Publications: Science Omega Review Europe Issue 2

A view from the observatory: astronomical challenges

Stars in motion
It’s not about maintaining all historical astronomical sites – like in Mexico or India that used to be observatories, or even Stonehenge – but places that may still be active now
Dr Thierry Montmerle
IAU General Secretary Dr Thierry Montmerle discusses with Editor Lauren Smith why the astronomy community is a world-leader in research collaboration, the opportunities the sector offers and the challenges of heritage and public engagement…

Awe-inspiring panorama of starry skies and huge telescopes in remote locations are the poster images of the world of astronomical research. The scope of the field encompasses expert researchers through to casual observers of the general public. Since its inception in 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has sought to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects through international cooperation.

Astronomical research is, by its very nature, an international subject and astronomers have a strong history of collaboration, but there are still challenges to overcome, as IAU General Secretary Dr Thierry Montmerle tells Editor Lauren Smith.

"The state of global collaboration in this field is at this stage very good," he explains. "In Europe, we have collaboration through well-established organisations such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and European Space Agency (ESA), and we have telescopes across the globe in many countries, such as Hawaii and Chile, and also in space. We have also developed partnerships with countries outside of Europe. We know how this works, but we also know what the obstacles are to gathering such large collaborations, often with complex geopolitical considerations."

Montmerle cites three key examples: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project in Chile, a millimeter array of 60 telescopes, which at an altitude of 5,000 metres is the highest man-made construction across the globe, along with two other projects that are currently being proposed in different areas, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).

"On geographical grounds the SKA is clearly international and, as the name suggests, the collecting area is about a square kilometre. It’s a huge project that will be spread between Australia and South Africa. It’s still not been officially funded, but there have been a lot of permissions granted and considerable progress with the sites being chosen. There have been a lot of difficult and very delicate political negotiations," he details. "With the CTA we move from astronomy into high energy astrophysics. There is one major facility in Namibia but the future site still has to be decided. This collaboration consists of about 60 countries, including those in Europe, America, Japan and Africa. In Africa particularly, SKA and CTA may represent good opportunities for education and engineering.

"In most of these cases," he goes on to say, "the scientific case has been selected, with designs approved on engineering and cost grounds, but often the last chapter for approval is political. The host country may expect to have particular conditions, and participation in the project, to perhaps have the local universities involved. Once there are political consid­erations, outside of the field of science, it brings in a different dimension to address. ALMA is certainly one of the most spectacular examples of success, with many countries involved, including those from Europe, along with the USA, and Japan, and opening up the facilities to astronomers across the world."

The view from the south

One of the strengths of astronomy is that it develops wide partnerships with countries that may not be at the forefront of other scientific fields.

"Interestingly, this is in part because of the orientation of the Earth in respect to the heavens," Montmerle explains. "In economy, we tend to make a fairly sweeping distinction between the Northern, mostly richer, countries, and the Southern, mostly poorer, countries. It happens that many of the interesting things in the sky are only visible from the Southern hemisphere – for instance the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way – and you can see many more of the star-forming regions, and so on, from the Southern hemisphere. So observatories have been established there since the 19th Century, in South Africa and Brazil."

Due to these geographical constraints, astron­omers have established collaborative key observatories over the decades in specific regions. Montmerle suggests that some of the most noteworthy recent developments are those taking place in Africa. "We have already had two or three decades of collaboration in South America due to the Chilean site and the strong astronomical communities in Brazil, Chile and Argentina," he outlines. "But developments in Africa are fascinating, with countries becoming involved in the SKA project and perhaps becoming part of the CTA."

After South Africa, Ethiopia may be one of the countries to watch in the future as their role begins to emerge, says Montmerle. Although poorer countries are not able to finance larger projects, they can capitalise on the prospects for involvement. "All of these opportunities are quite new for these countries and are important politically, for education, and for universities. Astronomy in this instance plays the role of leverage for the development of the country, as in other developing countries. This is reflected by the recent foundation by the IAU of an ‘Office of Astronomy for Development’ in Cape Town," he says.

A third dimension

Montmerle recently represented the IAU at the renewal of its agreement with UNESCO on astronomical heritage, to reinforce the links between science and culture by highlighting the importance of heritage linked to astronomy.

"As we have addressed the issue already in two dimensions across the globe, this represents the third – the dimension of time in astronomy, looking back at where the major efforts were in the past and may be ongoing now," he comments. "The purpose is, like world heritage in general, to encourage major astronomical observatories and institutions to apply for recognition as a world heritage site. Of course, they have to be exceptional and have played an essential role in the development of astronomy."

Although the accreditation can be a complex process, Montmerle is hopeful that the new dimension that they have added for this renewal will be even more beneficial. Running along­side UNESCO, but independent of it and acting in an advisory role, sits the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). Under a separate agreement, the IAU is to be part of a dedicated scientific committee within ICOMOS to evaluate the applications for astronomical sites that wish to become part of world heritage.

"This is an important element and an interesting part of the adventure," Montmerle says. "It’s not about maintaining all historical astronomical sites – like in Mexico or India that used to be observatories, or even Stonehenge – but places that may still be active now – 19th Century observatories that have a major role to play, such as the Pulkovo Observatory in Russia (which is already on the list for nominations), or the Paris Observatory, or Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland for example: important places that can combine historical significance and retain their activity.

"Sometimes, people working in active institutes are a bit reluctant to engage in heritage issues because they fear that constraints and regulations would be placed on their work, but this is absolutely not the case. It’s a whole story between history, architecture, politics and science. The people at UNESCO and ICOMOS have been quite clear that they really want to promote living places."

Controversial communications

There are many elements to the promotion of astronomy and the engagement of scientists with the wider public. The International Year of Astronomy, in 2009, was a hugely successful initiative, supporting conferences to explain modern discoveries, star-gazing parties and so on, estimated to have reached over 800 million people in the world with at least one of the activities undertaken. There have been many positive offshoots of this drive, but Montmerle explains that there have also been some difficulties to contend with.

"In more recent times, things have changed a little. The problem that the IAU (as well as many other scientific unions) has addressed quite successfully in the past was to transmit knowledge from the scientist out to the public and to students," he says. "More recently there has been a new dimension to the problem that is the opposite way around – with the public asking questions of astronomers that are not really astronomical in nature. Some people wish to take part, or even make decisions about, things like naming exoplanets, which has been extremely controversial. It is opening up a whole different channel of communications with astronomers. Some questions are more sociological or psychological, or even religious in nature, than astronomical or even scientific."

Although he suggests that the increased pressures are primarily restricted to the United States at present, Montmerle anticipates that it may be a broader consideration in future, as people have in mind issues as diverse as the possibility of extraterrestrial life, or of linking astronomical events to historical or religious ones, citing by way of example the intense attention given to the year 2012 as the alleged end of the world in a misinterpretation of the Mayan calendar.

"Clearly here we are not speaking of astronomy but of a two-way contact with the public," he comments. "The IAU is looking to find new ways of communicating and engaging the levels of participation in sensitive issues. We need to look further, for instance, at the definition of public naming versus scientific naming, to establish rules and guidelines for cooperation or partnership.

"This is a point of transition between the communications of the scientist and the public, where things are not completely scientific in nature and as such are much more complex to deal with. We want to make scientists better equipped for that, whilst also striking a balance between getting the public involvement and maintaining the astronomers’ prerogative for naming celestial objects. That is the paradox that we are faced with and are currently trying to address."

Dr Thierry Montmerle
General Secretary
International Astronomical Union

[This article was originally published on 1st July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe 02]


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