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Cautions for Astronomy's Golden Age

All my life—or at least from the time I knew what astronomy was—I wanted to be an astronomer. But being an astronomer has not turned out to involve doing the kinds of things I imagined when I decided to go to graduate school 25 years ago. I went to Carleton College, one of the best of the small midwestern liberal arts schools. Influenced by the commitment of my professors to teaching, I planned to become a teacher at a school like Carleton. A physics professor, however, convinc

By | November 2, 1987

All my life—or at least from the time I knew what astronomy was—I wanted to be an astronomer. But being an astronomer has not turned out to involve doing the kinds of things I imagined when I decided to go to graduate school 25 years ago.

I went to Carleton College, one of the best of the small midwestern liberal arts schools. Influenced by the commitment of my professors to teaching, I planned to become a teacher at a school like Carleton. A physics professor, however, convinced both me and my soon-to-be husband (also a future astronomer) that we were selecting too safe a path and that we could never know what we could achieve unless, when given a choice between two alternatives, we chose the harder one.

And so we went to the University of California’s Berkeley campus at a time of enormous political upheaval. We remained curiously distant from the radical changes going on around us. On one occasion several students were discussing whether to join a demonstration, and an astronomy professor harrumphed that surely we had better things to do than that. Under the influence of scientists like that harrumphing curmudgeon, I began to imagine myself not as a teacher but as a researcher, leading a somewhat monastic existence dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge that, with luck and talent and hard work, might lead to the discovery of fundamental truths.

Then came the choice of what to do after obtaining our Ph.D.s. Again taking the advice of our physics professor, we chose the hardest path. We elected to go the University of Hawaii, which at that time was beginning the development of Mauna Kea, a mountain nearly 14,000 feet high, as an astronomical observatory The outcome of that effort is well-known. Mauna Kea is quite simply the finest site so far developed for astronomy anywhere in the world. Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, as well as NASA and the University of Hawaii, all operate facilities there. The world’s largest optical/infrared telescope, the 10-meter Keck telescope, is currently under construction by Caltech and the University of California. The Japanese are planning to build a 7-meter telescope, and the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatories would like to put a 16-meter one on Mauna Kea if funding can be obtained.

We did not know then that all of this would happen. When we went to Hawaii in 1967, ground had not yet been broken for the first telescope. There was substantial skepticism about the feasibility of operating highly complex facilities at an altitude 4,000 feet above where pilots are required to use supplemental oxygen.

We had a wonderful time in those early days, developing a site without even such basic amenities as a source of water, a site where all power had to be generated locally because there was no power line, a site where blizzards raged in winter and where even in summer temperatures dipped to freezing every night. But we leamed. We learned about altitude sickness and the best strategies for forcing our bodies to acclimate. We learned first aid so we could cope with accidents, since professional help was hours away. We learned how to handle heavy machinery and how to maintain generators. We learned more about telescope gears and worm drives and how to repair scored gears than we ever wanted to know.

Nearly every one of us who was involved in those early days can tell—loves to tell— stories of being nearly trapped on the mountain during a blizzard, of hiking to the summit because the road was blocked by snow, of climbing to the top of the dome to remove snow so that not a moment of observing was lost. It was a great adventure, an adventure that surely I had not envisioned when I planned a life of research alone in my office.

Astronomy too changed during those years. It is no longer a science that can be pursued at low cost by individuals working alone. Developing Mauna Kea has already cost more than $100 million. Much of astronomy is now done in space, where expenditures are measured in billions of dollars.

The astronomy community has aspirations for facilities that go well beyond anything we have achieved. For the first time since the 200-inch telescope was completed in 1948, we have the technical ability to build much larger ground-based telescopes. In space, we are planning long-lived observatories that will give us access to wavelength regimes from gamma rays to the infrared.

We live in a golden age of astronomy. Since I entered college, we have discovered quasars, pulsars, the cosmic background radiation. We have opened up the X-ray, ultraviolet and infrared windows. With the tools we now have the technical capability to build, and with the questions we already know how to ask, we have the prospect of truly coming to understand the evolution of the material universe in which we live. Fifty years ago, we could not have imagined asking the questions we now ask; 50 years from now, we will know many of the answers.

Astronomers have paid a price, however, for this transition from a science that was largely an activity by individuals working alone. So cumbersome is the review that precedes any new start that relatively modest projects using only existing technology, such as a 4-meter telescope, can easily take 10 years from conception to completion. Major projects such as the orbiting X-ray observatory may take half or more of a professional lifetime. Large projects may drive out support for smaller ones.

In terms of instrumentation, we in the United States are falling behind the Europeans. At Kitt Peak National Observatory, where I was director until earlier this year, we are forced to deny approximately two-thirds of the applications for observing time, not on the basis of the quality of the science but simply because the demand for observing time is too high to be met with existing telescopes. The fact that we must say no so often means that an ever more rigorous review process must be put in place to lend some bureaucratic semblance of evenhandedness to the evaluations.

I am not convinced, however, that all of the new management and review structure that envelops astronomy, and by extension most of research, leads to a better quality product. The question I ask myself is whether or not Mauna Kea, with all the uncertainties we had at the outset about operating at so high an altitude in such a rigorous environment, could be developed today. My fear is that the answer is no. Somehow, we must find ways to restore that willingness to take risks, to accept the possibility of failure as the price of being on the cutting edge of science, to encourage the next generation of scientists to choose the more difficult course of action.

Wolff is now director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories in Tucson, operated by the Association for Research in Astronomy Her address is Kitt Peak National Observatory, P0. Box 26732, Tucson, AZ 85726-6732.

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences