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Professor Peter Quinn

Professor Peter Quinn was born in Australia and received his BSc (Hons) in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Wollongong in 1978. He conducted graduate studies in astronomy and astrophysics at the Australian National University and received his PhD in 1982 with a thesis dissertation on dynamics of disk galaxy mergers.

Since then Peter has worked at the California Institute of Technology, the NASA Space Telescope Science Institute and the Data Management and Operations Division at the European Southern Observatory headquarters in Munich. In December 2005, Peter was awarded a Western Australian Premier’s Fellowship and took of the position of Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Western Australia in August 2006. He was appointed Director of ICRAR in 2009.

Peter Quinn
What got you interested in Astronomy?

When I was little, when I was in primary school, I got my first exposure to science. I went to school in the late sixties early seventies and it was very much the Sputnik era and the era of space and science. So, I was exposed to science and thought ‘Gee whiz, this is pretty interesting.’ Then by the time I got through the first part of high school I was totally convinced that science was what I wanted to do. So, science became the big thing.

Then I had a particularly influential teacher, who taught me science and music. That love of science came basically from him. By the time I got to the end of high school it was looking like physics was the thing. I was the typical nerdy kid at that point, I had chemicals in the basement and used to make rockets that would explode on the launch pad, you know all that sort of stuff. This was all before computers and PCs and the internet, so all you had was chemicals and rockets and things.

So, I decided to study Physics at university, at the University of Wollongong. I studied Physics and Mathematics for four years. Wollongong University at that time was one of the only places that had undergraduate Astronomy, and that was because of one particular person. He used to run the little observatory at the university up on the hill and started a Planetarium, and had all sorts of outreach things going on. This is Glen Moore, who now runs the science centre in Wollongong. So, Glen got me interested in Astronomy, and by the time I got to the end of my undergraduate and did my honours year, I thought ‘Astronomy is a possibility.’ I wasn’t a guy that said telescopes were the most important thing from the get go. I had a telescope of course, being a nerd you have to have everything, telescopes, microscopes, everything. So, I had a telescope, but it wasn’t until I got to the end of my undergrad when I had to make a choice about what I really wanted to do in the physical sciences.

One plan was to go to the United States and become a particle physicist. The other was to stay in Australia to study Astronomy. At that time there were a bunch of people from Wollongong who were Astronomers, who had all gone through their Astronomy training in Australia. They convinced me that Australia was one of the best places in the world to do Astronomy. If you wanted to train as an Astronomer, you had no better place than Australia.

When I looked at Astronomy, I saw a science where there was a lot of potential for a young scientist to make a contribution. If you went into any other field there were millions of people doing the subject, but if you looked at Astronomy, there was only perhaps a few thousand fulltime professional Astronomers in the world. So, if you wanted the chance to make some huge headway and get yourself down to the forefront and the big picture, Astronomy was a great fertile ground. So I thought, OK this is it, Astronomy is really cool and Australia is a good place to do it. So I packed my bags from Wollongong and went to Canberra and did a PhD in Astronomy.

The ability of an Astronomer to make a big difference was very important to my decision. I think it’s important, as a scientist, to go and find somewhere where you can make the biggest bang, so to speak, and so Astronomy was clearly it for me. Also, the ability to stay in Australia; Astronomy is one of the premier sciences and Australia is one of the premier Astronomy places in the world, so it all made sense.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q1, Why Astronomy? [MP3, 4.2 MB]

Who’s been the biggest scientific influence in your life? Do you have a favourite historical scientist?

I think that there are several people that, when you go through your career, you have a chance to personally experience and you’re inspired by them. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of people who are truly inspirational, and that was just by accident, I just happened to be where they were and that was to me very motivating and inspirational.

The first was my original thesis supervisor, Professor Ken Freeman. Professor Freeman is still at the Australian National University, Mount Stromlo Observatory, he’s one of the world’s great Astronomers, and he was my supervisor. He gave me a great sense of the joy of finding out, but also the way to find out. He was a great mentor, and a great teacher, without hovering over you day to day; he would just give you the right message at the right time. Seeing how he worked and the achievements he’s made I think that was very important to me.

