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Why Is Uranus Upside Down?
And other questions about the Universe
By Fred Watson
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2007 Fred Watson
All rights reserved.
THE NEWS FROM THE REST OF THE UNIVERSE
Hands up if you remember 1978 ... If you don't, good on you. You are the future, and I hope this book might inspire you to do great things.
If you do, join the club. You're one of us. In fact, I remember 1978 as if it was yesterday. In June of that year, I made my first visit to Australia from my home in Scotland. The weather was, I recall, much the same in both places — despite the fact that they were at opposite ends of the seasonal cycle. I arrived in Australia as a young astronomer from the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, eager to use the giant Anglo-Australian Telescope at Coonabarabran in rural New South Wales. It was then very new, and one of the largest telescopes in the world. Quite a daunting experience for a lad who'd grown up among the mills of industrial Yorkshire — or t'mills, as we really did used to call them. (There was always trubble at t'mill.)
The reason for my journey was to measure the speeds of as many stars as I could — which, oddly, I'm still doing — but it didn't work out. In fact, on that first visit, I failed miserably. The four nights I'd been allocated on the telescope were all washed out by bad weather, so I returned to Scotland empty-handed. Such meteorological calamities are the luck of the draw in astronomy, and all I could do was to reapply for telescope time the following year, hoping for better weather. The local farmers, however, were very pleased.
Looking back on it now, it's quite clear that while my return to Scotland might have lacked astronomical data, it was spiced with something else that eventually turned out to be far more important. That was inspiration — and I took it home in bucket-loads. On the staff of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at that time were three young, British-born scientists who, I'd discovered, were bursting with ideas and enthusiasm — three friends who, among other things, were collaborating together on an exciting new book. I met them all during my visit, and I was stoked. Their names were David Allen, David Malin and Paul Murdin.
Paul was actually working with me, helping me to master the various idiosyncrasies of the telescope. His main research, when he wasn't assisting klutzy visitors, was into the charred remnants of exploding stars, but he seemed interested in most other things, too. As, indeed, were the two Davids.
At that time, David Allen was making a name for himself as a pioneer in infrared astronomy, a new science that involved peering into the darkness beyond the red end of the rainbow spectrum of visible light, and seeing what could be discovered there. That early promise quickly transformed itself into a technique that today is in the forefront of cosmic exploration, propelled by modern technology. And David Malin — a former research chemist — was on the brink of creating a single-handed revolution in astronomical photography. Within a few years, David's stunning colour images of the stars would be world-famous, gracing everything from vinyl record sleeves to postage stamps.
What really impressed me about these guys, though, was the ease with which they could communicate their interest and enthusiasm to anyone — irrespective of whether they were professors of astronomy or cab drivers. All three of them had a remarkable way of explaining things, and it came from a deep knowledge and love of their subject, combined with a commonsense appreciation of what would interest others. Above all, they liked people. They were all born science communicators, and they made a deep impression on me. I yearned to be like them.
A few years later, back in Scotland, I had a chance to try my hand at this science communication lark. For my sins, as an adjunct to my research I had become manager of the Royal Observatory's Visitor Centre, so I occasionally had to field enquiries from the media. One day, there was a press release about a newly discovered cosmic recordbreaker. It was a quasar — a delinquent young galaxy — recently observed with the Anglo-Australian Telescope, and it was the most distant object known to humankind. I was invited by BBC Radio Scotland to comment on this remarkable discovery in a recorded interview for the 'Breakfast Show', and duly turned up at their Queen Street studio the evening before it was scheduled to go to air.
The interview went well, and next morning I listened attentively for my dulcet tones over the airwaves. But I listened in vain. The date was 2 April 1982, and the entire output of the British media was devoted to that morning's invasion of the Falkland Islands by Argentinean forces. The Cabinet was in emergency session, the Prime Minister was making statements, the military options were being explored ... and so on. Everything else was wiped. While that morning's events almost certainly set Margaret Thatcher on the road to recovery after her honeymoon with the nation had soured, they made for a very inauspicious start to Fred Watson's broadcasting career.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Paul and the two Davids were going from strength to strength. All of them had written popular-level astronomy books, and all were in demand as commentators on the astronomy scene. Paul moved back to the United Kingdom, eventually rising to a senior management level in Britain's astronomy programme. David Malin, firmly fixed in Australia, was producing ever more vibrant photographs of the sky using the Anglo-Australian Observatory's two telescopes. These were not only images of great beauty, but also had enormous scientific value in the detail they revealed. And David Allen's work on infrared astronomy reached new levels of sophistication with the development of innovative techniques and groundbreaking equipment — which he himself had devised.
