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ScienceWise - May/Jun 2008

The Editor's Corner

Article Illustration
The great 36" refractor at Lick observatory

Big bold gestures

The last time I was in the USA, I was lucky enough to be able visit Lick Observatory in California and look at Jupiter through the great 36 inch refractor.

It was an fascinating step backwards to the days of late Victorian planetary science. The instrument is magnificent. Ten tonnes of iron and brass supporting two slabs of glass a metre across and polished to within a few nanometres of a perfect sphere. It’s a throw back to the days of grand gestures in science. The creation of bold and seemingly impossibly massive research tools. It’s heroic stuff. James Lick, the millionaire benefactor of the project, is even buried in the foundation pier beneath the telescope.

The Lick refractor and the very similar instrument at Yerkes near Chicago, represented the ultimate in telescope technology at the time. They yielded the best images of the planets the world had yet seen. Yet despite all that, progress in planetary science was grinding towards a halt by 1900. The Lick telescope is an optical masterpiece but unfortunately it has to contend with the turbulent mix of swirling gasses that make up the Earth’s atmosphere. This gaseous soup distorts and blurs the image so much that the view of Jupiter through the Lick refractor is not vastly better than that through a top quality modern amateur telescope. That’s not to say the Lick didn’t contribute a lot to science, it certainly did. It was used to discover new moons of Jupiter, to advance our knowledge of binary stars and many other tasks. But it’s tremendous optical power could never really be brought to bear on the planets because of the atmosphere.

Fortunately in the last couple of decades, scientists and engineers have made leaps and bounds towards correcting these atmospheric distortions using adaptive optics - computer controlled flexible mirrors that create equal and opposite cancelling distortions.

Engineering has also come of age. In the twenty first century engineers design structures on high power computers using techniques such as finite element analysis. Knowing where you need a solid steel beam and where a framework of smaller lighter members will do exactly the same job can vastly reduce the weight. It also enables us to create structures that are far more rigid that the massive constructions of the Victorian era.

In this issue we cover a story about a big bold modern project, the Giant Magellan Telescope. It’s science on the same grand heroic scale as the Lick was in it’s day. And sometimes science has to be big, bold and visionary. Its what keeps the excitement in discovering. The only thing I wonder about, is whether any of the executives of the major scientific funding bodies behind GMT will be want to be buried in its foundations?

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The Editor's corner

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