A starry night: Aussie style

By Christine MacLean, June 21, 2006

    Doug Welch proudly holds his copy of Amazing Facts about Australia's Southern Skies. Photo credit: Christine MacLean
Did you know that a tin can placed on the sunlit side of Mercury or the surface of Venus would melt? Or that if the mass of all the planets in our solar system were combined, Jupiter would make up 77 per cent of the mass?

These fascinating facts on the night sky are found in McMaster astronomy professor Doug Welch's new children's book, Amazing Facts about Australia's Southern Skies. A professional astronomer for the past two decades, Welch was first turned onto science at age of eight. Family friends gave him a children's book about space, which sparked a passion for science within him. Soon after that, Welch's father purchased a small telescope, allowing Welch to further explore his interested in astronomy by viewing Saturn and the Moon.

Welch says one of his main objectives, as a professor and as director of McMaster's planetarium is to promote awareness of astronomy. After leading regular planetarium tours for groups of young people, Welch discovered that "children are some of the best scientists around, they ask great questions about topics that normally confuse most adults." For this reason Welch wants to offer children the opportunity to read and learn about space without having the information over-simplified for them; providing facts written in a direct yet challenging approach.

Welch has finally accomplished his long-held dream of improving upon his first childhood astronomy book by writing one of his own. According to Welch, the opportunity came about from "being in the right place at the right time." One evening, while visiting Australia to attend an astronomy conference, Welch took a walk along the beach. He waved to an astronomer friend and started a conversation with the man and his companion. Upon discovering that he was speaking with Steve Parish, who publishes books about the natural wonders of Australia, Welch joked about how if Parish wanted a book about the night sky, he would be willing to write it. Parish took the bait and Welch was given the opportunity to take on his dream.

Doug Welch's Amazing Facts about Australia's Southern Skies, with images from local photographer, Robert Botts, is published and sold in Australia but interested local shoppers can purchase a copy on campus from Titles bookstore.

With a chuckle, Welch exclaims that the hardest part of writing Australia's Southern Skies was figuring out the appropriate amount of text and the right set of images. "I found the process challenging because much of the writing occurred before I had any feedback on the layout," he explained. Welch said getting the first design back was very motivating, as he could finally envision the final product.

"When people say they like the book, that's great- it's a bit of an ego boost actually," Welch jokes. On a more personal note, he expresses that he has felt the most touched by the office staff in the physics and astronomy department at McMaster who purchased a copy after he showed the book to them.

Australia's Southern Skies was written specifically with the goal of an Australian perspective on the night sky, so is only carried in Canada through McMaster's bookstore, Titles. But Welch asserts that over 95 percent of the book's content does not depend on the reader's location for comprehension.

"While the sky maps are only useful in for those located in Australia, you can learn a lot [from the book] without ever going outside and looking at the sky. It's very current, while many astronomy books were written along time ago. This publication represents the most current understanding with current images right up to January; the book should stay relevant for awhile."