The other was a gentleman that I first met and worked for at the Hubble Space Telescope institute (HST) in America, that’s Professor Riccardo Giacconi. Professor Giocconi was that great blend of all things, he was a great scientist, a technologist, an industrialist, a politician, a leader, he was the true all in all, 100% everything man. He was very inspirational because he taught me that it’s important to be a multi dimensional person to be a scientist, to be an Astronomer in particular, and that one should learn that being a scientist in the modern world requires you to gain all sorts of skills. Not only just as a scientist, but as a leader, a leader of people, as a leader of projects, as someone who can run budgets, design things, build things and who can talk to politicians, talk to educators and talk to people on the street. He taught me about all the things that Astronomers and scientists have to do to do the business of Astronomy in the modern era. I worked for him for five years, he was the director of the Hubble Space Telescope Institute when I was there in the US, and he then left there and became the director general of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Germany.

After I left the HST I went back to Australia for about five years and one morning I got a phone call from Riccardo, asking basically ‘Would you like to come to Munich?’ and I said ‘Yes please.’ So, I went back and worked for him again for another 11 years and during that time he received the Nobel Prize for Physics. He was a Nobel Prize winner at the end of the day, and a truly inspirational man.

I really value those two experiences very much. If I look more generally at Astronomy as a whole, one of the people that I talk about a lot, that I really admire, was actually Edwin Hubble himself. I think Hubble as an Astronomer was an incredible person, he made two amazing discoveries and contributions to science and to our understanding of the Universe. He’s my modern version of Galileo.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q2, Influential Scientists [MP3, 3.8 MB]

Why do you think radio Astronomy is particularly important?

Traditionally in Astronomy, Astronomers have grown up in various camps, they’re like tribes of Indians. There’s the Optical Astronomy tribe, the Infrared Tribe and the Radio Astronomy Tribe. Quite often they didn’t talk to one another because they were using very different techniques, looking at very different kinds of objects and discovering different kinds of things. This has led to some problems, I think, for Astronomy because there hasn’t necessarily been good communication between all the parts of Astronomy and as we’ve grown up and as we’re looking harder and harder at the Universe we see that the problems that we have to solve in the Universe require a knowledge in many different wavelength bands. The Universe is sufficiently complicated and interesting and difficult to understand that the clues we have to gather are in different wavelength bands and we have to join them together to make a big picture that is multi wavelength.


Radio Astronomy is an important player in this multi wavelength vision of the Universe. It’s particularly important for two reasons; firstly because it helps us look in the parts of the Universe we can’t look into with other types of Astronomy, it gives us a different view of galaxies, a fundamentally different view, we see the gas and components of galaxies which are not visible in the optical wavelengths. Secondly, because it is in the radio that we see the lowest frequency emissions and these lowest frequency emissions are the ones with the biggest redshifts, and the biggest redshifts come from the edge of the Universe. So, in principle the radio spectrum gives us a look at the very very early Universe. Radio Astronomy has particular roles to play, but it also should be seen as part of a big multi wavelength vision of the Universe.

Radio Astronomy is particularly important to Australia because it turns out that Australia is probably one of the best places in the world to do it. That’s why Australia has done well in it in the past and also will do well in it in the future. When you look around the world, some places are particularly good at particular kinds of Astronomy because they’ve either got high mountains, dry deserts, or they’re next to a big ocean. Whatever it is, certain places in the world are very good for Astronomy, and it turns out for this low and middle frequency Radio Astronomy that the future of mankind’s interest in that subject is probably here in Australia.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q3, Radio Astronomy [MP3, 2.7 MB]

Where’s the best place in the world you’ve worked?

I think scientifically, just for the pure exhilaration of the science and the brain power around you, Caltech – California Institute of Technology. I worked there for five years and it’s probably the greatest concentration of brain power I’ve ever experienced. Caltech was an amazing place, it was my very first appointment after I left Australia after my PhD. It was customary for new staff to give a colloquia shortly after they arrived. So, I was signed up to give this talk about two weeks after I arrived. I walked into this seminar room to give a talk and the front row had three Nobel Prize winners in it. I was a bit frightened, as you can imagine, of what might happen next. But I survived, and went on from there. Very exciting, and scientifically a fantastic place.


However, in terms of feeling like you’re in the centre of the Universe happened when I was at the Hubble Space Telescope Institute in Baltimore. Basically, because it is such an amazing telescope, pretty much everyone in the world who was an Astronomer visited at some point. So you felt like if you just sat still the entire world would march past your door. That was pretty exciting.

