September 2009 artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA |SkyNews
September 2009 artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope. (Credit: NASA)

An astronomy professor’s passion for numismatics

Harvey Richer transformed his numismatics work into a new book called “100 Greatest Canadian Coins and Tokens”.

A Canadian astronomy professor turned one of his pandemic projects into a book.

Harvey Richer, a stellar astrophysicist and professor at the University of British Columbia, studies how star systems evolve, along with the properties of dark matter. 

But in a side job that also requires attention to detail, Richer has a passion for numismatics — otherwise known as coin collecting. 

“I’ve been a coin collector all my life, since my brother and I found a big, large one of Queen Victoria in a field near our house in Montreal,” said Richer in an interview with SkyNews

Richer, who has been an astronomer for decades and is now semi-retired, transformed his numismatics work into a new book called 100 Greatest Canadian Coins and Tokens. He said the book features a few rarities in Canada, such as the gold coins of Newfoundland that were popular for a few decades in the 1800s. 

For his students, he emphasized there are several cross-disciplinary skills that numismatics attract from astronomy, and that the first ingredient has to be curiosity — whether it is for a scientific project or writing a book.

“When you do astronomical research, you have an idea. And if you’re an observer and observational astronomer, which I am, you write a proposal for telescope time on some telescope, right? Then if you’re lucky, you get the time,” said Richer. 

Determination and patience, he said, were key to helping him finish his book five years after the initial pitch. 

Richer is now looking at fresh images from the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched in December 2021 and began operations in the summer of 2022. Webb took the better part of decades to launch, but now has a fresh set of eyes in the universe in deep space to assist in Richer’s work in assessing stellar populations.

As a Canadian, Richer is in a country with guaranteed observing time, thanks to the Canadian Space Agency’s instrument contributions to Webb, allowing for more opportunities for people in Canada to do science — although they still must submit their ideas in a competitive process.

Richer said the Webb images will take several months to analyze, but the examinations focus on globular clusters — star groups roughly 12 billion years or so old, close to the Universe’s overall potential age of 13.7 billion years. His team wants to find evidence of white dwarfs — the shell of burned-out stars — heating up planetary systems nearby. If the planets are available, they should glow in the infrared and be visible in Webb’s sharp vision.

“We’re looking for these discs, which are evidence of planetary systems that occurred around these stars that are 12 billion years old,” said Richer. “If we find them, it would be argued that discs for planetary systems are formed in the very early history of the universe.”

Imagery is important to show us things, he notes, whether that imagery is related to distant stars or old coins. 

The images in his book seek to tell the history of Canada from the perspective of coins, in much the same way that stars can tell us about the history of the universe.