UKIRT and Star Wars

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.

10 Responses to UKIRT and Star Wars

  1. Aaron Robotham says:

    Same story with image processing. Some of the links on the astronomy statistics blog (somewhere in your list of favourites) show just how far behind astronomy probably is on this front. The money being pumped into medical imaging analysis in particular is quite astonishing.

  2. Just another one of those things we’ve been doing since Galileo. Swords into pl^H^Htelescopes, as it were.

  3. Martin E. says:

    When UKIRT was about 5 we reduced our world-beating single channel photometry in the hotel room on Banyan Drive and then went for Mai-Tais. Sadly it takes a bit more effort now. Happily, the grad. students to it. (selfish old ****)

  4. andyxl says:

    Well from the astronomer’s point of view its even easier than it used to be. Just wait for the wheels to turn at CASU and WFAU and then the data magically appears.

  5. mikew says:

    Martin: do you also yearn for the good ole days when we measured Ariel 5 fluxes with a ruler?

  6. Mark McCaughrean says:

    I think enough time has elapsed (and I’m not quite so terrified of John Peacock as I was as a PhD student at the ROE at the time) to add another note about the infamous “tank breaker” label on IRCAM’s 58×62 InSb arrays. Well, to be technically correct, that label was on the read-out circuit side and was a part carried over from a US military programme which developed a portable shoulder-fired anti-tank missile system:

    The infrared sensitive layer in our arrays was bespoke for astronomy, however.

    No, the point I really wanted to make was that a good number of people at the ROE in the mid-1980s, including John and Lance Miller, if I recall correctly, were rather implacably opposed to any transfer of technology from military programmes into peaceful astronomy. This was the era of Reagan, Thatcher, Star Wars, Greenham Common, et al. after all, but I always thought things were being taken a little too far when there were heated discussions at coffee-time about IRCAM being boycotted if and when it came into service. The phrase “cutting off your nose to spite your face” remains with me from those days.

    How times have changed: without such “swords into ploughshares” endeavours having become mainstream in the intervening 25 years, where would astronomy be, I wonder?

  7. Maren Purves says:

    Mark, too much (non-relevant here) politics. I really honestly don’t care what you think who brought on this recession.

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      Sorry, Maren: is this a reply to my old post re: the anti-military fervour of 1980’s ROE, because I don’t see that I said anything about the recession there.

      But if you don’t think it’s worth discussing the clear connection between the present recession and the parlous state of UK science funding, then I’m not sure how to respond. A large fraction of this blog is about politics (and rightly so), it seems to me: astronomy does not exist in a vacuum 🙂

  8. Maren Purves says:

    I may have misread some things, and if so I apologize.

    I’m on the receiving end of the STFC budget cuts right now,and quite obviously not the only one.

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