And finally at ESO in Germany, we were building the world’s biggest telescope, which was pretty amazing too. All those places were exciting for different reasons.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q4, Best Place for Work [MP3, 1.2 MB]


What’s the best experience you’ve had in your career?

When I went to the US after I left Australia, I went to Caltech and worked at the HST, then I came back to Australia for about five years. When I was back in Australia, at Mount Stromlo Observatory, there was an idea floating around in the world that you could do an experiment to actually detect this mysterious Dark Matter, this stuff which is out there. Nobody knows what it is, and it’s about 90% of the Universe and who knows what this might look like. There was this experiment that you could do which would rule out some possible candidates for dark matter. To do that you needed to build a telescope and a special kind of camera to go on the telescope, and run an experiment that would last probably 3-4 years, and you’d see whether you could find this missing dark matter. So, we in Australia decided to do it. We teamed up with colleagues in America and we took an old telescope in Australia at Mt Stromlo called the Great Melbourne Telescope.

The Great Melbourne Telescope was built in Dublin in Ireland in 1868 with 5000 pounds worth of money by the Victorian government using revenue from the gold rush. It was put into the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, Victoria and it was the world’s biggest telescope for about 20 years. Then it rusted away because nobody had any good ideas of what to do with it. Eventually this telescope found its way to Mt Stromlo, and sat in the shed there for many many years. Then, along came us with our idea. We needed a telescope about the size of the Great Melbourne Telescope and so we opened the shed and dusted it off and put it all back together again and built a telescope called the MACHO telescope, which became the Dark Matter search project telescope. We built a special camera, a whole bunch of software, and put it on the telescope and opened it up and started taking data. We took data for about two years, then one night we found the very first event, the very first MACHO [dark matter object.] That went straight to the front page of Nature. So that was pretty exciting, to be able to have an idea, be able to dust off this old telescope, build this special camera, stick it all together to make it all work, working internationally, get all the data, write all the software, get it all together, and then find it! That was a very pleasing, very satisfying, very motivating kind of experiment to do, and it’s one of the things I’m most proud of.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q5, Best Experience of your career [MP3, 2.8 MB]

You’re the director of ICRAR, why are you excited about ICRAR and its goals?

We live in a particularly important time. Like all important stories, it’s the right place at the right time. So here we are in Australia, in Western Australia right now, we probably have the best place in the world to do Radio Astronomy, we have an international community of 20 countries wanting to build the world’s biggest radio telescope, a telescope that’s going to be 10,000 times better than any other radio telescope ever built. We have a federal government and a state government providing money to support our efforts. We have the means, we have the opportunity, we just need to do it. It’s a very exciting time to do science, to grow a scientific community in Western Australia, to take advantage of this amazing set of opportunities. We have this great telescope up there in the Murchison, we have all these fibre optics, we have all this data flowing down, we have the Pawsey Centre full of supercomputers. We just need the scientists to take the data and do great science.

I made this case to the government a few years ago, that Western Australia had this incredible opportunity to grow a scientific community. A world class, world leading scientific community, and the Vice Chancellor of UWA, the Vice Chancellor of Curtin and the Western Australian government all bought this idea, that indeed it was the time to grow a strong community of researchers here in WA, and we took the money and created ICRAR.

I think ICRAR is born at a really important time. It’s born at a time when the Pathfinders are being built. The pathfinders will be operational by the end of ICRAR’s first five years. In the next five years, the decision on the SKA site will be made, the planning and design work for the SKA itself is going on. ICRAR is in the box seat to make a very fundamental contribution to Astronomy in Australia, Australian Astronomy internationally, the SKA project internationally and the development of science and technology in Western Australia. All of those things ICRAR could not be better positioned for. Had we done it five years ago it would have been too early, five years from now we would have missed out on all the interesting design and groundbreaking kind of stuff, so we’re right in the zone, so to speak, now for making a very good impact. So, it’s a very fortuitous time to be here in Western Australia and to have ICRAR launched.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q6, ICRAR [MP3, 2.6 MB]


What do you think the first big discoveries made by the SKA will be?

One of the historical facts about telescopes, and I think this applies to all telescope as far as I know, is that they always find things you don’t expect. Every time you make a prediction you’re wrong, so I guess I’m not going to make a prediction.

