Astronomical arms race in town

Montreal is a city with two well-regarded physics departments (and arguably they are both top-5 in Canada), although, historically, they took vastly different directions, both in undergraduate and research terms. In these troubled times, where funding for science is scarce, to actually see both departments out-doing each other in a physical field (astronomy and astrophysics) where private funding is effete at best is a ray of hope for physics at large. Although the arms race is mostly a research kind of thing, I still have to introduce the differences between the two to give you some context to this arms race. I graduated from one of the two so please forgive my bias. Plus the opinions expressed in this post reflect only me, and not the opinions of the physics departments involved.

There is McGill University, the English-language department, whose physics department has been around for much longer than the French-language one (covered in the next paragraph). It was historically focused on nuclear and particle physics, and, when it comes to particle physics, they have focused on the theoretical aspect of it more. There is, to my eyes, one major undergraduate problem with that department: due to their two-speed course system (major and honours; they often say that the major is for experimentalists, and honours for theorists) they teach no course twice a year, which can be an impediment if a student failed a course, and teaching students at different standards is likely to hurt the students taught at the lower standard after they graduate. But under Gale and Grütter, they tried to make inroads in astrophysics (galactic physics, compact objects and particle astrophysics/cosmology mostly at this time).

And there is the University of Montreal, the French-language department, where its historical focus has been astrophysics and plasma. It has focused on astrophysics to the point where external inspectors suggested to rename the physics department, the department of physics and astronomy. Because all physics undergraduates there are taught at the same standards (the equivalent at McGill would be to teach every physics undergraduate at the honours level), it has the ability to teach some critical courses twice a year, hence it can accommodate the winter class (or demi-année in French; for them, the opportunity of an education should not be denied on the basis of extenuating circumstances, plus I was myself a demi-année student) properly. However, it is not free of undergraduate problems of its own: the students in the other two programs are held hostage to the scheduling conflicts that arise due to the very existence of the physics-computer science program (I will discuss the problems of that program in greater detail in a later post)

As to how the arms race manifests itself from each side of the mountain (both campuses are actually on opposite sides of Mount Royal): on the north side (UdeM) Julie Larrondo is just the tip of the iceberg, and she fills an astrophysical gap in that department, galactic/extragalactic astrophysics, adding to the current strengths in white dwarves, solar physics and massive stars, and, to a lesser extent, exoplanets. With the intent of hiring an additional three professors in exoplanets (on top of a plasma experimentalist and a quantum condensed matter theorist, to replace retiring profs) the department wishes to open a special unit dedicated to exoplanets, the Institut de Recherche sur les Exoplanètes, whose aim is to regroup all exoplanets expertise in town under one unit.

From the south side of the mountain, the physics department is in the process of setting up the Astrophysics and Space Research Centre, with an outreach coordinator who will be allotted 20% of its work scheduled for astrophysical research, and, likely, additional astrophysics faculty (astrophysical disciplines yet to be disclosed at this time, although exoplanets are likely to show up as well). Then again, from their side, they could use their new hires to diversify their astrophysical portfolio, even if it meant fighting for observation time at Mount Megantic, the instrument jointly operated by all physics departments in Quebec, aside from the other instruments (Hubble, CFHT, VLA, et al).

Who knows… maybe the astrophysical landscape in Quebec and, by extension, in Canada, will be vastly changed in the years, or even decades, to come.


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