David Allen, in particular, had extraordinarily broad scientific interests. His research in astronomy encompassed everything from nearby objects such as the Moon and Venus to the most distant quasars. As he rose to a senior level within the Anglo-Australian Observatory, his fine communication skills also gained him an increasing presence in the Australian media. His voice became a familiar feature on the airwaves of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation — the ABC. Then, disaster struck. In 1993, he was diagnosed with a vigorously growing brain tumour. The following year he died, at the age of 47. It was a tragic loss, not just for David's family, but also for science and, in particular, for the popularisation of science in Australia.
Some readers of this book might know that a decade and a half after the Falklands War — and three years after David's death — I got a second chance at radio broadcasting. By then, I was Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory, based in Coonabarabran. Out of the blue, I received an invitation to do a weekly series of early morning over-the-phone interviews about astronomy with Philip Clark, then the ABC's 'Breakfast Show' presenter in Sydney. They were ten-minute segments, eventually settling into a format of discussing two or three items of astronomy and space news, and fielding the occasional listener question. Those early morning slots are still running, and now I talk with Adam Spencer, the self-styled 'Sleek Geek', who successfully made the transition from mathematics to cool radio. In between Philip and Adam, there was a memorable four-and-a-half-year stint with Angela Catterns, who took the ratings of the 'Breakfast Show' to new heights.
Angela clearly enjoyed the segments — especially when I started talking about things happening billions of light years away. And it was Angela who dreamed up diversions such as 'Name Fred's Rooster'— a competition that arose because I used to do the show outside under the stars, not far from the chook-yard. Frequently, our early-morning discourses on astronomy were interrupted by loud crowing. That competition netted something like a hundred listener entries, and gave the nameless rooster a name.
It was also during Angela's watch on the 'Breakfast Show' that a spectacular overhead transit of the International Space Station occurred just as the show went to air. I watched the brilliant speck of light from my home in Coonabarabran as it moved rapidly towards Sydney, and then explained to the listeners where to look for it. We were inundated with enthusiastic calls from people who had spotted it, including one person who told us that half a bus-load of headphone-wearing commuters had simultaneously craned their necks to look out of the window.
The Sydney 'Breakfast Show' segment spawned several other regular astronomy slots with the national broadcaster (and a couple of other stations), in which I spoke with a galaxy of talented presenters. Lisa Hampshire, Briony Petch, Jen Lacey, James O'Loghlin, Christopher Lawrence, Garry Coxhead, Andrew Dunkley, Ian Rogerson and Mikey Robins — today I am fortunate to count them among my friends. One of these slots — a long-running monthly segment on ABC Central West and Western Plains — became a forum for conversations with listeners about virtually anything to do with the sky. This was a particularly rewarding experience, as these country folk were not only proud of their big, unpolluted skies but avid observers, keen to understand the things they'd seen both by day and by night.
Being asked all those questions, whether by city or country listeners, has been a great pleasure. When I haven't known the answer, I've said so, and checked out the details for the next show. To be honest, there's no special talent in knowing a lot about the Universe, since those of us who are professional astronomers are immersed in the details from an early stage. Most of my colleagues throughout Australia could do what I do on ABC radio. However, I suspect there's something about the Anglo-Australian Observatory that nurtures this kind of activity by its staff. David Allen, David Malin and Paul Murdin are all proof of that.
It's my scribbled records of a decade of listener questions — together with a number of emails — that form the backbone of this book. Each of the 148 questions presented here has been asked by a lively enquiring mind, and I've tried to answer in a similar vein to the radio shows. Going into print does allow more detail, of course. But it's the questions themselves that are special, because they address the issues that people actually want to know about — rather than what we scientists think they want to know about.
That puts a rather unusual slant on the subject matter of the book. For example, there is far more about the Earth's atmosphere, humankind's exploits in space and the visibility of the Moon than you'd find in a standard introductory astronomy book. On the other hand, detailed travelogues on the individual planets are thin on the ground — no doubt because people are already well informed from other sources. Over the years I've also had a handful of questions that were more appropriate to a first-year undergraduate course than a light-hearted radio show. I've had no hesitation in dumping them into my neighbourhood black hole — after looking up the answers to make sure I'd got them right on air ...
There is something quite unique about being able to engage with a community via the medium of radio, and I still relish it. David Malin recently made my day by speaking of the radio slots with great warmth, praising their 'beguiling gentleness and high information content'. I do hope some of those qualities have found their way onto these pages.
So please enjoy. Whether you remember 1978 or not.CHAPTER 2
ASTRONOMY, TELESCOPES AND OBSERVATORIES
Why do we do astronomy? A colleague of mine in the United Kingdom was once asked that question, with particular regard to the public funding spent on it. 'Oh,' he replied expansively, 'it's quite simple. Astronomy is the end product of civilisation.'