I can assure you that the SKA is capable of making amazing discoveries, and I think for me personally, looking at the Hydrogen gas, the gas which stars are made from, galaxies are made form, looking at that raw material that makes all the things we can see, back into the past of the Universe before the galaxies were largely formed. That’s when we get the first chance to see the assembly process of galaxies, and the assembly process of stars. That to me, as a largely theoretical person, is what I like to look at; the dynamics and processes of the formation of galaxies. That to me is a really exciting thing. SKA will give us our first deep, deep vision of the Universe in the Hydrogen gas. I think that to me is going to be absolutely fabulous.

But then there are ten things that it’ll do that we don’t really know what they’ll be! I think it’d be great if they found signals from extraterrestrial life, that would be fabulous, so there are all sorts of amazing possibilities with SKA. Because it’s so much more capable than anything else we’ve ever actually had to use before.

Pretty much every single new telescope that’s been built seems to find things that are unknown. There’s a lot of serendipity.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q7, SKA Discoveries [MP3, 1.9 MB]


Why do you think Australia is the best place for the SKA?

it needs engineers and scientists to operate it and to build it, it needs fibre optic networks, it needs supercomputers, it needs research centres, it needs connectivity to the rest of the world. It needs long, long term experience in operating facilities of this kind. All of these ingredients to make the science happen, I think you’ll find in Australia in abundance. We have the raw ingredients to deliver the scientific possibilities of the SKA.

The SKA, as I said, is about science, it’s a scientific facility the world wants. Where is the best place to put it, to deliver that science, where are all the ingredients that the science requires, I think if you look around the world, Australia is exactly the place where you’ll find them all.

[The decision] is clearly a gradual process, it’s not like winning the Olympic games, it’s not like ‘and the envelope please’, it will be a gradual process, and I think it will emerge very gradually. I think the first step in that process is what’s happening now; the detailed testing of both sites. There’s a team out basically testing how radio quiet the sites are. This is an international team, it’s not an Australian or South African team. They’re going to the Australian site and the South African site in the next six months, and testing them further. So that will provide very good data on how radio quiet those sites are. So that’s one ingredient, one piece of the test. The other things, we’ll be gathering information on how much it costs to build a road, and a telescope and a fibre optic network and all the other things that you need to do to build the SKA. Once you’ve got all this data together, you can make a pretty informed decision on the scientific and technical merit of the two sites. There’s a bunch of boxes you can tick, is it this, and how much does it cost, that’s easy.

There are lots of other factors in making a decision, which are beyond the science and technical. These involve relationships between governments, treaties, taxes, imports, exports, employment contracts, you name it, there are lots of government to government discussions that have to happen before any international enterprise, SKA included. Of course there are the things beyond even that, which are the things to do with what certain nations want to get in return for their investment. If I’m going to come into the SKA as a partner, and I’m going to put a bunch of money into it, what can you give me back?

There’s a long chain of discussion that has to occur before you can really decide on a site for anything like the SKA. It’s been proved time and time again when we’ve chosen the site for other big facilities in the world, not just telescopes, but colliders and microscopes and goodness knows what, all these factors come into play. We’re not there yet, it’s probably going to be 2012, I think is a good guess for when we’ll have a clear vision of the site, and that’s still a few years away.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q8, Why Australia for the SKA? [MP3, 3.9 MB]


You’ve done some work on Virtual Observatories, why are they important, and where are we headed?

SKA is a science machine, it’s a science machine that’s very challenging to build. It requires a lot of things to happen, to work together, to make that science machine. It needs radio quietness, it needs long baselines, I talked a little bit about how important it was to have a multi wavelength view of the world, it turns out if you try to form a multi-wavelength view of the world, it’s very difficult, because if you take the data that, say, comes from the Hubble Telescope, or the data from an X-ray satellite, or an IR telescope, or a radio telescope, quite often the data lives in different places in the world, it might even be in different formats, it might be described with different languages, it might have different vocabulary, the meta data might be different. All of that makes for a lack of what you call ‘inter-operability’, you can’t inter operate the data, connect the data together, to make this big multi-wavelength picture. So, one of the big missions for the Virtual Observatory effort is to enable this inter-operability, to provide wrappers, layers, which surround collections of data which allow them to talk to each other. So then I can join radio data and optical data and infrared data, I can put it together and synthesise easily a multi-wavelength view of the world. A Virtual Observatory is about interoperability, but also about discovery of data. So, joining of data and discovery of data.

