Astronomy’s History Trap

Last week, I wrote a blog post about the National Science Foundation’s plan to close several optical and radio telescopes as a cost-cutting measure. It clearly hit a nerve. Thanks largely to a reposting from Physics Today, more people – some 2200 – read this, more than any other I’ve written. (Only my chiding of Michio Kaku drew a similar number of readers). In response, several people wrote to me and noted the current plans in the United States to build a new optical telescope facility with light collecting area equivalent to a 30-meter mirror. Here’s my take on this…

There is quote typically attributed to Mark Twain that says, “History doesn’t repeat itself; but it does rhyme.” Regardless of whether Mr. Clemens actually said this, the fact is that astronomers today should be hearing all sorts of rhyming. But many aren’t and therein lies the problem.

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The more the merrier? Telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory (credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF)

There are two contenders for ground-based astronomy’s next big machine. The “Thirty Meter Telescope” project is spearheaded by scientists from Caltech and my own school, the University of California; institutions in India, Japan, China, and Canada also pledging funds to build it on Mauna Kea in Hawai’i. The heart of the telescope’s design is 492 mirror segments, each 1.45 meters in size, that would create a mosaic-like light collecting surface. Cost? Somewhere between $970 million and $1.2 billion. The Moore Foundation (started by Intel co-founder Gordin Moore) has so far pledged $250 million toward the TMT.

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Schematic of the Thirty Meter Telescope

Going head-to-head with the TMT is the Giant Magellan Telescope. Planned for a mountain site in Chile, the GMT’s cost is about the same as low-end estimates for the TMT. But the GMT’s design is radically different. It will instead use seven massive 8.4-meter mirrors to create the equivalent of a 30-meter telescope.1 The GMT consortium includes the Carnegie Institution of Science, Harvard, the Smithsonian, the University of Arizona, and several more.

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Artist’s rendering of the Giant Magellan Telescope

It’s at this point that we should start to hear the rhyming sounds of history. Because thirty years ago, American astronomers were in exactly the same spot. And, from what I can tell, they didn’t learn as much as they could have from the experience. 

To wit: In the mis-1970s, the American astronomy community was in crisis. The traditional design model for large telescopes, based on the 200-inch Hale telescope on California’s Palomar Mountain, could no longer satisfy the financial constraints on and research expectations of the U.S. astronomy community. At the same time, the nation’s large telescopes were increasingly over-subscribed; simply observing faint objects for longer times was not feasible logistically.

Several ways forward were proposed. Kitt Peak National Observatory even developed initial designs for a 25-meter Next Generation Telescope.

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Credit: Rick Showalter/NOAO/AURA/NSF

When the 25-meter proved too ambitious, the national observatory scaled plans back to 15 meters. The problem? There were two competing designs for what was then called the National New Technology Telescope…is this starting to sound familiar?

Plan #1 – Build a telescope with a 15-meter light collecting area using 60 individual hexagonal glass segments to form the light collecting area. This design was championed by, yes, astronomers from Caltech and the University of California.

Plan #2 – Or…put four 7.5 meter mirrors on a common mount to create a total light gathering ability of a 15-meter telescope. This effort was pushed by researchers at – wait for it – the University of Arizona.

Are you hearing those echoes of the past yet?

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Segmented-mirror and multiple-mirror designs for the NNTT with a scale
model of the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope.

So, what happened to the NNTT? At a meeting in July 1984, a blue ribbon panel of astronomers and engineers picked Arizona’s multiple-mirror design. But it was a Pyrrhic victory. Less than a year later, the W.M. Keck Foundation gave Caltech $70 million to build a 10-meter telescopes in Hawai’i; funding to build a second followed.2

Meanwhile, NSF funding for the “victorious” NNTT was nowhere near as generous and, in 1987, the 15-meter national telescope project was killed. What arose from the ashes of the national 15-meter project was an international partnership to build two 8-meter telescopes. The first Gemini telescope in Hawai’i saw first light in 1999; its twin in Chile reached the same milestone in 2000. The result of all this astro-politicking: two privately operated 10-meter telescopes and two publicly accessible 8-meter telescopes. ((The whole story is way more complicated that I’ve summarized here. For example, Arizona’s mirror technology wasn’t used in either Keck or Gemini. Rather, it was used for the twin Magellan telescopes in Chile and the NNTT design was used, sort of, to build the Large Binocular Telescope in southern Arizona. Meanwhile, the Gemini telescopes were built using what are called “thin meniscus mirrors,” a third technological path that emerged in the 1980s.))

