UKIRT and Star Wars

September 14, 2009

Todays lessons : (i) never understimate the public appeal of astronomy, and (ii) stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

I am sitting in a fascinating but sentimental workshop : UKIRT at 30, a celebration of thirty years of ground-breaking infrared astronomy at the UK Infrared Telescope. It is pretty amazing how UKIRT got proposed as a very cheap and simple light bucket, but in fact has stayed ahead of the game in technical innovation and scientific impact at every step.

The classic era for some was the revolutionary application of infrared imaging arrays – the famous IRCAM. Ian MacLean’s description of the history had some interesting insights. He showed a blow-up of the first array in the lab at ROE, and there, etched along the bottom in tiny letters was the word “tankbreaker”. This is what you get when you inherit military technology …

Ian heard rumours of a group in a US university that had an IR arrray to play with and went to see them. They wouldn’t say who they got it from, but Ian convinced them to let who-ever-it-was know that ROE was interested in getting a working camera on a real working telescope. They did. This, we now know, was Al Hoffman at SBRC (now Raytheon). Al in fact convinced his management to start a new program of commercial array development specifically for astronomy. Apparently he skipped his boss and went straight to one of the VPs. Why ? Because he knew that guy was a keen amateur astronomer …

SBRC and UKIRT/ROE entered into a formal partnership. It is very unnusual for a US commercial corporation to enter such a partnership with a non-US non-commercial entity. This sounds like just the sort of Knowledge Transfer success that the powers-that-be are urging us to achieve today. But hang on – note which direction the Knowledge is Transferring…. Did we invent some great new technology, which industry gratefully devoured ? Don’t be silly. They were the dog, and we were the flea. Partnership is the word. As customers we helped them develop a new market.

Same story with Adapative Optics. Probably same story developing now with ginormous databases.