Midwinter meetings: the importance of morning tea

“Hmmm,” “eh” and “um” are not found in any dictionary of scientific usage, but together with other grunts and sighs, stressed and accented to taste, they are as essential to scientific discussion as they are to any other form of talk.

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Such exclamations are not noise on the speech channel but the addition of an extra, if informal, dimension to communica­tion—as are vocal tones, facial expressions and body language in general. This increase in the information density of the message, coupled with the improved efficiency of face-to-face exchanges, is the standard and best justification of that profes­sional junket, the confer­ence.

So it was for the first joint meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand and the Astronomical Society of Australia held shortly after midwinter’s day at Canter­bury University.

Some 200 professional, postgraduate and amateur astronomers closeted themselves together for 18 working sessions and untold hours of informal conversation packed into four days and nights.

The flood of informa­tion was well-nigh over­whelming: 15 invited papers together with 40 oral presentations and some 80 poster papers covered everything under and beyond the sun.

Analysis of observa­tions, proposals for new interpretations of data, refinements of instrumen­tation, new programmes of observations, improved computer simulations, historical reviews—anything relevant to astronomy was grist to the mill.

Such discussions form the core of astronomy: the testing of currently held theories against observa­tional data, attempts to account for awkward facts which are at variance with accepted views, advances and retreats, attacks and defences, insights and obfuscations.

All quite unlike the romantic vision of the lonely observer at the eyepiece or the savant isolated in a book-lined study producing discover­ies like rabbits out of a hat.

Whatever may once have been the case in the sciences, now nobody can stand alone; the ideas and the equipment for testing them are too complex for solo operation.

As never before, the sciences depend upon contact and co-operation between individuals and between institutions for the effective use of the available resources—intellectual, physical or financial.

Such co-operation is not just a financial necessity, but forms a very efficient part of the process of research. As important as formal meetings are the informal chats in the course of the daily routine; arguments over morning tea. Here ideas can be floated and criticised without too much being at stake. Tentative theories can be knocked into shape, misunderstandings cleared up, fresh points of view generated, all without invoking the time-consum­ing business of preparing for formal presentation and discussion.

The penalties of isola­tion were demonstrated by Sir William Herschel, the famous amateur and solitary observer. His attempts to gauge the size and shape of the universe depended upon the assumption that all stars are pretty much the same size, and so the fainter a star appears then the further away it must be.

Once you had measured the distance and brightness of a nearby star then, thanks to the inverse square law (brightness is inversely proportional to the square of distance), you could derive the distances of all other stars observed.

The Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, wrote to Herschel, pointing out that this assumption had already been shown to be faulty on sound statistical grounds by the Rev. John Mitchel. However, Herschel obdurately clung to his belief until his own observations forced him to admit his error after years of misguided work. Mitchel’s reasoning was accepted by professional astronomers of the time, and had Sir William been working in proximity with them, arguing the toss over the daily tea cups, he would surely have revised his assumptions and developed a more fruitful line of investigation.

The Maori, unlike the sentimen­tal Dutch. got the naming of this land right first off, and even the most optimistic of astronomers admits the appositeness of Aotearoa—land of the long white cloud. We do not have, nor are ever likely to have, a major optical observatory here, for nowhere in the country are there enough cloud-free nights in the year to justify such a large investment. Thus our astro­nomical establishment has re­mained modest, being but the Carter Observatory in Wellington, with its observatory across the strait at Black Birch. the department of Physics and Astronomy at Canter­bury, which runs the Mount John observatory and, elsewhere, a handful of lecturers in astrophysics.

What is done is done well within the constraints of our geography and climate, but being both few in number and remote, New Zealand astronomers have limited opportu­nity for face-to-face meetings. This year’s joint conference with the Australians was thus an important occasion, for not only did they outnumber us, but they represented a far wider range of skills than we are able to muster.