Today’s impasse over whether to build the TMT, the GMT, both, et cetera closely resembles the debates in the early 1980s about the National New Technology Telescope. To be sure, the past isn’t exactly repeating. Neither TMT nor GMT is envisioned as a publicly accessible facility. But the history does rhyme. Many of the actors (individuals  as well as institutions) that were so embroiled in that controversy/competition over how to best build today’s giant telescopes are implicated in today’s debates about which design and which partnership model is best for tomorrow’s bigger (gianter?) telescopes. (One quickly runs out of superlatives…large, overwhelmingly large, monster, etc…meanwhile, the European Southern Observatory’s its 40-meter mega-project with the anodyne name of the Extremely Large Telescope.)

Why should this ancient history – water under the bridge, one might say – matter to astronomers today? I can think of at least three reasons:

#1 – A billion dollars to build a new telescope – whether it comes from private donors or governments – is obviously a lot of money. This is thrice true when we’re talking about possibly building three 30-meter class facilities. If this means shuttering smaller ‘scopes, as the NSF is planning, than one has to consider the impact this could have on astronomy’s “have-nots” i.e. those people without access to privately-operated facilities.3 Will ever-larger research facilities affect how science is done? How many grad students or postdocs will have access to a 30-meter facility? Would they simply become folded into a much larger research program? The current generation of 8/10-meter class facilities clearly changed the practice of doing science…there’s every reason to expect 30-meter telescopes will do likewise.

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#2History seems to be poised to repeat itself…In the 1980s, while the U.S. community bickered over which design was best (and tried to raise the capital necessary to start building), the European science community slowly and methodically built an innovative series of telescopes. The culmination of this was the Very Large Telescope (again, the names…). This suite of four 8-meter telescopes in Chile helped put European astronomy on equal (some would say better) footing than their U.S. counterparts. Now, I’m not trying to make some nationalistic argument here. Astronomical research in the 21st century is certainly more international than it was three decades ago while new players (China, India, et al.) have entered the telescope game. But astronomers with whom I have spoken warn of a similar dynamic at work now…while the U.S. community dithers over whether to build TMT, GMT, whatever, the European community is gradually making progress towards its 40-meter goal. Americans’ fear is that their European competitors will be able to pick the low-hanging “astronomy fruit” that a new giant facility will put in reach.

#3 – Perhaps the most critical reason for thinking about all of this “history” is how today’s debates over which telescope to build affect the morale and spirit of the American astronomy community. How does this infighting reflect the community’s moral economy i.e. those unstated yet accepted rules that define and structure community interactions? The principal actors driving the TMT and GMT projects forward are leaders in the astrophysics community. How much energy and effort is being spent in sparring with one another and touting the benefits of one’s own design (and disparaging the neighbor’s). To a naif, this battling can seem downright ridiculous. Caltech and Carnegie are a few miles apart yet there might as well be a shark-filled canyon between them given the vitriolic statements I’ve heard from the two camps. The only point of agreement seems to be how the NSF has failed to provide necessary and adequate leadership in helping the U.S. get its act together.

Now, one could, of course, argue that a lesson to take away from all of this history is that it all turned out fine in the end. Keck was built, Gemini was built, et cetera…maybe the “market” for telescopes worked and things just naturally sorted themselves out. Maybe competition was a good thing…

But I am inclined to think it all worked in spite of things. More to the point, I think astronomers need to recognize how their history is rhyming and consider how not to repeat past mistakes. As I wrote this blog post, I kept thinking of how much of today’s circumstances resemble the situations I described in my book which is now already a decade old…but, as André Gide noted, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

  1. Three of these have so far been cast at the Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona. []
  2. All of this history is detailed in my 2004 book Giant Telescopessome of it is captured in this article. []
  3. Obviously, my splitting an entire scientific community into two camps is an oversimplification. There are researchers from Caltech who use the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s ‘scopes just as “have-nots” can sometimes compete for time at privately-operated Keck telescopes. The NSF even operated the “Telescope System Instrumentation Program” which would help fund “the development of instruments…for the private observatories, in exchange for which telescope time on those facilities will be made available to the community.” It’s unclear to me whether TSIP is still operating…The National Optical Astronomy Observatory’s page for the program doesn’t seem to have been updated recently…another NOAO page suggests that time is available in 2014 though. This page, however, has some interesting stats on the number of nights made available and the estimated costs. []

To Have and/or To Have Not

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The 4-meter Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak. Dedicated in 1973…slated to be closed in 2017.

