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Pioneering N.S. astronomer remembered for ‘connecting people with the universe’

Astronomer David Lane, who created the world’s first telescope controlled by social media at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, died late last month following a nine-month battle with brain cancer.

Lane was born in Germany in 1963 before moving to Hebbville, N.S., where he grew up, according to his obituary.

He worked at Saint Mary’s University for 29 years, starting in 1992 as system administrator in the astronomy and physics department and later as the director of the Burke-Gaffney Observatory until his retirement in 2021.

Rob Thacker, a professor in the university’s astronomy and physics department, said Lane wrote the code and developed the robotic infrastructure that allowed the observatory’s telescope to be controlled by anyone in the world through social media.

“That was really, really significant because it got people thinking about what you could do with observatory facilities like this,” Thacker said.

“If you look at Dave’s career, the thing that runs through it was really what we call outreach, this idea of connecting people with the universe. And I think that is an incredibly powerful thing.”

A man in a black jacket and dark shirt speaks to the camera at a science fair.
Rob Thacker, a professor in the department of astronomy and physics at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, says Lane focused on ‘connecting people with the universe.’ (CBC)

Saint Mary’s University awarded Lane an honorary doctorate in science in 2024 for his contributions to astronomy.

Lane was a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, serving as national president for two terms from 2008 to 2013. Lane also received multiple awards from the society.

Lane and RASC member Paul Gray were the first Canadians to discover supernovas from within Canada.

Dave Chapman, another RASC member, met Lane 35 years ago in Halifax.

A man and a woman in formal wear smile at the camera.
Mary Lou Whitehorne with Lane at an astronomy event in 2010. (Submitted by Mary Lou Whitehorne)

He said Lane lived, breathed and slept astronomy. When Lane first got the job at the university, he looked like “he had died and gone to heaven,” said Chapman.

Mary Lou Whitehorne, honorary president of the Halifax chapter of the RASC and past president of the national body, said Lane was actively involved in organizing school and community group visits to the observatory, which gave children and adults a chance to experience stargazing and ask questions.

Passion for environmental issues

She said even in the early days of working together they were both concerned about environmental issues and were starting to think of the planet as a life-support system and not just a rock in space.

Lane communicated that philosophy to the young people he encountered, she said.

“He was just one of those really positive people that produced positive repercussions, waves of positive action just sort of emanated out from Dave,” Whitehorne said.

Lane met his wife, Michelle, 25 years ago and they would have celebrated 22 years of marriage this September.

A man with a beard and a baseball cap is seen on the water with the shore in the background.
Lane on his boat in Mahone Bay, N.S. (Michelle Lane)

She said they were active members of the St. Margaret Sailing Club in Glen Haven, near their home.

He became a keen and proficient racer, she said, and loved every aspect of sailing. He also had a natural affinity for the weather, tide and winds.

“He had a gift for engaging people in the things that he cared about, whether it was astronomy or sailing, and loved to share his passion for those activities with others,” she said.

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This article is from from cbc.ca (CBC NEWS CANADA)

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