Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by John Beckman (FRAS),
CSIC Research Professor in Astrophysics,
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (APP 06)

1. As a British physicist who has been working within the Spanish astronomical community for over 25 years, I would like to address the points raised by the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee in so far as they relate to the future of, the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) on La Palma.

2. First I declare my scientific interest in the continuation of the ING as an operating facility. I have supervised 15 PhD theses whose main observational component was produced on the WHT or the INT,  (the two principal telescopes of the ING) and a further 5 with some input from these telescopes, and I am the PI on the GHaFaS project, which maintains a Fabry-Perot interferometric spectrometer on the WHT, with which we are obtaining significant new results.

3a. The first point on which the Committee wishes to be informed relates to the impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability. Here we can say that as a mature observational facility, with no new UK telescopes being proposed, the impact of reduced capital funding will be very small. In this sense we are talking about a working observatory with proven telescopes of high quality and instrumentation which works well, and which will require no major capital input into the foreseeable future. The only item of spending envisaged is the multi-object wide field spectrograph suggested by the Director as a means of matching in the Northern Hemisphere the highly successful 2dF and similar surveys performed by UK astronomers in the southern hemisphere and which have had a huge impact on world astronomy. The ING is well placed to play a similar role for relatively low outlay.

3b.The second point is the impact of withdrawal from international ground.-based facilities on the UK´s research base, and international reputation.

I am in a unique position to comment on this, since I am an active member of the Spanish astronomical community, while retaining British nationality and ample active professional contacts within the UK community. While it is not so easy for me to comment on the impact of a UK withdrawal from the ING on the overall scientific output of UK astronomy, I am in a position to state that a withdrawal would go down exceptionally badly with the Spanish community, and would not serve the interests of Britain’s international reputation. In recent years Spain has been making increasing contributions to the ING. One of the permanent instruments on the WHT, the LIRIS cooled IR spectrograph, was conceived and made in Spain, while another instrument in regular use, GHaFaS, a Fabry-Perot spectrograph which is at present the only such instrument on a 4m class telescope, was produced by a collaboration led by Spain. Thus both communities benefit from instrumentation produced by the other. Any sense that Spain is benefitting more that the UK can be dissipated with the knowledge that (as demonstrated with the 10.4m GRANTECAN) Spain is now able to provide fully up to date instrumentation for major telescopes (not so 26 years ago when the WHT was commissioned). This means that the UK can benefit directly by having a major say in future Spanish instrumentation for ING telescopes, without UK outlay. I understand that the Dutch scientific authorities understand well the benefits of retaining their stake in the ING, and would not take well a UK decision to withdraw.

3c. Talking to my British colleagues in the UK it is my impression that the STFC has not in fact engaged adequately with the research community on this issue, and there is a general welcome, in the circumstances, for this Parliamentary Enquiry. However this is an opinion necessarily obtained at second hand.

3d. Opportunities for education and outreach. I can state categorically that the UK observatories in the Canary Isles offer unique possibilities for training and outreach activity. They are sufficiently accessible from the UK for student access and use, so that universities can incorporate research-based teaching programmes at all levels even into undergraduate physics degrees, and certainly at Master’s degree level. Astronomy and astrophysics has always been an attractive way to win students for science and technology, I have no need to go into any detail here (I was on the staff in Physics at Queen Mary when we initiated one of the earliest modular degrees which included Astrophysics, and the fraction of students who were persuaded to come in via Astrophysics was often above 50%; this is an anecdotic personal example). The Liverpool "robotic" telescope, on La Palma, which explicitly combines research with secondary school teaching, owes part of its success to the relative ease with which technical problems can be resolved when a visit is urgently required. Of the recognized world class observing sites, La Palma is not only the nearest to the UK, but for reasons not in any way connected with astronomy, it is one of the least expensive to visit. As a measure of its role in wider outreach, within the past three months I have participated in two BBC TV films on astronomical themes which were made in the islands. This resource has perhaps not received its merited degree of recognition, and it shows clarity of perception on the part of the Parliamentary Committee that we are encouraged to comment on this point.

I append to these specific comments some more general arguments which I believe to be significant.

4. The first comment is based on a figure produced in 2005 by Helmut Abt, for 28 years Editor in Chief of the Astrophysical Journal, universally recognized as one of the world’s two or three leading journals in the field. He explained that over 80% of major discoveries in astronomy during the past 50 years, (derived with a minor degree of subjectivity from the published record of his journal) had been made with small telescopes. Asked to explain this apparently surprising statistic Dr. Abt gave his considered view that it was because on large telescopes the observing time is subject to such tight competition, than not only can observers not obtain enough time to mount many major projects, but they are constrained to propose safe bets, in order to ensure that the observations give rise to a publication and so obtain further time and funding. In an age when telescopes with optical apertures less than 8m are considered small, the UK would be well advised to take heed, and not to pump absolutely all of its funding into the support of large telescopes.

4. The La Palma observatory is at a world-class site, recently narrowly beaten out by a Chilean site for the placement of the future 42 m E-ELT, the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope, and (bear in mind that the host institution, ESO, has been dedicated for over 50 years to placing telescopes in Chile). Its telescopes, and notably the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope,(WHT) have been well designed, and thanks to refined instrumentation have kept pace with many of the advances made at observatories with telescopes in the 8 and 10 m classes. However compared with these latter telescopes even the WHT will not, in the medium term, be able to compete directly. Fortunately British astronomy can be very well served by the WHT without calling on it to carry out programmes better placed on larger instruments. This is because within the last year the 10.4m Spanish GCT, currently the largest single optical/infrared telescope in the world has been commissioned and has come into active use. One of the key roles for the WHT into the future should be to run programmes with implications for related programmes on the GTC, such as photometric studies preparatory to spectroscopic studies, and experimental work on diffraction limited imaging to exploit the full apertures of both for studying objects at high redshift. The greater instrumental flexibility and longer durations of observing runs at the WHT compared to larger telescopes will permit the running of higher risk observations, which if successful could be transformed for use on larger telescopes such as the GTC in the north and the VLT in the south. The instrumental flexibility mentioned means that new techniques can be readily tested on WHT, techniques which would imply very long lead times or impossibility on 8 or 10m class instruments. The flexibility means that a variety of instruments could be in situ for regular use. The possibility to schedule longer runs implies that powerful surveys (analogous to 2dF on the AAT) could be envisaged and brought about. It leaves open the possibility that the telescope could, for a significant time, be devoted largely to such a survey. One of the most successful astronomical projects of all time, the Sloan Digital Sky survey, was performed on a 2.5m telescope. Indeed this causes me to wonder whether even the 2.5m Isaac Newton telescope might not be converted to a single purpose instrument, implying very low running costs indeed, with possibly impressive rewards in impact and utility.

5. It is not obvious that time on northern hemisphere telescopes will be so easy to come by for the British astronomical community in the coming decade. Retaining the operation of the ING, with whatever may be deemed suitable streamlining measures to economize on its operating costs, would be of major value in these circumstances.

John Beckman
Research Professor in Astrophysics
Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias

14 February 2011