“They don’t give a flying fuck about the rest of us. They’d just as soon take it all.” Such was the explosion of words – part angry, part resigned – I heard. But the speaker wasn’t some anti-Wall Streeter in an Occupy camp. No, the words came instead from a senior astronomer at a major Midwest research university. The time was 1999 and the context was a series of interviews I was doing as research for what became my book Giant Telescopes.1

Some translation is in order: “Us” is the community of astronomers who rely on the national system of publicly funded and accessible telescopes to do their research. “They” refers to those researchers with access to privately funded telescopes whose access is much more tightly guarded.

The topic stirs strong emotions. All scientists need resources – equipment, funding, time – to carry out their research. For astronomers, two of the most important assets are access to telescopes and sufficient time allocated on them to make observations and collect data. The community makes a fundamental and long-standing distinction between those who have access to telescopes through their institutional affiliation and those who do not and must instead compete for time at one of the federally-funded national centers. A former observatory director explained the situation as, “There are the independent observatories which some people call the ‘haves.’ And there are the ‘have nots!’…The people who are the ‘have nots’ still have to rely on the National Observatory to get time.”

Optical astronomy – the subfield of astronomy I know best – has a long tradition of private and philanthropic support. This history stretches back to the 19th century and the continued generosity of deep-pocketed donors for astronomy separates it from most other sciences in the United States. Historically, private institutions or state-supported universities have funded and managed most large American telescope facilities. The largest and best telescopes have been available to only to a small fraction of the entire astronomical community. (A disclaimer: I work at the University of California and recently spent a year as a visiting professor at Caltech. UC and Caltech astronomers have access to the two privately-owned 10-meter telescopes in Hawai’i which were built in the 1980s with funds from the W.M. Keck Foundation.)

The consequences of this history were made clear in a recent Science article. Over the next three years, five publicly-accessible telescopes are slated to be closed. The root cause is a funding crunch at the National Science Foundation. Closing the five telescopes could save about $20 million annually at a time when the agency is also trying to build two new telescope facilities.

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‘Scopes on the chopping block; graphic from 20 December 2013 article in Science by Yudhijt Bhattacharjee

If the proposed shut-downs occurred, there would be no publicly-accessible telescopes available to optical astronomers in the continental U.S.. The Gemini North telescope, a publicly funded 8-meter facility on Mauna Kea, would still be open as would its southern twin in Chile. But jetting off to Chile is a lot harder and more expensive than traveling to Kitt Peak in southern Arizona. ((A follow-up note: Point taken…yes, Gemini N/S is primarily queue based but it can also be used in observer mode still, yes? In any case, I think my general point about not having access to telescopes in the CONUS and having instead to fly to Chile or Hawai’i makes sense. One might also make the case that smaller telescopes – the kinds that KPNO operates – are ideal for training students. I know a lot of this can be done remotely but I wonder if this is a substitute for actually being on-site. Moreover, in the NSF’s plan, only one major radio telescope in the U.S. – the Very Large Array in New Mexico – would be left.

Once again, astronomers are referring to the have vs. have-not dynamic that defines their community. Science quoted, for example, Angela Speck, an astronomer at the University of Missouri which doesn’t have access to its own telescope facilities, as noting that “more than half” of the optical.infrared observing community is the same boat as her. Without access to publicly-available telescopes, recruiting and training graduate students and postdocs becomes problematic. As another scientist noted, the proposed shutdowns could signal the “loss of a generation of astronomers.”

This isn’t the first time that the nationally-operated system of telescope has come under threat. As I detailed in my book, the astronomy community in the 1980s and 1990s was regularly rocked by fears that it would lose access to its research instruments. Again, there is no single root cause. Budgetary woes at the NSF are compounded by ambitious plans to build a new generation of cutting edge telescope facilities. For instance, The NSF is currently funding construction of the Advanced Technology Solar Telescope (~$300 million), the ALMA array in Chile (an international project that prices out at around $1.5 billion), and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (~$665 million). So, it’s not as if the U.S. isn’t investing into observational astronomy. But these mega-projects are crowding out the smaller ‘scopes that a large fraction of the community uses. Is this a good thing? Is it inevitable?

