We welcome comments: please click the link at the bottom of each post to add yours.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Starring Science

The VWN-EUSJA trip to Netherlands astronomy centres
Sunday 28 September - Thursday 2 Oct 2008

The Dutch Association of Science Journalists (VWN) hosted this five-day trip, which in retrospect seems to have occupied a month. There were about 30 participants from countries of Western and Eastern Europe; Stuart Clark and I represented Britain. All the foreign visitors were accommodated in a pleasant canalside hotel in Leiden, a city so Dutch that they have multi-storey cycle racks in the city centre. Participants didn't have to pay a euro during the whole trip, apart from the costs of getting to and from Leiden - and our Eastern European colleagues had half of those paid.

We had a gentle introduction to the tour with a reception at the Boerhaave Museum in Leiden, where we were addressed by Ronald Plasterk, the energetic young Minister of Education, Culture and Science, who was a molecular biologist before going into government. Thereafter we were launched on a programme of visiting four or five institutions per day. The itinerary is still on the VWN Website at WetenschapsJournalisten.nl, together with a zip file of photos from the trip. Here I'll just mention some things that stood out for me.

Torrential rain fell throughout the week, but obligingly stopped whenever we got out of a bus and resumed when we got back on. On our visit to the Deltawerken, the dams and movable barriers that keep Zeeland nominally dry land, the rain combined with Old Master cloudscapes to keep us conscious of the constant threat to the country. The whole enormous construction is surveyed twice a year to make sure nothing has moved by so much as a centimetre, and I was personally very glad of the fact all that wet week.

The 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope is being marked this year. In Britain it seems to have been crowded out by a certain particle collider, but the anniversary is naturally big in the Netherlands. Some of our party were tactless enough to mention rival claims from Italy (no, not Galileo) but our hosts were firm: it was Hans Lipperhey (or Lippershey) of Middelburg who deserves the credit. Unless it was his near neighbour Zacharias Jansen who invented it, between counterfeiting coins. We couldn't see Lipperhey's house when we visited Middelburg - the historic centre was smashed by the invaders of 1940, and Lipperhey's house isn't included in the modern reconstruction, but we saw many exquisite old telescopes.

In Leiden we visited the historic observatory. I was personally fascinated to get some of the feel of old-style astronomical observing, which in the course of a night would involve clambering down and up steps and changing posture from prone to upright to stay at the eyepiece of a large instrument as it traversed the sky. Unflagging concentration all night long was needed to prevent the slightest drift and so keep the image sharp on the photographic plate. I sat in a nifty wheeled and swivelling observer's chair, which I was afterwards told had been sat in by Einstein. I've decided to believe that.

Of course, the emphasis of the visits was on current science and technology. In the Hague we visited Airborne Composites, which has a modern high-tech assembly line that Henry Ford wouldn't recognize. Metal isn't bashed and drilled: rather, bits of plastic - sorry, advanced composites - are glued together in quiet surroundings and cooked to make radio-telescope dishes, oil and gas pipelines and much else.

In Delft we saw one of the centres of TNO, a government organization concerned not with trans-Neptunian objects but with applying scientific research. In the area of space it certainly produces photogenic results. We saw, for example, spectacular representations of atmospheric pollution and ozone levels represented on gee-whiz global displays that from the keyboard could be rotated and wound backwards or forwards in time to any desired date. Improved data will be returned from the forthcoming TROPOMI (Tropospheric Ozone-Monitoring Instrument). We also saw the Raman-LIBS (Raman Spectroscopy-Laser-Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy) technology that will be used on the ExoMars lander to analyse soil samples drilled from 2 metres beneath the Martian surface.

TNO is also involved in optical and infrared interferometry: they're building PRIMA, part of the star separators being installed at the Very Large Telescope Interferometer in Chile. The separators combine light from widely separated telescopes to multiply their resolution, or suppress the light of a star to reveal the reflected light from planets circling it. Similar technology will be used on Darwin, which will consist of several space telescopes, plus a control spacecraft, flying in formation.

Interferometry has long been practised by radio telescopes, of course. At Westerbork, a line of 14 weathered dishes stands along a 2.7-km line, which you can look along from the original control room. Alas, the control room is hardly used because the telescopes are now controlled from the headquarters of JIVE in distant Dwingeloo. JIVE is the Joint Institute for VLBI in Europe. And VLBI is Very Long Baseline Interferometry. (What do you call an acronym packed inside another acronym?) JIVE links radio telescopes across Europe and beyond into one big instrument. In the past the astronomers brought the data together by lugging tapes, and then hard drives, to a central point. Now the telescopes are being linked online.

But the beautiful radio dishes of yore are being upstaged by LOFAR (Low-Frequency Array), a network of thousands of strange little New Age pyramids lying around in muddy fields. Each consists of a square wire grid with a small receiver mounted above it at the vertex of a pyramid of four wires. These omnidirectional antennas are scattered around in their thousands on sites all over Europe, each sitting on its own plastic mat and doubtless quietly humming 'Om' in response to cosmic radio waves. Cables lead their signals to Groningen, where the magic of correlation turns them all into a virtual telescope. In fact, into several, for different virtual telescopes pointing in various directions can be created from one stream of data. The low frequencies that the array will be detecting will include emissions of neutral hydrogen that started off soon after the Big Bang at the famous 21-cm wavelength but have been hugely redshifted on their way to us. The array is a brilliant concept, it's staggeringly sophisticated - but will it ever capture the hearts of taxpayers like Sir Bernard Lovell's big dish?

On our last night there was a high point with a private planetarium show in Amsterdam, narrated by Govert Schilling, chairman of the VWN, who'd been our companion through the week. The planetarium show symbolizes the digital revolution in its own way. When we first entered, we saw the old Zeiss projector, crouching like a giant insect as it projected ornate constellation figures that turned across the planetarium sky. And then this 20th-century technology was retired into the depths and two concealed modern projectors took over. Driven by huge databanks of celestial data, they proceeded to take us zooming through the Galaxy - and then far beyond, until the galaxies looked as numerous as the stars had.

As entertainment this excelled even the spontaneous a capella recital produced the following day by several of our male members in an acoustic test bay at ESTEC. This was a high-point ending to the strictly scientific part of the trip. ESTEC is one of the centres of ESA, the European Space Agency, which now has 17 member nations and will have 18 after January.

ESA is pursuing an abundance of projects and we heard about many of them. The space aficionados were thrilled to get close up to the Herschel satellite, which will fly next year. Herschel will look at infrared radiation to study the formation of stars, galaxies and the life cycles of interstellar dust. Also mentioned: Columbus, the ESA space lab, which safely joined the Space Station in February (does as much as the Japanese lab in half the space); GOCE (satellite to map the Earth's gravity); XMM-Newton (venerable X-ray satellite whose life has been extended to 2012); INTEGRAL (International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory, mapping the gamma-ray sky and detecting gamma-ray bursts); Mars Express (has been orbiting Mars for nearly five years); Planck (will measure variations of 1 part in a million in the cosmic microwave background ); Gaia (will catalogue a billion stars, leading to a stereoscopic map of the Galaxy) ....

After that, some of us lingered for a glittering presentation of half a dozen prizes in science, history and art by the Heineken Foundation, graced by a genuine Prince of Orange. That was icing on the cake of an excellently organized event. The selection of organizations to visit was excellent, too: everything was of interest to someone and most things were of interest to most people. Crucially for journalists, we were very well dined and wined throughout the week, and by the end, most people I talked to were thinking of concrete article and programme ideas with which to repay our hosts.

Chris Cooper