At first glance, you wouldn't know that Eric Donovan is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary. His youthful appearance belies the fact that he has been teaching for a number of years and that he is principal investigator for CANOPUS and NORSTAR, and for the Canadian component of THEMIS. He is dedicated to his work and gets involved in other initiatives whenever possible.
Part of his research concerns the upper atmosphere and space physics: "The most interesting part of my work is carrying out optical observations of the aurora. One aspect of the program involves the use of remote digital cameras in the high Arctic, taking image sequences when it is dark. Our group at the University of Calgary merges images taken by several cameras to create motion sequences of the aurora that appear over large parts of Canada. The image data is visually beautiful, but it is also of tremendous scientific value."
The scientific objective is to study the dynamics of the interaction between the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field. This interaction creates a host of interesting phenomena in near-Earth space, including radiation belts, aurora, and magnetic storms.
These magnificent aurora borealis were captured in Athabasca (Alberta) in July 2004. North is at the top and east is to the right. The camera points directly to the sky. Note that the movie shows the auroras moving at about 200 times faster than their true speed. (Video: University of Calgary)
Format: QuickTime (4.6 MB)
"I'm lucky to have been involved in team efforts that have led to important space physics discoveries. One that comes to mind is the connection between one type of aurora (north–south auroral forms) and a dynamic process in near-Earth space."
"Most scientists start down this path because they want to learn things about the universe. That motivation doesn't go away." A teacher must know how to communicate with students, but Donovan admits that the teacher is not always the best judge of whether or not a communication approach has been effective. However, Donovan has a few tricks of his own: "I try to tell complete stories. This means I can't always go into too much detail because each is based on many studies and papers. If you lose sight of the big picture, communicating across disciplines becomes difficult, frustrating, and maybe even impossible."
Donovan views his work as a teacher with a characteristically dry sense of humour. "Sometimes we think that people are smart if what they say is difficult to understand. Years ago, when I first started teaching, I would put a lot of effort into making my lectures clear and helpful. Most student evaluations confirmed that this was true. However, one who commented on how helpful my teaching was said that it was probably because other profs were smarter than me that they were harder to understand. I am a lot busier now, and may not think my lectures through as carefully. Perhaps students learn a bit less, but at least they think I'm smart!"
You can see more aurora videos on the Web site of the University of Calgary.