My relationship with Tom Mason nearly got off to a rocky start when I thought I was going to have to throw him out of his own planetarium!
Once upon a time when the world was young, I didn’t actually work here in the Planetarium. Back then I was a member of the Irish Astronomical Association (IAA). One sunny Saturday in 1996 the IAA was presenting an event featuring meteorite expert Monica Grady and had hired Armagh Planetarium as the venue. It was an exclusive event, free for IAA members, the public could buy tickets, but all others were barred. To me had fallen the role of gatekeeper, stationed at the Planetarium’s entrance to check the bona fides of all who sought entry and sell them tickets if necessary. This was an easy task, until a bearded gentleman strode past the queue into the Planetarium. Taken aback by this effrontery, I was ready to evict this intruder on to the street. I called after him “Excuse me! You need a ticket to get in here!” He turned, smiled graciously and said “No, I don’t, I’m the director here.”
That was my first encounter with Tom Mason, gracefully defusing a potentially awkward situation. At the time I never realized that a decade later I would be working closely with him every day.
Thomas Mason was born in east Belfast. The direction of his future career was clear even at school. He avidly read books about finding fossils and digging up dinosaurs and decided this was what he would do. Tom studied geology and zoology at Queen’s University. He followed his undergraduate degree with research into the Carboniferous palaeoenvironments of west Fermanagh which earned him a PhD in July 1974. Tom then moved to South Africa in 1974 where he was appointed professor of geology at the University of Natal in Durban before he was 40. There he specialised in palaeontology and sedimentology and authored over 100 scientific papers. He seems to have been a ‘hands-on” professor, relishing field trips to wilderness areas, dodging lions, rhinos and buffalo among many other adventures. Tom looks back on this period with great nostalgia and has many stories to tell from this period!
Tom and his family spent 22 years in South Africa, returning to Northern Ireland in 1996. This was an opportunity to make a mid-life career change when he was appointed Director of Armagh Planetarium.
The new Director was a welcome breath of fresh air, revitalising a respected institution that had perhaps become a little complacent and set in its ways. Tom led by example, presenting to anyone of any age who came to the Planetarium, and if they weren’t coming to the Planetarium Tom would send the Planetarium to them. In fact Tom was especially effective in communicating science to small children, a sometimes overlooked audience. Tom’s presentations are not dry lectures, instead he delights audiences by making them part of the show and provoking wonder with his props and demonstrations. Tom has entertained tens of thousands over the years, but there is a serious intent behind the smiles and laughter. If Tom talks to a group they are learning too, “education by stealth” as he calls it. By 2006 the difference Tom made had been noticed and he was sent to Buckingham Palace to be made a member of Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to astronomy and education.
Tom has been recognised internationally. Armagh Planetarium has been a member of the International Planetarium Society (IPS) since its inception in 1970.Tom Mason served as 20th President of the IPS for 2009-2010. He was chosen by ballot of all of the IPS members, and this shows how respected and popular he was (and is) among the world’s community of planetarians. His election was also a reflection of Armagh Planetarium’s worldwide reputation: we have produced three out of the first twenty IPS presidents. (Former Director Terence Murtagh was the 10th IPS president from 1989 to 1990, while Martin Ratcliffe, a former Assistant Director, served as 16th IPS President from 2001 to 2002.) Tom served the IPS for a total of six years: two as President Elect, then two as President, and finally two more years as Past President. Tom also served as President of the British Association of Planetaria from 2005 to 2008.
During his directorship, Tom Mason steered the Planetarium though some challenging seas. Around the turn of the century the thirty year old Planetarium building was showing its age. During a survey to plan a refurbishment, the contractors found numerous serious issues with the building and its systems such as the heating and air conditioning. What had been anticipated to be a cosmetic upgrade would actually have to be an expensive refurbishment, verging on a rebuild. In fact it was so expensive as to be beyond the immediate means of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Planetarium’s funding body. Worse still, the Planetarium’s famous dome had deteriorated so badly that it had to be closed to the public. The Planetarium could not present planetarium shows! Suddenly it looked as though the Armagh Planetarium story’s end was in sight.
Tom’s responses to this sea of crises was to keep the Planetarium’s reputation alive by initiating an intensive programme of outreach events for the public and by lobbying the holders of the government’s purse strings. This was hard work, but it paid off. Both arms of this strategy were successful, the Planetarium was not allowed to fade from public view and Tom managed to secure £3m in funding from the government. This sum not only covered the Planetarium building’s repair and transformation, but also the installation of the latest Digistar 3 projection system. Once again Armagh boasted the most advanced planetarium in the United Kingdom and was again one of the world’s leading planetaria. When the Planetarium reopened in July 2006, Tom and his staff were justifiably proud of what they had achieved. The refurbished planetarium was an immediate success and has stayed that way, seeing steadily increasing, in fact record-breaking, visitor numbers and continuous upgrades to the Digital Theatre which now boasts a state of the art Digistar 5 system.
Tom has been an energetic and inspirational manager, encouraging every member of his staff to find their own voice and with it an area to excel in. Under his directorship, the renowned Digital Theatre has flourished. Night sky shows such as Pole Position and Beyond the Blue presented live by members of the Planetarium staff returned and proved a lasting success and once again Armagh Planetarium was not just offering bought-in shows but creating its own innovative content in-house. A “people person” himself, Tom recognised that people skills are important, under his influence Armagh Planetarium is a warm and happy place to visit and work in.
In April 2015, Tom said goodbye to Armagh Planetarium as he began a well-earned retirement. All of us here will miss him deeply. He will be a hard act to follow.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)