Archive for radio-astronomy

The End of Arecibo

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 19, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve just heard the news that the famous (and indeed iconic) radio telescope in Puerto Rico known as the Arecibo Observatory is to be decommissioned. The facility was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 and it was feared it might close then, but it was saved when an agreement was reached whereby a Consortium led by the University of Central Florida took over its operations.

Unfortunately, in August 2020 an auxiliary cable broke in August and tore a 30-metre diameter hole in the reflector dish and damaged the dome above it. Then, earlier this month, one of the telescope’s main steel cables snapped, causing further damage. It has now been decided that it will be too dangerous and too expensive to repair the telescope. It is to be decommissioned and then dismantled entirely. Presumably the site will be returned to the state it was in before the telescope was built.

This will be sad news for the people who work at Arecibo Observatory and for the local economy in Puerto Rico not to mention the many astronomers who have used the facility over the years. For a time it was the largest radio telescope in the world, its 1000ft diameter dish enabling it to achieve a resolution of about 3.5 arc minutes at 21cm. Even before the Hurricane struck, however, Arecibo had been struggling to find the funds necessary to maintain its operations. Now, almost 60 years after it was built, that struggle is over.

R.I.P. Govind Swarup (1929-2020)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 8, 2020 by telescoper

This morning I learnt the sad news of the passing of Professor Govind Swarup who died yesterday at the age of 91. Govind Swarup was a pioneer in radio astronomy, especially in India, and in particular was a driving force behind the construction of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope, and the establishment of a world-leading radioastronomy group, which is located about 80km North of Pune in Maharashtra. I remember meeting with him a couple of times during visits to Pune and was struck by his friendliness and unbounded enthusiasm for astrophysics.

I send my condolences to his family, friends and colleagues in India who I know will miss him enormously.

R. I. P. Govind Swarup (1929-2020).

On the Interpretation of Dreams

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by telescoper

Last night I had a peculiar dream in which, for reasons obscure, I hijacked one of the dishes of the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge and drove it at high speed along a railway line all the way to Oxford (pursued by an ice cream van). To non-astronomers this probably sounds completely barking, but I should point out that the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory is located at the site of Lord’s Bridge, a former railway station on the (now defunct) line between Cambridge and Oxford and some of the telescope dishes move along sections of the old track. Of course the track no longer extends all the way to Oxford, and in any case there would be bridges under which one of the 13-metre antennae of the Ryle Telescope could not possibly pass. Such mundane considerations don’t matter in the world of dreams, however, and the whole escapade was like a madcap chase scene from a daft movie. I woke up chuckling.

I’m by no means an expert in the interpretation of dreams but on the occasions when I can remember what I’ve dreamt about it always seems to be a weird juxtaposition of things I’ve experienced in the recent past. In this particular case I recall reading an article about the possibility (now, I believe, shelved) that the Oxford-Cambridge railway might be reinstated. I’ve also been reading tweets and facebook messages from people currently at a radio-astronomy workshop in the Netherlands.

My interpretation of this sort of thing is that during a dream the sleeping brain is sifting through recent experiences and relating them to others, including recent events and things lodged in long-term memory. If I’m right, then this kind of dream is basically a by-product of the workings of a sort of subconscious filing system. Not sure how the ice cream van fits into this scheme though.

There are other kinds of dream, of course, and they don’t always fit into this pattern. In my experience the majority don’t make any sense at all, so I won’t say any more about that class. I don’t know how many people have regular recurrent dreams, but I do; these are of two types. The first is a standard “anxiety” dream. I could be sitting in an orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, or some similar situation. I have a musical instrument in my hands and am dressed for the part, like all the other musicians. It is shortly before the performance is due to start. The problem is that I don’t actually know how to play the instrument. Time is ticking away and I’m soon to be found out. How do I escape? I think it’s obvious that this dream is closely related to impostor syndrome.

The second type of recurrent dream is harder to fathom. I’ve moved around quite a lot during my career: starting in Sussex, then in London, Nottingham, Cardiff and then back to Sussex. In this kind of dream I’m supposed to be back in one of the places I used to live, but it’s curiously different from what it was like in reality. One example involved me being back in my old flat in Bethnal Green. Exploring the place I took a nice walk through the French windows and into the garden. Trouble is, the flat didn’t actually have French windows or a garden. How could it? It wasn’t even on the ground floor…

That kind of dream is quite disconcerting, especially since it’s recurrent. But I can give an example that’s even weirder. As regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know, I was unwell for a period last summer. During the worst of this episode I was confined for a while in a psychiatric clinic. I wasn’t there for very long (perhaps 3-4 days) but I didn’t really keep track of time very well and in retrospect it seems I was there much longer than that. I was also heavily sedated for a lot of the time I was there. The effect of this was to blur the distinction between sleeping and waking almost completely so I literally didn’t know whether I was conscious or unconscious.

Now I know for a fact that I didn’t have any visitors when I was in that place. However, I have perfect recollection of a time when a young man (a former student of mine of Cardiff University) came into my room, sat down beside my bed and opened a discussion about physics, his plans for doing a PhD in Early Universe Cosmology, and various other topics to do with books and films. Looking back on this I realize that the conversation I’d imagined was actually a kind of synthesis of bits of other conversations I’d previously had with the same person in a different environment (i.e. my old office in Cardiff University). The peculiarity is that I now remember that imagined pastiche of a conversation as if it were actually real, and it has always been difficult for me to convince myself that it didn’t happen. It’s almost as if the filing system had gone into reverse, pulling old memories out of their drawers and sticking them back in my consciousness.

Related to this (possibly) are various memories I have of very early childhood. These are often very vivid, but in many cases completely at odds with facts that I’ve subsequently established. I think what has happened in such examples is that I haven’t actually remembered the event in question, but have been told things about it so frequently that a memory has somehow been constructed to accommodate the narrative.

Over a year on I still find the clinic episode quite scary to think about. I think that’s mostly because it’s an extreme example of how one’s perception of what is real and remembered versus what is imaginary and dreamt can get confused. Am I really writing this? Or am I dreaming? Are you really reading it? Are you dreaming? Wake-up!

SKA Site Duel ends in Dual Site for SKA

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 26, 2012 by telescoper

I wasn’t going to post about this but then I realised nobody seemed to have used the obvious headline so thought I might as well knock out a quickie.

Yesterday, after much to-ing and fro-ing an announcement was finally made  concerning the site of the Square Kilometre Array.  The two contenders for the honour of hosting this superb project were South Africa and Australasia (both Australia and New Zealand get a bit, actually).

So who won?

Well, formally the decision was to split the project between both. At first sight this looks like a political compromise, but wiser heads than me disagree and say that this an excellent outcome on science grounds. I’d be interested to hear  opinions on that, in fact.

In any case, a quick skim through the STFC announcement makes it clear that South Africa actually gets the lion’s share of the actual dishes, which will be operated alongside the  Meerkat facility, and will do what I think is the more exciting science.  Having been to Cape Town just recently I know how much the SKA project means for astronomy in South Africa so I’m delighted for them that the outcome is so positive.

It does, however, remain to be seen what the implications of this decision are for the overall cost and scientific value-for-money, but for the time being the thing I’m most pleased about is that a decision has been reached.  I think the SKA project is by far the most exciting ground-based astronomy project around, and it will be very exciting to watch it grow.