Compounding the problem is the fact that, once built, telescopes stay open for a long time. The venerable 200-inch telescope operated by Caltech on Palomar Mountain – another private facility – was dedicated in 1948 and is still used today to make observations (although light pollution has dimmed its usefulness), train students, and test new instruments such as the innovative ARCONS camera.

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Still going…

At the same time, annual operations costs needed to keep an observatory going are generally assumed to be about 5-10% of construction costs…so, something like the LSST may cost something like $50 million each year to keep surveying the sky.

The problem of old ‘scopes being sacrificed to pay for new ones isn’t confined just to the publicly-funded system though. Science also reported that the Lick Observatory – a 125 year old facility operated by the University of California on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose – also faced the threat of closure. The expected savings from not operating Lick would be plowed back into funding the Keck Observatory as well as UC’s portion of its next mega-project, a 30-meter optical telescope underway in conjunction with Caltech (as well as organizations in Canada, China, India, and Japan). Expected price tag of the TMT? Over $1 billion.

A few years ago, I co-authored a paper about ways in which NASA was making plans to build the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. What was remarkable was that that the long lead time necessary to secure the political and financial support meant that the plans for a new space-based instrument had to be made while the existing one was still chugging along. Similar dynamics are very much at work in ground-based astronomy today, regardless of whether one is a have or a have-not.

  1. If you want a short intro to the topic and some more discussion, see this 2000 paper. []

Happy Birthday, Leaping Robot!


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The first time the blog leaped…5 December 2012

A few weeks ago marked the one-year anniversary of my first Leaping Robot blog post. It was the end of the teaching quarter here so I didn’t have a lot of time to stop and reflect on it. But now that I’m done writing lectures and grading exams, I can do a little of that.

As I wrote in my first blog post, Leaping Robot serves several functions for me. First, it’s a place to play with and share material that I left out of my Visioneers book. I had a limit from the press of about 90,000 words. The original draft came in around 135,000 and the final version went out the door at about 110,000 words. So, there was some substantial cutting. I saw Leaping Robot as way to include some material I cut from the book and also to expand on some ideas and characters that had to be somewhat condensed.

The blog has also been a way to engage topics and issues that come up in current events – so far, this has included things like the place of “tech intellectuals” in contemporary discussions about technology, regulating nanotechnology, or Obama’s new brain mapping initiative. I’ve also been able to tie my interest in science fiction with some historical interventions and musings. It’s also been an occasional forum for guest blog posts. Karen Rader wrote a great piece about the Exploratorium while Nicole Archambeau took journalists to task for their sloppy deployment of “medieval” as an adjective (in this case, the context was asteroid mining).

Finally, I’ve always viewed the blog as an experimental space, a sandbox of sorts to keep some of my tools as a writer sharp while having a pleasant environment in which to toss up some new ideas and see how people react. One of the great pleasures is being part of the larger community of historians of science and technology who are active in blogging, tweeting, etc.. The ICHSTM meeting in Manchester this past summer was a great chance to meet some of these folks in person.

Who reads Leaping Robot? Good question. Stats from Google Analytics tell me that most of my readers are in the US – about 75% – with the UK coming in second.  It’s been a source of constant surprise to see which posts get the most attention. Charles Day at Physics Today occasionally shares my blog posts on the magazine’s Facebook page. Because some 500,000+ people “like” PT on Facebook, this helps bring about an order of magnitude more readers to Leaping Robot. This was seen most clearly in my recent post about Michio Kaku…some 2500 people took a detour to Leaping Robot because of the Physics Today shout-out. This post was also the first that brought any real negative sorts of comments. Apparently, Kaku has a pretty vocal group of supporters who appreciate his musings on fringy physics stuff.

So – what’s next? It’s been challenging to keep the blog up to date. So far, the average has been about a post every week or so. I’m hoping to start using the blog to play around with some research material I have for new projects. On the horizon is a new book project about the interaction of artists and engineers…I’m also working on an article about DNA nanotechnology and another on how astrophysics became a form of information science. Time permitting, some of this new work will pop up on the blog in coming months.

In the meantime, best wishes for the new year…and thank you for reading!

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