Letter 3: Minnie asks John Mather about the future of observing

Dear John,

Thanks so much for your reply! I like the ‘discoverer’ tag: I think that is what science is about — the discovery of new things, new phenomena, new concepts, new ideas! I haven’t read Cosmic Discovery, but it sounds like I should try and get my hands on a copy of it.

You asked if I’d given any thought to good strategies for making my own discoveries. Well I don’t know about “good”, but I’ve definitely thought about this a lot. When I was applying for post-docs at the end of last year I looked for jobs that had a telescope support element. I wanted a job that would let me get to know the telescope. As you’ve probably gathered, I rather enjoy playing with telescopes. I figure that understanding a telescope’s capabilities and limitations will enable me to ask science questions that the telescope is able to answer.

I did my PhD in Australia where I spent a lot of time at the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA). I learned so much by being on-site: from how much microwave ovens affect observations at 13cm (a lot!) to how often the coolant needs to be topped up in the cryogenic systems. These experiences enabled me to understand my data intimately and hence distinguish real science from image artifacts and other distractions. As such, I felt like I was able to tailor my projects to make the most of the ATCA’s capabilities.

Conversely, the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA), where I work now, has dedicated telescope operators who observe for you. I kind of wish I could do more of the observing myself though… People say to me all the time, “You can’t go out to a space-based telescope like Hubble, or perform hands-on observing with many of the next-generation telescopes like the SKA. How does being on site and observing benefit your science?” I reply that there’s all sorts of things. I might study astronomy because I want to play with big telescopes, but it is a lot more than that. I can’t really speak for others, but for me, I learn best by doing. I think learning is not just about accumulating information; it’s also about the process of getting that information. I could go away and read all the how-to manuals about the telescope and its data products, but until I actually see the telescope work, and reduce the data myself, I will not truly understand it.

I feel like I’m at the tail-end of the generation of astronomers that gets to actually play with telescopes. Hands-on observing is fast becoming obsolete. So what will happen to the next generation of astronomers who write proposals for telescope time? Sure, we’re always going to have people churning out good, solid science. But is anyone going to have the expertise to come up with something truly innovative?

Unless you are directly involved in the building and commissioning of a new telescope, do you think you can really understand it enough to design creative experiments that will produce ground-breaking science?

Clear skies,

Minnie

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