Letter 5: Minnie disagrees with John Mather about observational strategies

Dear John,

I’m really pleased to hear that you’re not worried about the reduction in hands-on observing opportunities. While hands-on observing is something I enjoy passionately, I guess I can understand that it’s not necessarily vital to being a brilliant astronomer.

Having said that, I disagree that imagination can replace the wealth of knowledge garnered from sitting in front of a terminal and actually being in control of a telescope. You say “total immersion in using something you can’t touch still works” but I’m not sure I agree. To use your computer analogy, you can read hundreds of books about computers, but you learn most about how to use your computer by sitting at it and actually playing with it.

In my last letter, I focused on being physically at a telescope to use it. Obviously this is not feasible for telescopes such as Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope. But even in these circumstances, what I do object to is the complete removal of the astronomer from the observing and data reduction process. Many of the current radio telescopes are moving towards a model where the astronomer puts in their observing request and is provided with completely reduced data. I understand that this is somewhat necessary due to the exorbitantly large sizes of the datasets, but I still find it terribly troubling…

Twenty years ago if you wanted to use a telescope, you went to the telescope, you observed and were responsible for reducing your data and analysing it. Nowadays, although hands-on observing is becoming less prevalent, science isn’t really suffering yet because the astronomers still retain their observing and data reduction experience. But what happens 20 years from now, with a new generation of astronomers? I’m not convinced that truly innovative ways of exploiting a telescope will be possible when the telescope users are oblivious to the observing and data reduction process.

What are you planning on doing with the JWST? Will approved observing programs deliver completely reduced data? Will the astronomer even know when their programs are being observed?

Moving on. You asked me if I have a favourite telescope to learn about… While ATCA in Narrabri is the telescope I love the most (telescopes, kangaroos, amazing view of the Milky Way –- what’s not to love?) I’ve been super excited about every telescope I’ve visited so far! I guess my favourite telescope to learn about at any one time is the one that is able to best fulfil my current science question.

At the moment I’m learning all about observing spectral lines with radio telescopes. Although I spent lots of time staring at optical spectra during my PhD, most of the radio data I played with was continuum. With the phenomenal sensitivities of radio telescopes like the VLA and ALMA, we can use spectral lines to trace the building blocks of galaxies right out to the beginning of the Universe. I really hope my experience observing optical spectral lines will help me understand how to maximize our ability to detect faint spectral lines at radio wavelengths. Seeing what the molecular gas is doing at high redshifts will help us understand how galaxies and black holes were able to form so soon after the Big Bang. I’d give up chocolate to go to the beginning of the Universe and watch the first galaxy form! I’m terribly excited about the JWST because it should be able to see the very first galaxies.

You mentioned working at the boundary between different disciplines. I think this is a brilliant idea. I would like to see this more in astronomy itself though. Do you think radio astronomers talk enough to optical astronomers? Galactic astronomers to extragalactic astronomers?

Clear skies,

Minnie

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