The Lab

July 3, 2009

Browsing the STFC website the other day, the way you do, I came across the section labelled “Our History“. The most striking thing is that it looks much more like a history of CLRC and its antecedents than a history of PPARC and its antecedents. Observatory Wars and the creation of the ATC ain’t even mentioned. History starts in 1920, not 1675.

When you look back over the postwar history of British Science, the most striking thing is the steady growth of the Harwell campus. Harwell started as an RAF airfield in 1937, and was chosen as the site of the Atomic Energy Authority in 1946. Culham was started a few miles down the road at the same time. The Rutherford High Energy Lab grew out of the Harwell accelerator division in 1957.

Here is what happened to the rest of Britain’s non-military physical science labs :

Royal Greenwich Observatory
founded 1675;  closed 1999
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
founded 1820; merged with RAL 2007; site still open
Appleton Lab (Slough)
founded 1920; merged with RAL 1979, site closed
Atlas Lab (on Harwell site)
founded 1964; merged with RAL 1975
founded 1962; merged with RAL 1994; site still open … just
founded 1967;  taken over by RAL ?? (can’t find date)

I think you get the point. Don’t get confused by all the name changes. The massive thing at Harwell is always there, and has gradually taken responsibility for everything, usually closing the separate site after a polite pause. The merger with PPARC meant taking over observatories in Hawaii and La Palma of course, as well as the power to issue a large fraction of University research grants, and the responsibility for our international subscriptions.

Now, I may be paranoid but I ain’t stupid. Maybe the growth of The Lab is a good thing. RAL is a presence on the world stage. If the USA can afford a handful of world class labs then we can probably afford one. And many of my condensed matter and particle physics chums are all in favour. RAL either provides the facilities they need to do their research (Diamond, ISIS, CLF) or provides the technical resources they can work with to make their contributions to CERN.  This is the same logic as the ATC but twenty times bigger.

So whats the problem ? Lets just be more straightforward. RAL has taken over astronomy, and why not ? Its a top class lab.

[Cue RAL staff to grumble about being run from Swindon ….]