The Australian contingent presented the results of their observations from such major instruments as the 4 m Anglo­Australian telescope and the 1.2 m Edinburgh Schmidt camera, as well as data from radio telescopes at Narrabri and Parks.

Radio astronomy deals with the electromagnetic spectrum beyond the infrared, those long wavelengths which allow us to receive signals which have no visual counterpart and which penetrate the skeins of dust between the stars. These signatures of vibrating atoms and molecules lying in the depths of space or blasted and buffeted by energetic stellar events can give a picture of the universe very differ­ent from the familiar optical view. Curiously, it is a field that is neglected in this country.

Apart from the obvious differ­ences in the size and cost of equip­ment available, the most significant difference between the New Zea­land and Australian societies is in the nature of their memberships. Founded in 1966, the Australian Astronomical Society is an organi­sation for professionals and post­graduate students; their lay breth­ren, the amateur astronomers, are kept beyond the pale, congregating in city or, at best, state societies.

On the other hand, RASNZ, founded in 1920, has always admitted amateurs to its member­ship. as the number of professionals in the country has never been large enough to overflow a well packed telephone box. Membership of “the Royal” is not restricted to individu­als; the country’s 25 local astro­nomical societies are also admitted. This means that amateurs, such as the author, have an ease and frequency of access to professional brethren which is an invaluable aid to one’s progression to the status of “reliable observer.”

The benefit is mutual, for one of the hallmarks of astronomy is that it depends on data from amateur observers. It is they who monitor the some 45,000 stars brighter than magnitude 8—stars too bright to warrant the attention of the great telescopes designed to penetrate the depths of space. They also act as bell-ringers for the unexpected event: a new comet or a supernova in an adjacent galaxy.

On occasions, appropriately equipped amateur observatories are invited to join in global pro­grammes so as to provide 24 hour/ day coverage of some object of particular interest.

In return, the amateur gains from discussion and correspondence with professionals specialising in the same field, an association which often results in practical help with the design and construction of equipment or even the loan of specialised components.

Without doubt, though, the greatest satisfaction comes from the knowledge that one is contributing to the development of our under­standing of the cosmos, and is a member, however humble, of that illustrious group which traces its ancestry back 2.500 years to Tholes and the pre-Socratics.

All over the world every clear night, hundreds of amateur observ­ers systematically sweep the skies, many using telescopes made in a home workshop. Their stream of observations—reports of comets, novae. extragalactic supernovae, estimates of the brightness of variable stars, records of any unusual phenomena—is compiled, reduced to internationally accepted standards, tabulated and graphed so that it is acceptable for immediate incorporation in the general record.

After the formal business of the conference, there was an opportu‑nity for delegates to visit the University of Canterbury’s Mount John Observatory above Lake Tekapo. Here the staff and students perform photometric, spectroscopic and astrometric observations, which in combination yield a wealth of detail about the objects under scrutiny. From such data we can derive not only a star’s temperature and chemical composition, but also its rate of rotation, magnetic field strength, surface gravity and motion through space.

Though the observatory’s biggest instrument, the 1-metre McLellan Telescope built in the university workshops, is small by international standards, at 44°S it is in one of the most southerly professional ob­servatories. At this latitude, both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds—small galaxies associated with our Milky Way galaxy—are circumpolar, never setting, and thus available for observation as long as daylight and cloud conditions permit.

After Mount John, many of the participants of the Christchurch conference assembled at Hanmer Springs for the fourth New Zealand Photoelectric Conference, where the techniques and results of photomet­ric (light-measuring) observations were discussed.

Of the 40 or so New Zealand participants at this gathering, nearly half were amateurs, most of whom operate their own photometric observatories. Scattered throughout the length of the country, these observers are an effective extension of the professional corps; the most experienced produce data of professional quality and quantity.

That New Zealand is, astronomi­cally, generally forced to play second fiddle to Australia is of no moment. What matters is that we are part of the orchestra.