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ScienceWise - Summer 2012

2011 a space Oddie

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Heritage Day. The new telescope arrives at Stromlo Observatory
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Dr Tim Wetherell with the new Oddie refractor at Stromlo Observatory
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The new Oddie refractor with a portrait of the original benefactor, James Oddie

Return of a historic telescope to Mt Stromlo

Naturally enough the talk at the University right now largely centres on Professor Brian Schmidt’s recently awarded Nobel Prize for his work on dark energy (the mysterious force that appears to be accelerating the expansion of the universe). It’s a well deserved recognition for Brian’s research but it’s also great news for Australian science in general. 

There’s little doubt that Australia makes most of its living from dirt and agriculture. Millions of tons of minerals and food exported around the world give our economy an enviable solidity in an uncertain world. But that’s not the entirety of what we’re about. Australia has an excellent record of scientific innovation, especially when you consider our small population and remote location.

Outstanding achievements like Brian’s place science on the coffee tables and television screens of everyone across the country and help to inspire young Australians that have an interest in science, to see it as a real career option.

You see, I think Australia suffers significantly from the malady of believing that its a second class Europe and that nothing we do here could possibly be much good. In truth the exact opposite is true. Australia punches way above it’s weight especially in the sciences. For example in Astronomy over the 1995 -2005 period, per dollar invested, Australia was more than twice as effective in producing the highest impact papers as either the USA or Europe.

Australia is also probably one of the best places in the world to grow up if you’re interested in the sciences. We have a  school system that whilst not perfect, is way better than most developed countries. We also have excellent universities that any kid with the brains to get in, can go to. And that’s very different from many places where only the wealthy can ever expect a decent tertiary education.

One might wonder then, give all the advantage and opportunity that exists here, why we struggle to get science enrolments?

Personally, I think one issue is that many universities only really take an interest in kids when they hit year 11 and become potential enrolments. But the real time to foster an interest in science is way earlier, before students specialise at school. If you haven’t got them interested by the time they’re 13, you’ve lost them. That’s why outreach is such an important part of what we do and when it comes to outreach, Astronomy has to be one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal.

I’m doing a first here, and allowing my preparatory ramblings to drift over into the first story of the Summer ScienceWise because I’d like to talk about an astronomy outreach project that I’ve been involved with recently. The creation of a replacement telescope for the Oddie refractor that was destroyed in the devastating 2003 bushfires at Mt Stromlo Observatory.

The original 9 inch Oddie Telescope was one of the iconic old telescopes up at Mount Stromlo and whilst the loss of any antique telescope is keenly felt, the Oddie was doubly tragic because of its significance to both the founding of the Observatory and the creation of the Federation of Australia.

Right from it’s installation in 1911, the Oddie was used extensively in research, being fitted with some of the earliest photoelectric detectors. However as the century drew on, the scientific usefulness of a telescope with the modest aperture of 230mm naturally diminished as other increasingly powerful telescopes were installed around it.
This heralded what was perhaps one of the most significant periods in the Oddie’s long history as it became one of the Observatories favourite outreach telescopes, used to show school groups and other visitors some of the amazing astronomical objects that are visible from the southern hemisphere. In this new role the Oddie was contributing as much to science as it ever did, albeit in a different way.

The lens and tube of the telescope was completely destroyed by the fire but the mounting remained remarkably intact due to its massive cast iron construction. This opened up the possibility of bringing the historic telescope back to life by creating a new optical tube assembly and fitting it to the historic mount.

It would have been possible to simply buy a new modern telescope and plonk it on the mount but that would have looked rather odd. Now you might not expect scientists to care that much about aesthetics and generally you’d probably be right. But in the case of an outreach tool looks really do matter if it’s to effectively serve its function – to inspire. To do that it has to look cool! So what was needed was a new telescope but one that looks for all the world like it came from the nineteenth century. This provided the opportunity for a “best of both worlds” outcome because the new telescope could have the very latest in modern optics.

The new Oddie refractor will ultimately sit on the historic mount, in the historic observatory and look 100% the part. However, it will also offer crisp, wide angle views of the heavens that only modern glass can deliver. This will create a new outreach instrument that’s great to look at, great to look through and most of all, an inspiration to visitors to the Observatory young and old.

The new telescope was completed exactly 100 years after the original arrived on the mountain in 1911, offering the perfect opportunity to celebrate its arrival with a special Heritage Day, complete with antique vehicles and period costumes.

This is perhaps a lot more showmanship that one is accustomed to seeing from scientists but outreach is a very important aspect of science today. And one that I think we shouldn’t lose sight of, if we’re to keep the flow of bright youngsters into our universities.

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