May General Meeting Report Guest Speaker Dr. Nick Lomb, who has spent over 30 years with the Sydney Observatory, on the subject "How Australians discovered the Universe”
"Things will get a little political when Dr Lomb looks at the Governments role in the past and future developments in Australian Astronomy”. That’s what it said, in the promotion for Nick Lomb’s 23 July 2009 presentation of this same talk as part of the International Year of Astronomy Program at the UTS Blake Library City Campus, Haymarket NSW.

Why is it, when people reflect on the history of astronomy, astronomy is so often shown denigrated, struggling for recognition, aligned with abstract sciences which short-sighted Governments feel just need lip service for public image. Without the foresight of astronomy’s intrinsic, long-term benefits to society, without a program of imaginative projects, astronomy can indeed appear to be an expensive nuisance and its continued maintenance an unwelcome burden. History is replete with sad stories of chronic lack of funding and or mis-management; quoting for example Dr Barry Clark in his November 2006 presentation Heritage of the Melbourne Observatory: "...stringent financial and staffing constraints caused the long run­down of the Melbourne Observatory and finally led to its closure in 1944-5 and the wholesale dispersal of most of its movable assets. This included the Great Melbourne Telescope, which was sold as scrap”.

Astronomy, while perhaps not the oldest profession there is, is most certainly amongst the first of the sciences practised by homo sapiens (see Emu Rock Carving). It is the queen of sciences, as ancient as recorded history itself, and it deserves better. Perhaps there is a bit of "hindsight” on our part in those pessimistic observations, or “creeping determinism” as it is sometimes called, and the problem could really be just a case of normal competitive human behaviour (see Astronomers Behaving Badly by Fred Watson AAO April 2005). But if you look at Nick Lomb’s picture of the early Sydney Observatory (see Figure), it is obvious that the time-ball tower set-up was the motivation for building the complex, not the astronomical observatory. The tower is much larger, and in fact partially blocks the views of the small observatory next to it. As it turned out, the most important role of the observatory was to provide time signals through the time-ball tower. Every day at exactly 1.00 pm, the time ball would drop to signal the correct time to the city and harbour below. At the same time a cannon on Dawes Point was fired (the cannon was later moved to Fort Denison). The first time-ball was dropped at noon on 5 June 1858. Soon after the drop was rescheduled to one o'clock. The time-ball is still dropped daily at 1pm using the original mechanism, but now with the aid of an electric motor. Its first 'weather forecast' was also issued in mid-1858. The building, designed by the Colonial Architect, Alexander Dawson, comprised a dome to house the equatorial telescope, a room with long, narrow windows for the transit telescope, an office for calculations, and a residence for the astronomer (see Picture). The site was selected by Governor William Denison in 1856 because, at 40 metres above sea level, it was the highest natural point in Sydney. A western wing was added in 1877 with office and library space and a second dome for another telescope. Some of the first astronomical photographs of the southern sky were taken at the observatory, under the direction of Henry Chamberlain Russell, the longest-serving Government Astronomer in New South Wales 1870 to 1905 (see Image). The observatory also took part in the compilation of the first atlas of the whole sky, The Astrographic Catalogue. The part completed at Sydney took over 70 years, from 1899 to 1971, and filled 53 volumes. After the Federation of Australia in 1901, meteorology became a function for the Commonwealth Government from 1908, while the observatory continued its astronomical role, supplied Sydney newspapers with the rising and setting times of the sun, moon and planets. A proposal to close the observatory in 1926 was narrowly avoided, but, by the mid-1970s, the increasing problems of air pollution and city light made work at the observatory more and more difficult. In 1982, the NSW Government decided that Sydney Observatory was to be converted into a museum of astronomy and related fields as part of what is now the Powerhouse Museum. Bill Robertson is its eighth Government Astronomer, and may well be the last.  

Following extensive question time the vote of thanks for a revealing look behind the scenes in how Australians discovered the Universe was given by Rod Brown, ASV Historical Section Director, to general acclaim. A Google search on the Internet credits Nick Lomb with 10 books and publications. His latest Paperback is the 2010 Australian Sky Guide, published in the International year of Astronomy. Previous Guides of his have been described as "The equivalent of a celestial street directory that can be used by anyone”. A copy of his 2001 book, Observer & observed: a pictorial history of Sydney Observatory and Observatory Hill (produced with Charles Pickett), is in the ASV Library.

Barry Adcock, ASV President elect, then spoke of his plans to introduce supporting segments to the ASV monthly Meetings, time slots that will allow members to briefly talk about (and present) pet Projects and Ideas. Linda Richmond presented Astronomical Tourist, a slide-show of the World’s largest Virtual Solar System set up around Coonabarabran in NSW. Based on the Anglo Australian Observatory (whose 37m dome represents the Sun) the system is scaled at 1:38 million (see Map) and the planets are displayed on huge roadside billboards with the relative sizes of the planets. Stephen Bentley then gave an Overview on Eyepieces and Andrew Yen demonstrated his lovingly restored Newtonian Telescope and spoke about its history over many generations in his family.

Alfred Klink