Terence Dickinson, Canada’s Famous Amateur Astronomer and Popularizer, Dies at 79

Terence Dickinson.

Terence Dickinson, a legendary Canadian amateur astronomer and publisher, passed away on Feb. 1 at age 79.

Dickinson was the founding editor of the Canadian astronomy magazine SkyNews, a lifetime member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, author of numerous books and a popular teacher and commentator regarding amateur astronomy for decades. (This article’s author is also a freelancer at SkyNews, but never worked with Dickinson.)

“Terence Dickinson created something truly important and special for the astronomy community in Canada. He will be remembered for this, and much more,” Carina Ockedahl, the current editor of SkyNews, told SpaceQ. While Ockedahl never worked with Dickinson, she offered condolences “to the people that were near and dear to his heart.”

Dickinson’s “NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe,” was a volume so popular and influential that it reached four editions after its first publication in 1983. Another of Dickinson’s popular books – “The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide,” co-authored with fellow Canadian astronomy journalist and enthusiast Alan Dyer – also reached four editions by 2021. 

Dyer shared news of Dickinson’s passing with the community on Twitter and on LinkedIn on Wednesday (Feb. 1).

“It is with great personal sadness that I learned today of the passing of my dear friend and astronomy partner in many projects, Terence Dickinson. Terry had battled Parkinson’s for the last few years. Terry was Canada’s best-known author, broadcaster and popularizer of the science and the hobby of astronomy,” Dyer wrote on LinkedIn. Dyer added there will be no memorial service and Dickinson’s ashes “will be scattered under a dark country sky.”

Susan Dickinson, Terence’s wife and long-time business partner in publication projects, was also quoted in Dyer’s LinkedIn post: “Although he was physically tethered to this planet, his mind soared among the stars, and the time he spent gazing skyward from a dark country site brought him peace and serenity. Now he’s at one with the universe that enchanted him for a lifetime.”

Dyer is passing along all community condolences to Susan Dickinson, he added in subsequent social media posts. By coincidence, Dickinson’s passing coincided with the closest approach of the long-period Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) to Earth, a comet that may reach naked-eye visibility but is easily visible in binoculars or a telescope. It’s the first time in 50,000 years anyone could see this visitor from our planet.

Terence Dickinson was born Nov. 10, 1943 in Toronto and first became fascinated with space in 1948 at age five, when he saw a meteor in the Leaside neighborhood; whether it was part of a meteor shower or a stray “shooting star” is not recorded in his Canadian Encyclopedia biography

Witnessing that “shooting star” was a revelation for the young Dickinson: “The question he asked at that young age – ‘What are the stars?’ – has never gone away,” the Rotary Club of Belleville wrote. “His first-grade teacher could not answer the question, but his Grade 2 teacher took him to the library and pointed him in the direction of some science books.” 

It was there that Dickinson found a 1930 children’s astronomy classic, “The Stars For Sam” – and he was hooked. 

At age 14, he received his first of at least 20 telescopes that he owned in his lifetime, according to the Rotary Club of Belleville. At 16, he became a Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) life member of Toronto Centre – “when the cost was something like $50,” recounted former RASC president James Edgar in a 2016 essay about Dickinson. (That’s the equivalent of nearly $500 today, according to the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator.)

Dickinson joined the (now former) McLaughlin Planetarium of the Royal Museum in Toronto in as an astronomer – shortly after it opened in 1968 – and next worked in the Strasenburgh Planetarium in Rochester, New York. Dickinson was Astronomy Magazine’s first contributing editor in 1973, becoming executive editor just two years later. 

Then in 1976, Dickinson returned to Canada as a full-time science writer, editor and publisher in the field of astronomy. He was also founding editor of SkyNews in 1995. SkyNews was then published through the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa; now it is owned by the RASC.

Aside from numerous columns, magazine articles and media appearances on outlets like CBC Radio and the Discovery Channel over decades of work, Dickinson wrote at least 15 books on astronomy – which were often illustrated with his own photographs, and depending on the volume, targeted children or adults. Several of his books went through more than one edition, and for a period he also taught astronomy at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ont.

Dickinson’s legacy cannot be overstated, as most of the Canadian astronomy community had met him, worked alongside him or at the very least, read and been influenced by at least one of his books. He was also known for his generosity to all, including children, who showed an interest in the night sky.

“Terry Dickinson’s ability to explain the universe and simplify astronomical concepts in ways easily understood by the average reader has gained him a huge international audience,” the Canadian Encyclopedia wrote in an article last updated in 2014. “Many thousands of people have developed an interest in astronomy and the wonders of the universe because of his work.”

The encyclopedia lists numerous awards the Dickinson received. He was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada in 1995, receiving this citation from the Office of the Governor General of Canada:

“Many Canadians have developed an interest in the wonders of astronomy thanks to his popular books on the subject. His guide for backyard astronomers, NightWatch, is one of many books he has written for both children and adults. As a commentator for CBC Radio’s ‘Quirks and Quarks’, an author and a columnist, he has unveiled a world of discovery for thousands of amateur astronomers.”

One of Dickinson’s photographs of the Moon featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2000. Dickinson also held an honorary Ph.D. from Trent University, awarded in 2004. Asteroid 5272 was renamed Dickinson in 1994 in his honour.

Some of his other awards include the New York Academy of Sciences’ Children’s Book of the Year award (1988); the Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada Information Book Award (1989); the Sandford Fleming Medal (1992); and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Klumpke-Roberts award for outstanding contribution to public understanding of astronomy (1996).

About Elizabeth Howell

Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.

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