Radio Renaissance : where’s the dog ?

October 24, 2011

Radio astronomy is undergoing a renaissance. How did this happen ?

This question is on my mind as I have just returned from sitting on an evaluation comitttee for ASTRON, the Dutch institute for radio astronomy, home of WSRT and LOFAR. Of course it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say anything about that review, but it won’t hurt to say how exciting it was to actually visit LOFAR in the flesh. When I say flesh I mean mud and wire of course. Its a fascinating mixture of the crude and high-tech. The latter is course all the electronics and fibres and giant computers and software. The crude bit  is the antennae. From pictures I had thought the high-band antennae were strange gleaming tiles, but actually they turned out to be tarpaulin covering polystyrene boxes containing bits of metal that looked like they had been cut out with a Stanley knife. I love it.

Anyhoo. With LOFAR, EVLA, and e-MERLIN happening right now, ASKAP and MeerKAT on the way, and SKA driving its way through the funding agencies, stuff is happening in radio astronomy. A few years back I used to like visiting Jodrell Bank because it was so delightfully 1950s. It was like stepping into an episode of Quatermass and the Pit. Now the chaps at Jodders have upped sticks and moved into a gleaming new building in the centre of Manchester. The radio astronomers themselves used to seem like gentleman amateurs. Now they are all ambitious and thrusting. The SKA project is a tightly controlled PR machine. (I could tell stories but I won’t). Crumbs – how did that all happen ?

Well, they got their act together – scientifically, technically, and politically. But what surprises me is this. Usually what drives scientific changes is the availability of new technology. We all like these days to boast about knowledge transfer, and radio astronomy is nicely embedded in telecommunications technology of course – but exciting things happen when the technology is transferred from industry or the military to science, rather than the other way round. Examples that spring to mind : IR astronomy jumped into the new age when IR arrays fell off the back of the military lorry; optical astronomy was transformed after the CCD was invented; X-ray astronomy got serious when astronomers learned how the guys at Lincoln Labs could make three-axis stabilised spacecraft that could point. What was the new technology we jumped on to make the radio astronomy revolution ?

Put another way… normally we are the flea on the dog. Where’s the dog ?