General Meeting Report
12 September at the National Herbarium
Cosmic Controversies, a talk by Dr. Fred Watson,
Astronomer in Charge, Anglo-Australian Telescope at Coonabarabran
Before introducing the guest speaker for tonight’s Phillip Simon Memorial Lecture, the Chairman of the meeting, Perry Vlahos, gave a short resume of Phillip Simon’s life: Phillip was an aeronautical engineer who came from Germany to Australia in the late 1930s. Well- versed in a multitude of languages he served as librarian at the ASV for many years. He is remembered as a gracious gentleman, and this month’s lecture was instituted as an annual acknowledgement of his outstanding contributions to the ASV.
Thanking Perry for the gracious introduction, Dr. Watson, while setting up his computer Power-Point Presentation said, with a smile, the subtitle for tonight’s talk is ‘Astronomers behaving badly’. Astronomers, you know, have not always treated each other so graciously, especially when controversy surrounds a subject close to their heart. He went on to speak of the struggle between the geocentric versus the heliocentric world system, which raged on over two thousand years. Even today the controversy on us being the centre of the universe is far from settled. The Steady State versus the Big Bang Universe, the Whimp versus the Machos in the missing matter debate, do Neutrinos have mass? Magnetic Monopoles, the Many Universe theory. The Omega Point, is the universal expansion slowing down or speeding up? Many of these present day theories conflict in their details with each other and divide astronomer groups. None of them takes kindly to their pet theories being insulted.
Maybe, Dr. Watson (consulting his Controversy Casebook) continued, behaving badly is not something brought on by association with astronomy only, and it is our selection process which highlights astronomical controversies above others. Tycho Brahe for instance resorted to duels to settle many personal arguments. One of them cost him half his nose. The invention of the telescope in 1608 had three contenders, Hans Lipperhey, Jacob Adriaenszoon and Sacharias Janssen. All of them claiming prior ontogeny. Sir James South versus Rev. Richard Sheepshank were involved in the 12" telescope saga that continued from 1829-1853. There was the Shapley versus Curtis Debate on the nature of the Nebulae in 1920. Alvarez et al versus Clube and Napier in 1979-1982 argued whether the discovery of a tiny Iridium enriched geological layer pointed to the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
Adding to the list are recent debates on the new generations of telescopes, dividing the astronomer’s community down the middle on cost and practicality: The 10m large telescopes such as HET and SALT, and the 16m Very Large Telescopes. The 25m ELT and the 30m CELT and, as the names get more euphoric, the 50m MAXAT (maximum aperture telescope) and the 100m OWL (overwhelmingly large telescope), all with multi-conjugate adaptive optic systems. But, looking again at an imaginary wrist watch, Dr. Watson said, that can be the subject of another book sometime in the future.
The vote of thanks was given by Dr. Tom Richards, with best wishes for Dr. Watson’s forthcoming publication.