I could draw a circle in the sky and say ‘give me all the data on blue stars in that circle’ and the Virtual Observatory goes off and looks at all the repositories of digital data in the world, basically makes a single digital sky, digital Universe, and your little circle is like a digital telescope and it’ll deliver back all the information that lives out there in the digital Universe after you make that enquiry. So, a virtual observatory is not only about joining and interoperating data, but discovery in data from different parts of the world.

That’s where the Virtual Observatory fits in, to join data, to make data interoperate and to make data accessible, to publish data. So it’s a very important part of the modern world of Astronomy, not only because of those technologies, but also because the data volume that people are using these days is very large, so you can’t necessarily take a copy of your data home with you and stick a copy on your desktop, because it’s just too big. So the data that you’re using is always data at a distance, it’s data over there on some big data centre somewhere else. The tools you need to access the data and join the data with other data and ask questions about the data are all those tools which have been developed with a Virtual Observatory flavour.

There are several groups that are involved in Virtual Observatories, and one of the good things I was involved in was to make what’s called the International Virtual Observatory Alliance. We got about 15 national Virtual Observatory projects to join together into one big international Virtual Observatory alliance because it’s no good having a standard for data in America, and a standard for data in Europe when they’re not the same thing. So you have to do this as an international project, and we’ve made a very good international collaboration which is still going strong.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q9, Virtual Observatories [MP3, 3.3 MB]


Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or about ICRAR?

We’re living, I think, in a time in the history of science when research is really very global, very big. The machines we need to build, experiments we’re conducting, the questions we’re asking, require big resources: lots of money, lots of people, special places in the world, going to the moon, going to mars. The questions and the challenges are big in terms of resources.

That’s why science, and Astronomy in particular, is becoming very global. Learning how to be a good global scientist is very important for the up and coming generation, to learn how to work in teams, to know how those teams are distributed around the world, to learn how to participate as a scientist as a leader of a group, as a builder of machines, as a builder of software, all of those skills are becoming more and more important as scientists all over the world participate. So, young people coming into Astronomy, and I think the people we train here in ICRAR, we have to give them a sense of how important all these ingredients are in becoming a scientist these days. It’s not just about being good at maths, or being good at looking at stars, you’ve got to learn all these other skills, because those are all important skills for doing research and making progress and being a good scientist in the 21st century.

I think that’s one of the things I want ICRAR to instil in its students, this not only excitement and the challenges that we’re facing, and the amazing questions we’re asking, but also the skills and the tools and challenges you’ll face as a scientist. I think if ICRAR can instil that, if ICRAR can train good global scientists, I’ll be very happy. If we can produce for the world, good global scientific researchers, I’ll be happy as the director of ICRAR.

Also I think ICRAR needs to make the most of its opportunity right now, to really cement for itself a strong future in the next few years, given all the opportunities it has in front of it. I think if we can realise the majority of those opportunities we’ll certainly have a very strong and long lasting research community here in WA, that will be not only important for Australia but also important internationally.

Peter Quinn Interview – Q10, Anything to add? [MP3, 2.6 MB]


Congratulations on being awarded WA Scientist of the Year 2012. What does it mean for you and the researchers at ICRAR?

Thanks. It is always good to see governments recognize science and scientific endeavour. The West Australian Government has been very supportive of the involvement of WA astronomers in the SKA project and has provided more than $20 million to establish the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR). We are now in the process of renewing that grant and our success in the Science Awards is certainly well timed to support our request.

The SKA will be the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. Why is this project so important for the world? Who is building the SKA?

As astronomers, we are fascinated by the history of the Universe around us. How did it begin? What were the first objects to form and when did they form? How has the Universe changed over time and why is the Universe expanding at the rate we measure? These are a few of the fundamental questions we are seeking to answer using telescopes with ever increasing abilities to reach out and capture data at huge distances from the Earth.

A telescope like the SKA represents a revolution in our ability to capture data from the Universe and to push out into the unknown. The SKA will be able to capture 10,000 times more information on the Universe than any previous facility and it will show us, for the first time, the signals from that point in the early Universe when we think the first shining objects were formed – the first light in the cosmic darkness. The SKA is important because it will complete our cosmic picture. It will see back to the beginning of the story of cosmic creation and allow us to have a complete picture of how the Universe has changed up to the present day. To do this the SKA will need to be bigger than any telescope we have made before and it will need to gather, store and manipulate data at a scale comparable to the total current computational capabilities of the entire world. This is an enormous challenge for scientists, engineers and our current technology. We will need to innovate and create new and more efficient power systems, communication systems, computers and data facilities.

