Professor Peter Hall
Professor Peter Hall received his PhD from the University of Tasmania and after academic roles at the University of Sydney, was attached to CSIRO’s Australia Telescope National Facility. His last role at CSIRO was as Leader of the organisation’s (and Australia’s) inaugural SKA program; he was also the author of the initial proposal to site the SKA in Australia. Peter is a Fellow of the Institution of Engineers (Australia) and holds the IREE Norman W.V. Hayes medal for original research.
Peter was appointed Professor of Radio Astronomy Engineering at Curtin University of Technology in June 2008 and ICRAR Deputy Director in 2009. His appointment followed a four-year term as the foundation International Project Engineer for the SKA, where he played leading roles in the development of an SKA Reference Design, the initial specification of the SKA, the framing of the international SKA system design project (PrepSKA), and the development of top-level industry engagement policy. Since coming to WA Peter has expanded these interests and applied his expertise to the realization of working SKA precursors and functional verification systems.
the interview below was conducted in 2010
What got you into astronomy engineering?
When very young (Grade 1, as I recall) I saw a book on astronomy and decided I wanted to be an astronomer. As time went on, and as I became progressively hooked by radio and electronics, the astronomy ambition got a bit lost.
In my last year of electronics engineering at university our communications engineering class visited a radio telescope in Hobart. It was a large phased array instrument and I was struck by the level of ingenuity and innovation – a number of things which really shouldn’t have worked according to most interpretations of engineering wisdom were working very well, and obviously facilitating novel science. From that point I decided that linking engineering and astronomy would be very satisfying and that’s proved a correct assumption, at least for me.
I should mention the critical role of people in all this: Bob Sutton, my favourite engineering lecturer; Pip Hamilton, who later became my PhD supervisor; and Bill Ellis – who really is a key figure in low-frequency radio astronomy – were all key figures in helping me to see a way forward. During my physics honours year, sharing my cheese sandwiches with Grote Reber, effectively the founder of radio astronomy, was quite a buzz too! (As a bachelor, Grote had a theory that any food you didn’t have to prepare yourself – even cheese sandwiches – was to be particularly savoured).
Astronomers and engineers work all around the world and travel to meetings and conferences. Where would you say is the best place that you’ve worked?
I have to be careful here! Everywhere has its attributes and I’ve worked with great people in all my roles. From a lifestyle point of view I enjoyed my stay in Groningen in The Netherlands. For sheer spectacle it’s hard to beat the Plateau de Bure in France, or Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
I loved living 5 minutes from my aeroplane in Narrabri and Parkes – it was a real joy to be able to go flying with such minimal overheads.
What’s the thing you’ve enjoyed most, or the thing that you’re most proud of that you’ve achieved as part of your career?
I’ve been fortunate to have done quite a few things in my career and they’ve all brought me a lot of satisfaction. Early in my career I had a key role in commissioning the Australia Telescope Compact Array (ATCA) and putting a number of its important management structures in place. When the job was done, I got a lot of satisfaction from seeing the instrument work superbly well and, like a many of of my colleagues at the time, took personnel fulfillment in seeing great science emerge.
There have been a number of “hands-on” engineering projects which have gone well but I guess I have to say that my 4 years as International SKA Project Engineer was particularly satisfying: it simultaneously taxed my technical, managerial and diplomatic skills. I was very pleased to have been able to have a key role in defining the SKA establishing the path forward.
What are you working on at the moment?
Along with my fellow ICRAR Executive Directors I’ve been working hard at getting ICRAR up and running. On the program and technical side I’m indulging my interests in both aperture array design for the SKA, and time-domain astronomy – especially new instrumentation for looking at the very rapidly varying Universe.
You’ve been involved with the SKA project for quite a while, what first sparked your interest in the mega-project?
I was actually at the VLA meeting where the SKA was first mooted publicly, and at the 1990s Kyoto meeting where the first IAU accord for a large telescope was signed. I’m ashamed to say I was too callow to really appreciate the gravity of the initiatives but my real interest was sparked by a conference on the “1kT” (as it then was) at CSIRO in 1997. Ron Ekers and Harvey Butcher both gave inspiring talks, and it was clear to me that this project needed to be supported.
In 1999 Ron asked me to lead the Australian SKA program, and I spent four happy years in that role before moving to the international engineering appointment. In the Australian role, I was particularly pleased to have compiled the first submission for Australia to host the SKA.
ICRAR began a little over a year ago, what’s one of the highlights of that time for you?
I’ve been deeply impressed – and not a little relieved – at how well we’ve done in attracting first-rate engineering staff in the face of strong world-wide competition. Recruiting good people really is central in building new ventures.
I know this sounds a bit prosaic but the simple fact is that ICRAR could not have been established anywhere – even with the excellent resourcing from our partners and sponsors, getting excellent people (who could work anywhere) to commit to a new venture in a relatively remote location is a sizeable success at several levels.