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Professor Michael Garrett

LOFAR, space exploration and… Captain Kirk?

Professor Michael Garrett was inspired into astronomy by his competitive nature, and his love of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk.

He brings that inspiration into his work on LOFAR and with the SKA, as well as Director of the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, ASTRON.

For Mike, radio astronomy is on the edge of some vast unchartered territory and we’re about to leap right in and maybe discover something that will change our view of, well, everything! He says there’s never been a better time to be involved.

“Let’s amaze future generations with our ambition and vision, with our courage to build something that no man has built before!”

Michael Garrett
The interview below was conducted in 2011

What are you working on now?

As General & Scientific director of ASTRON my main priority is to get LOFAR working and producing science quality data to the community ASAP. We’re making a lot of progress now, and in 2012 we can expect the first real science results to begin to flow.

Getting to where we are now has not been easy – it’s required ASTRON to change, and change is always difficult. Building up a rejuvinated Astronomy Group and encouraging it to engage with all our competences across the institute is bearing fruit – I don’t like to boast but I think that ASTRON, via projects like LOFAR, WSRT-APERTIF (PAFs on the WSRT) and Dense Aperture Arrays, is actually reinventing the field of radio astronomy.

Naturally, the SKA also takes up a lot of my time. I have led the SKA Science & Engineering Committee over the last few years with oversight over the activities of the SKA Project Development Office (SPDO). That’s also been an exciting period in which the governance of the project has switched from the SSEC (at institute level) to the SKA Founding Board (at agency level). I think what might have been a difficult transition phase has actually gone very smoothly, and the results speak for themselves – in particular the anticipated establishment of the SKA legal entity before the end of 2011.

What got you into astronomy?

I’m not sure – it was probably a mistake! But seriously, I guess I was pretty interested in the exploration of space – I was too young to remember the moon landing but I do remember enjoying TV shows like Star Trek – Captain Kirk was, and still is, my hero!

When I was at secondary school, I was inspired by my Physics teacher. He had a real love for the history of the subject and used to regale us (especially after one of his famous liquid lunches) with stories of Oppenheimer, Teller, Maxwell, Kelvin, Einstein etc. It also helped that my father (a chemist) was also broadly interested in science, so by the age of 14 I was quite focused on Physics & Maths, the other subjects (apart from History & English) did not interest me anywhere near as much. I only studied the other subjects because competition was also important to me – getting better exam results than my friends was really a motivator for me! So it was natural for me to end up studying Physics, Maths and Astronomy (the 3 main physical sciences) when I arrived at Glasgow University. I did not like Astronomy so very much in the first year (too much spherical trigonometry for my liking!) but I was again inspired by one of the lecturers there – Prof. Archie Roy – an expert in celestial mechanics, fiction writer and celebrated ghost hunter.

So, I stuck it out, and eventually was surprised to graduate with a first-class honours degree. That was back in 1986, and I decided I would like to do a PhD in astronomy and was happy to be offered a great position with Gary Hunt at University College London working on Voyager data of Jupiter. Unfortunately, this fell through at the last moment when Gary went to JPL, and so by some combination of fate, destiny or luck I ended up at Jodrell Bank Observatory, in Cheshire, UK.

I remember not feeling very lucky on my first day there – I opened the window and looked out to a scene of flat green fields, peppered with one or two cows – all stretched out before me. As a young man more interested in partying than pastoral scenes, I was pretty depressed by how remote Jodrell was but on reflection I can’t think of better place to learn the trade of radio astronomy. Jodrell was then one of the few places where students were forced to “get their hands dirty” during their thesis, and I think that’s the kind of training that is very much missing at PhD level these days and also undervalued – ICRAR may be one of the few modern exceptions.

I ended up in a management position because I was always frustrated by watching things being badly organised and poorly communicated, and I thought I could do much better. Although I’ve never been to a management course in my life (you can make of this what you want!), while working at JIVE I served my time at what I call the best course of all – the “Richard Schilizzi school of management”. I’ve learned a lot from Richard when he was director of JIVE but also take after my mother – certainly in terms of providing leadership and enjoying public service. People often don’t understand what it takes to lead large organisations – in my book it’s much more about serving, than being served.

What’s your favourite part of your work?

At the moment, I enjoy the process many of us are now immersed in – trying to get the SKA project off the ground and into the full pre-construction phase. The SKA started off as very much a bottom-up project – bringing it to the attention of the Funding Agencies and establishing it as a real project is a big challenge but also a lot of fun.

I very much enjoy meeting people from all over the world and working with them – for me the social aspect of this collaboration is almost as important as the realisation of the telescope itself. With so much of this kind of business to attend to, and with so much travel involved, I do miss the opportunity to sit down and do some real science.

It’s taken me a while but with limited time at my disposal, I suspect the best way of keeping active in this area is to focus – mostly on VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry). I suppose VLBI was my first love in radio astronomy and it will probably be my last – I have to thank Richard Porcas at MPIfR, Bonn for getting me started in that field and giving me the kind of training that allowed me to grow and tackle some really tough problems – I like to tackle things that everyone else thinks is absolutely impossible – and then prove them wrong! I hope I’m still capable of doing it when my term as ASTRON director ends!

What do you think is the most exciting thing about astronomy today?

Well despite the tough economic climate, past investments mean we will have a lot of great telescopes to play with over the coming decade. Radio astronomy currently tempts us with what is almost an embarrassment of riches – the precursors ASKAP and MeerKAT, the various pathfinders like the MWA and LOFAR, and the myriad of upgraded telescopes, including the WSRT-APERTIF, E-VLA and e-MERLIN, just to mention a few. Not only that, but at higher radio frequencies ALMA is bound to have a huge impact in the field of radio astronomy – we really need to get SKA up and running ASAP in order to match ALMA’s performance but then at cm and metre wavelengths, and over a much larger field of view. As I always tell graduate and under-graduate students when I speak to them – there has never been a better time to do radio astronomy!

What do you think is coming next?

I think the field of radio astronomy is certainly on the brink of moving into un-chartered territory, especially at low-frequencies. I have a feeling that the study of the Epoch of Reionisation, and in particular the era of the Dark Ages before the first galaxies and stars began to form is going to be a rich area of discovery over the next few decades. I predict its impact will be even larger than what has been attained in CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background) studies over the last few decades, and it may lead to the launch of large free-flying aperture arrays in space in order to observe at the very lowest radio frequencies. There are surely Nobel prizes to be won in an area where radio astronomy’s contribution will be unique.

I’d also like to think that the current generation of new wide-field radio telescopes will do something really big – something that changes mankind’s view of itself – like the detection of the first extra-terrestrial signal. I’m sure we will find that signal sooner or later. Hopefully there are many other new things coming our way that we have just not even thought about yet – I think that’s inevitable when we begin to operate telescopes that explore entirely new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum with unprecedented spectral, temporal and spatial resolution, coupled with fantastic sensitivity and huge fields of view.

It’s also my opinion that we need to embrace risk – we need to build things that are completely new and transformational – most of the great telescopes of the past would never have been built under the current aversion to risk that I sometimes encounter. I think that’s an important lesson for all aspiring “great” telescopes like the SKA – watching the first results now streaming from LOFAR, I’m convinced that Aperture Array technology will be the way to go in terms of exploring the low frequency (< 1.5 GHz) universe. The added flexibility of simultaneous multi-field or even all-sky imaging is a huge advantage, and I’m sure once we get used to it, we will not let it go easily. So I hope that when we build the SKA, we think big and realise something that is really bold and inspirational, not incremental. Let’s amaze future generations with our ambition and vision, with our courage to build something that no man has built before!