This innovation will also be useful to many data intensive sciences and will lead to new technologies for the broad use of all people. Just like the invention of WiFi by radio astronomers at CSIRO in Australia and the creation of the World Wide Web by physicists at CERN in Geneva, the SKA will provide the drive and opportunity to create new technologies with wide applications that will surely change our lives in many ways.

To build the SKA will not be cheap. We currently believe it will cost approximately 1.5 Billion Euro to complete. To raise those funds, countries are going to have to work together, making long term funding commitments to a project that will take at least 10 years to construct and will operate for at least 50 years. Since the early 1990s, scientists and engineers from more than 20 nations have been planning the SKA. In November 2011, a new SKA Organization was formed with 9 founding nations (Australia, Canada, China, Italy, Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, UK) to begin the major task of finalising the SKA design and raising the funds to start construction.

Why build the SKA in Australia and Africa and in such remote locations?

When you decide to build a new telescope you need to choose the best place to put it so the telescope can do the scientific job it was designed to do. The Hubble Space Telescope is in orbit above the Earth because that is where your view of the sky is not affected by the Earth’s atmosphere that distorts images and blocks certain kinds of light. Astronomers put optical telescopes on high mountains above obscuring clouds and well away from the bright lights of cities and towns that wash out the faint light from the most distant stars.

Similarly, you want to put your radio telescope well away from sources of strong radio signals on the Earth that would wash out the faint signals from the early Universe. Most of these Earthly radio signals come from things people use each day – FM radio, mobile phones, microwave ovens, cars, building equipment etc. So we want to put our very sensitive radio telescopes well away from centres of civilization and in dry flat regions were we can spread out radio receivers and sensitive electronics. Both Australia and South Africa have large desert regions that do not have large cities and towns but which are connected to ports and population centres by power, road, rail and communications networks. So in both Australia and South Africa we have regions that are ideal for the construction of sensitive radio telescopes over areas covering 100s to 1000s of kilometres.

When will the SKA be built? What will the SKA cost to build?

The design of the SKA and its total cost will be refined in the next 3–4 years as part of the SKA pre-construction work program. We expect construction of Phase 1 to start in 2016/17 with approximately 10% of the total facility being built on both the Australian and South African sites. At this time we think the total cost of the Phase 1 project will be approximately 400 million Euros.

In Australia there will be two types of receiving systems (antennas) for the SKA in Phase 1. A low frequency array of simple static antennae will work at around 100 megahertz (close to the frequencies of FM radio) and look for signals from the first objects to shine in the very distant Universe. The other array will consist of movable dishes, working at frequencies around 1000 megahertz (close to mobile phone frequencies), that will track objects across the sky using a wide-angle radio digital camera designed and built in Australia.

In South Africa, another array of dishes will work at even higher frequencies (1000 to 10,000 megahertz) and will use receivers designed to do detailed examinations of very energetic and active stars and galaxies in the nearby Universe. The final Stage 2 build of the SKA will start on both sites around 2020 and should be in operation by 2025. The total construction cost of the SKA is likely to be around 1.5 Billion Euros although the final number will not be known until the design is complete and the lessons we learn from building Phase 1 are folded into the final project.

What do you hope will be the first big discovery made by the SKA?

ASKAP is the Australian SKA Pathfinder. Both Australia and South Africa decided to build telescopes that were about 1% of the size of the full SKA to test technologies for the SKA, assess the sites and provide new astronomical data. ASKAP consists of 36 dishes that will eventually each be equipped with a radio digital camera called a Phased Array Feed. This technology is being developed by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) at their Centre for Astronomy and Space Science in Sydney. The ASKAP dishes will be able to take wide-angle radio images and rapidly create maps of radio sky at frequencies that reveal the hydrogen gas that lives in and around galaxies. Mapping the hydrogen gas tells us about the number and formation history of galaxies and will hopefully help us understand the nature of the mysterious Dark Matter which controls how galaxies form, rotate and move through the Universe.

Why spend billions of dollars on new telescopes like the SKA?

