Renowned astronomer and writer, Terence Dickinson, dead at 79

Yarker’s Terence Dickinson, an accomplished Canadian astronomer, passed away on Feb. 1, 2023, at the age of 79. Photo via BackyardAstronomy

The Canadian astronomy community is mourning the loss of Terence Dickinson from Yarker, who passed away on Monday, Feb. 1, 2023, at the age of 79, following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Dickinson was a renowned amateur astronomer, writer, and editor. Born in Toronto in 1943, Dickinson would go on to become one of the leading astronomy writers in North America, publishing over a dozen books on the subject.

According to his entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia, Dickinson’s love of astronomy began when he was just five years old after he witnessed a shooting star just outside of his home. His astronomy career officially began in the late 1960s with a job in the McLaughlin Planetarium at the Royal Ontario Museum in his hometown of Toronto, where he was responsible for producing exhibitions and other programming.

In the 1970s, Dickinson began writing about astronomy in various publications, including Maclean’s, the Toronto Star, and Reader’s Digest. In 1971, he published his first book, Exploring the Moon and the Solar System. In 1973, Dickinson relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to become the full-time executive editor of Astronomy Magazine for two years, before returning to Toronto to take up a position in the Ontario Science Centre’s publications department.

In the late 1970s, Dickinson and his family moved to Yarker, Ontario, where the astronomer remained a resident for the rest of his life. In the years and decades that followed, Dickinson would go on to become a major influence within the astronomy communities of North Frontenac and Kingston. Living in a rural community had advantages for exploring the night sky, and when Dickinson noticed that there was an area between Erinsville and Kaladar that was particularly free of light pollution, he advocated for the creation of what became the Lennox & Addington Dark Sky Viewing Area. The County of Lennox & Addington honoured Dickinson with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, and placed a plaque at the L&A Dark Sky Viewing Area to mark the contribution he made to the study of astronomy in his community.

Throughout his time in the region, the astronomer wrote articles for many local publications, including the Kingston Whig-Standard. He also took on various teaching positions at St. Lawrence College in Kingston.

In 1983, Dickinson published NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing The Universe, his most popular book, which has been re-issued several times in the last 35-plus years, selling over 800,000 copies. The author also penned several children’s books throughout his career, including Extraterrestrials: A Field Guide for Earthlings, and Exploring the Night Sky, both of which teach lessons about astronomy and star-gazing through stories and illustrations geared to younger readers.

Dickinson’s work as a children’s writer earned him a number of awards, such as the New York Academy of Sciences’ Children’s Book of the Year Award (1988), and the Children’s Literature Roundtables of Canada Information Book Award (1989).

In 1995, Dickinson was hired as the first editor of SkyNews, Canada’s leading national astronomy magazine. In the 21 years he served as editor, Dickinson played a key role in sharing astronomy-related news, tips, and other observations with readers across the country.

“We are extremely saddened to hear of Terence Dickinson’s passing,” SkyNews magazine wrote in a Facebook post. “He was the editor of SkyNews from its first issue in May/June 1995 until the May/June 2016 issue. [He also] achieve[ed] many more contributions to the world of amateur astronomy.”

Over the years, Dickinson received honorary degrees from both Trent University in Peterborough and Queen’s University in Kingston. He also won numerous scientific awards, such as the 1992 Sanford Fleming Medal, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s Klumpke-Roberts Award (1996). In 1995, Dickinson was named a member of the Order of Canada for his contributions to the field of astronomy, and in 1997 he received the Jim Bennett Award from Queen’s University.

Aside from his work as a writer, Dickinson also made numerous appearances on radio and television. From 1978 to 1994, he was a frequent commentator on CBC Radio’s science program Quirks and Quarks. Throughout the early 2000s, Dickinson was a regular guest on various Discovery Channel TV shows.

In his obituary, Dickinson’s wife Susan wrote: “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.”

According to the obituary, instead of a memorial service, Dickinson’s ashes will be “scattered under a dark country sky.” In lieu of flowers, mourners are encouraged to make a donation to their local humane society.

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