astrophysics is enabling us to expand on that strength, allowing us to build into instrumentation and novel observing techniques, significantly increasing the impact we're able to have. Dunlap is really what convinced me this was the place to be -- we're growing at a fantastic pace, and are really cementing Toronto's position at the global forefront of astronomical research.

Keith Vanderlinde's photos from work at the South Pole

What is the biggest misconception about astronomy? What do you wish people knew about the field?

A lot of people still picture astronomers looking through eyepieces on ever-larger telescopes, just seeing what they happen to see. The field's progressed enormously since the days of Kepler and Newton! We now look at all kinds of light -- at radio, microwaves, infrared, optical, UV, X-rays, Gamma rays -- and use both cutting edge electroncs and sophisticated statistical techniques to try and understand what we're seeing.

It's also tough to wrap your mind around the scale of things we study. People have only managed to travel as far as our own moon, though we dream of someday visiting another planet. Even the nearest stars are a million million of times further, and our own Milky Way galaxy is almost unimaginaby vast. Even that, though, is a mote of dust compared to the scale of the Universe. As a cosmologist, that's the scale I'm interested in: What constituents make up the Universe? How has it evolved over the eons?

What research are you hoping to pursue while at U of T?

I'm continuing my work with the South Pole Telescope, studying how the gravity from all the material in the universe has bent and distorted the ancient light we're looking at. I'm also working on a new radio telescope being built right here in Canada: the Canadian Hydrogen Mapping Experiment (CHIME) will map a larger volume of the Universe than any survey has done before, allowing us to study the accelerating expansion of the Universe in unprecedented detail.