Although I understood the reasoning behind his answer, I thought it was pretty arrogant. And the person to whom it was directed was clearly unimpressed, regarding my colleague with some disdain before moving off to talk to someone else. You could tell that the words 'conceited' and 'prat' were right on the tip of his tongue as he walked away, and I have to admit they weren't far from the tip of mine.
The end product of civilisation. Well, perhaps it is, but I think there are many other candidates for the honour. Endeavours that are quintessentially beneficial to humankind, with overtones of excellence, perhaps. Activities that fulfil some deep-seated need in the human spirit, but don't contribute anything to the survival or advancement of the species.
Astronomy qualifies on the grounds that it tells us about our environment on the widest possible scale. It addresses the Big Questions. Where did we come from? Are we alone? What is our destiny? It opens our eyes to the staggering Universe that exists beyond the immediate grasp of our five senses. On the other hand, it stopped being useful to humankind around the end of the eighteenth century, when most of the problems associated with navigating the Earth's oceans had been solved. Astronomers still wonder when someone important is going to notice.
It seems to me that many human activities are as well qualified as astronomy to be considered the end product of civilisation. A little while ago, for example, I found myself sitting in the Sydney Opera House, listening to a symphony concert. For some reason, I began to wonder what a visitor from Alpha Centauri would make of all the familiar, time-honoured rituals. The tuning of instruments whose origins go back two or three hundred years, the conductor in his ridiculous formal attire, those embarrassed silences when no one is quite sure whether to clap and, finally, the thunderous applause at the end. Viewed with detachment, the whole thing is quite bizarre.
But it's not useless. The audience feels thoroughly good afterwards; certainly on this particular occasion they did, since the main work on the programme was a composition by a local hero with a growing international reputation. This one man, Ross Edwards, in himself represents an end product of civilisation, as he works alone in his study in Sydney, crafting music of the most sublime beauty from nothing more than his fertile imagination and the inspiration of the Australian bush.
Of course, the same could be said of most artistic endeavours. People pay to go to rock concerts, operas, art exhibitions, movies and, at the end of the day, they feel good. We lump it all together under the heading of 'culture'. Likewise, though indirectly, people pay for astronomers to explore the Universe, and I hope the things we discover make them feel good, too. It's clear that despite what my prattish — sorry, British — colleague had to say, astronomy is far from unique in qualifying as an end product of civilisation.
Astronomy does have some particular attributes that make it worth spending public money on. First, let's be clear what sort of money we are talking about. Apart from the handful of big-ticket items noted in Chapter 11 (see 'Why should governments spend money on astronomy and space research when there are so many other needy causes?'), it's not much. At present, Australian astronomy — the observatories, radio telescopes, university departments and so on — costs every person in the country about A$3 per year. And Australian astronomy does not do badly from the public purse. In comparison with other nations it's reasonably well funded, and we in the trade are grateful for that.
But what does the public get out of it? First and foremost, we are an intensely curious species, and there is a deep-seated appeal in having our curiosity about the Universe satisfied. Humans have looked in wonder at the sky since time immemorial, and the information we now have at our disposal is nothing less than stunning. The scientists who uncover that information have a responsibility to put it into the hands of the people who, ultimately, foot the bill. It's then up to the public to decide what they want to do with it. Their response ranges from a moment's interest in an astronomy snippet at the end of a TV news bulletin to the all-consuming passion of serious amateur astronomers — and includes everything in between.
It's the in-betweens who have asked most of the questions in this book, and their interest in the way the subject works is manifest in this chapter. What is this stargazing business? How do I go about discovering more for myself? Can I get a telescope of my own? What happens at observatories? Are astronomers normal people ...? And so on. It's most gratifying that in all the years I've been talking to Australians about astronomy, I've never once had anyone complain about the value for money they get from their A$3 per year.
Excerpted from Why Is Uranus Upside Down? by Fred Watson. Copyright © 2007 Fred Watson. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Richard Glover,
1 Radio astronomy The news from the rest of the Universe,
2 Stargazing Astronomy, telescopes and observatories,
3 Running like clockwork The mechanisms of planet Earth,
4 Out of thin air Light and the atmosphere,
5 Would-be spacefarers Humankind tackles the final frontier,
6 Green cheese no longer Earth's essential companion,
7 More than just eight planets The new Solar System,
8 Starstruck Our Galaxy from the inside,
9 Across the Universe The realm of galaxies,
10 Industrial-strength astronomy Cosmology and basic physics,
11 Cosmic loose ends Some really interesting questions,