November General Meeting Report
Speaker: Professor Fred Watson, Astronomer-in-Charge of the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) at Siding Spring near Coonabarabran, NSW. His subject was: Einstein and his amazing Universe.
The year anno Domini 2005 is of course the centenary of modern physics’ anno mirabilis, the year Einstein burst onto the scientific scene with five dissertations that changed our view of the world forever. So it is only fitting that the last of the ASVs General Meeting talks for the year should be dedicated to this genius with Relatively Brilliant@. Dr Watson=s lively, sometimes tongue in cheek presentation, brought out the full controversial relevance of Einstein=s achievements to our modern philosophy. Albert would have loved it!
Born on 14 March 1879 in Ulm, Germany, Einstein first went to school in Munich and later followed his parents to Switzerland. Having failed an admittance test at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zurich in 1895 he eventually graduated as a mathematics teacher in 1900 at the secondary school of Aarau. In 1901 he tried to obtain a job at one of the universities, but without success. Disheartened he wrote:- >I have given up the ambition to go to university ...=. With the help of the father of his classmate Grossman he was able to obtain temporary work at the patent office in Bern. While in Bern (from 1902-1909) he completed an astonishing range of theoretical physics publications, written in his spare time without the benefit of close contact with scientific colleagues or literature, starting in 1905 with:
>the photoelectric effect and the quantum nature of light= on 18 March.
>a new determination of molecular dimensions = on 30 April. It was dedicated to Grossman and accepted for his PhD at the ETH Zurich.
>motion of particles suspended in liquid= on 11 May; one of the proofs that atoms exist.
>a new theory of motion B Special Relativity= on 30 June.
>some consequences of Special Relativity= on 27 September.
Einstein was not the first to propose all the components of the special theory of relativity. His contribution lie in unifying important parts of classical mechanics and Maxwell's electrodynamics. It took another 12 years of frustrating work and several false starts for Einstein to expand the concept into the General Relativity including the gravitational effect, late in 1915. He became an instant celebrity when his predictions for gravitational bending of light were confirmed by Eddington=s 1919 solar eclipse expedition. But when he finally received the Nobel Prize in 1921 it was not for Relativity, it was for his 1905 work on the photoelectric effect. Einstein, although instrumental in ushering in quantum theory, was convinced it was (with its inherent uncertainty principle) not the definitive law of nature, because, as he once said in one of his most often quoted statements @...God does not play dice@. To which Niels Bohr is reported to have replied A...stop telling God what He must do@. Einstein was as much a philosopher as he was a scientist. Perhaps more so. While he spend the rest of his life in an unsuccessful pursuit of a unified field theory (he did release a paper on it in March 1953) he received numerous honorary titles from various institutions and his name became synonymous with intellectual brilliance, pacifism and human compassion. About his religious philosophy he once said, A... If there is something within me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the universe, so far as our science can reveal it... in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man." In 1933 Einstein moved to the USA and became one of the first faculty members at the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. His favourite pastime was playing his violin, sail boating on Lake Carnegie, and walking. He died in Princeton on 18 April 1955. While not many people can quote his equations for General Relativity, every school child knows E = mc2.
Einsteins two Theories of Relativity have so-far passed all conceivable tests, and all practical applications with an ever-increasing degree of accuracy: be it time dilation of subatomic particles, atomic clocks, space-time, black holes or gravitational lensing. Our understanding of the universe would be lost without its insight into the interconnectedness of mass and energy and space and time and the speed of light. Two more of the theory=s predictions are at present under close scrutiny with extensive test experiments and are confidently expected to be in time confirmed: special gyroscope satellites look for signs of reference frame dragging near rotating bodies, and second (or third) generation gravity wave detectors, LIGO or LISA, laser interferometers capable of measuring displacements down to a fraction the size of an atomic nucleus, will check for ripples in spacetime, gravity waves from merging black holes, or echoes from the birth of the universe. If successful it will give astrophysics a new tool to probe the structure of our cosmos.
Fred Watson showed us the magnificent view he has from his office over the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran in central NSW, where he is, amongst other things, responsible for the scientific output of Australia's largest optical telescope. What does an Astronomer-in-Charge do? The mission of the Anglo-Australian Observatory at Coonabarabran is to provide world-class observing facilities for visiting astronomers from Australia and overseas. Working with a team of astronomy and IT specialists, Fred Watson helps to maintain the scientific productivity of the AAO's two telescopes, and ensuring that they remain centres of excellence in astronomy. Since the early 1980s, he has been closely involved with the use of fibre optics in multiple-object spectroscopy. Fred also writes regularly for Sky & Space magazine and the annual Yearbook of Astronomy. His articles have also appeared many well-known journals, including Australian Geographic, New Scientist, Sky & Telescope and Astronomy Now. Fred is a frequent broadcaster, and has a monthly phone-in show on ABC radio. He says that he has spent so many years hanging around large telescope domes that he has started to look like one!
He did mention in passing his latest literary achievement, a book called STARGAZER - The Life and Times of the Telescope. The telescope is undoubtedly one of the world's most far-reaching inventions. For the past four centuries it has stood at the forefront of human discovery. From its humble beginnings in seventeenth-century Holland, when a simple spectacle-maker first presented his invention to his country's military leaders, to today's colossal structures housed in space-age cathedrals, the telescope has helped man to unlock nature's secrets and understand our universe.
In July 2003, Fred was awarded the David Allen Prize of the Astronomical Society of Australia in recognition of his contribution to public awareness in astronomy. Something similar prompted the International Astronomical Union to bestow the name Fredwatson on asteroid (5691) in 2004, but Fred says it won't be his fault if it collides with Earth...
The vote of appreciation was given by Roger Davis, together with the now almost institutional bottles of wine wrapped in gold foil.
Earlier in the evening Barry Adcock made the presentation of the 2005 W.G.H. Tregear Award, won by Adam Marsh for his outstanding services to astronomy.