The SKA Project will drive innovation in a number of ways. Because of the enormous challenge for computing, data storage and data movement, the SKA will need to find or invent new approaches and technologies and make sure their cost is affordable. We know the SKA will generate more data in one day that the whole population of planet Earth currently generates in one year. We know that the SKA will need to be connected to the largest computer system in the world, just to process the signals from the antennas. We know that in the vast amount of SKA data we need to find faint signals from distant galaxies and stars – like needles in a large cosmic haystack. The whole world also wants to solve problems like this – whether it’s looking for the face of one lost child in millions of CCTV camera images or finding the one in a billion combination of genetic elements that cures a particular disease. We also know the SKA will need computers that use far less electricity than today’s computers because we could not possibly pay the SKA supercomputer’s electricity bill at the power consumption levels they have today. We also want to supply the SKA dishes in the middle of the deserts of Australia and South Africa with cheap, green and renewable energy. Such systems could also power the needs of many remote communities.

Large, global science and engineering projects like the SKA have in the past being great innovators, with lots of benefits for society, and I am sure the SKA will be the same.

How do telescopes allow astronomers to study the history of the Universe?

All astronomers are time travelers. When we look out into the Universe we see signals (light, radio waves, X-rays etc.) that have travelled across space for a long time. When these signals finally fall into our telescopes, we form images of the distant objects as they looked when the signals left them. The further an object is away, the longer the signals take to reach us and the further back in time we are looking. We believe the signals from the first objects to shine left them approximately 13 billion years ago. Since the Universe is about 13.7 billion years old, this means the first objects probably formed about 700 million years after the Big Bang that signaled the creation of the Universe. So when we finally see the light from the first objects, we are travelling back in time 12 billion years.

How can young scientists and engineers get involved?

The SKA community currently consists of 9 countries. These countries will be doing a lot of the design and construction work necessary to complete the SKA. In these countries, research centres, universities, and industries will be taking on work and advertising jobs for the SKA project. The SKA Headquarters in the UK will be a central source of information on opportunities for involvement in the project both at a professional level and at a community and educational level. Once finished, the SKA will be a global research facility that can be used by researchers from all around the world to study the radio Universe. The SKA will be a telescope that reaches its full potential by 2025. That’s 13 years from now. This means children just starting school now would be ideal recruits for the SKA. I am sure the exciting innovation and discoveries surrounding the SKA will inspire many children to take on careers in science and technology in much the same way that the Apollo landings on the Moon inspired my generation.

Galaxy formation, dark matter and virtual observatories are among your scientific interests. Why are they important?

We do not really understand how galaxies form. Since we believe that you need to form a galaxy before you form stars like the Sun, understanding how galaxies work is the beginning of understanding how stars and eventually planets form. Dark matter makes up more than 90% of the matter that is associated with galaxies. This means the formation of galaxies is probably driven more by dark matter than luminous matter. We have no idea what the dark matter is made of but we know it’s probably not large chucks of matter like the Moon or dead stars. It’s probably some form of elementary particle left over from the Big Bang. If so, finding out what it is will tell us a great deal about the physics of the Big Bang and the subsequent formation of structure in the Universe.

Data from telescopes all over the world usually ends up in data centres or archives. If the data in these centres could be connected together in some way, you could form a digital version of the sky. This digital sky could be explored by computers from around the world as if there were a single virtual observatory with it’s own special kind of virtual telescope. The virtual observatory initiative is directed towards defining standards, establishing connections to data collections and developing tools to make the multi-wavelength digital sky available to astronomers. The International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA) is leading this effort.

What do you think is the world’s greatest scientific challenge of the 21st Century?

Right now, we have two very successful theories that describe how nature works. The first is the theory of Gravity (general relativity) developed by Einstein and the second is the theory of the atom (quantum mechanics) developed by Max Planck and others in the beginning of the 20th century. Both these theories describe how nature behaves in great detail and both have passed a large number of experimental tests. However, when you try to use both theories together to understand how the Universe began in the Big Bang, you end up with infinite answers. The two theories appear to be inconsistent when the Universe was very small, dense and hot at the time of the Big Bang. Understanding what is wrong, or what we have missed, in either general relativity or quantum mechanics – or both – is probably the single biggest issue in all science. Using the SKA to look at the first objects to form and using it to probe Dark Matter and Dark Energy (the force that is causing the Universe to accelerate in its expansion) may give us some important clues as to what is missing from our picture of nature.