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SALT: spice of the Karroo.

"Go past two robots and then turn right," said the guy repairing a car. That bizarre direction to the Cape Town headquarters of the South African Astronomical Observatory was only the first of many I'd receive during my 2,000-kilometer drive around the country. Not wanting to seem ignorant as well as foreign, I blindly plunged ahead. Mercifully, painted on the blacktop just before a traffic light was "ROBOT." (Don't ask me for its etymology!)

I arrived at the observatory just in time for its traditional morning tea and a chance to meet director Bob Stobie and the gathered staff. My biggest surprise and delight came when I was introduced to Alan Cousins, now 97 and long retired, who still comes to work every day. Later, during a royal tour of the observatory's wonderfully landscaped grounds, David Laney showed me the 0.45-meter telescope that Cousins had used to do his fundamental photometry of southern-hemisphere stars. His strip-chart recorder still sits, as it did years ago, on the observer's chair.

The next day I returned to SAAO headquarters--now mainly a retirement home for once front-line instruments but also the nexus for SALT, the avant-garde Southern African Large Telescope. My host, Case Rijsdijk, then led me some 400 km to Sutherland, SAAO's observing site and soon to be SALT's home. When fully operational in 2005, the telescope's 91 hexagonal mirrors will form the largest photon-gathering surface in the world.

SALT's consortium has many partners. Nevertheless, it was marvelously farsighted that South Africa, a developing country, enthusiastically took the lead in this project. Relative to its gross national product, this is an outstanding commitment to science. Among SALT's initial tasks will be the exploration of the early universe as well as close-up looks at star formation in nearby galaxies.

When I asked for permission to visit Sutherland, my justification was simple: "I collect observatories." But, in truth, I really wanted to see where SALT would be sited in the Karroo--which, also in truth, is a desert I've hankered to visit since I wrote about it in the 7th grade!

As it turned out, the night was mediocre, thanks to a first-quarter Moon. Dave Kilkenny was taking spectra of hydrogen-deficient (probably naked-core) stars, so I couldn't eyeball through the historic 1.9-m. Yet I had great fun watching two TV monitors as a 0.75-m robot (a real one this time) did photometry a hundred meters away. On one screen you could see its field of view. On the other you could watch the signal counts accumulate in a pattern that looked like a cardiogram.

There's a bit of irony here. The robot's design is that of an AutoScope, a creation that looked good on paper but didn't work, as we reported in the June 1996 issue. SAAO was lucky; it purchased the plans rather than the scope itself. Nevertheless, bringing this robot online took years and much redesign. I was lucky to glimpse part of the debutante's ball: she did well.

Beyond the science at SAAO, I was tremendously impressed by its public-outreach efforts, present and planned, local and pan-African. Every science institution should tell the public what it's doing and what it means. Such quotidian proactivity is especially crucial in developing countries, to spark the imaginations of ordinary folk. Despite limited financial resources, SAAO is getting the job done, thanks to the persistent involvement of many staffers. Hats off!

As Case and I drove back to Cape Town, he spotted a black eagle, a regional specialty. I wish we could have put salt on its tail and gotten a really close-up look!

P.S. Alan Cousins is the great-grandson of James Murray, editor of the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. For a glimpse at the origins of that epochal work, read Simon Winchester's book The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins, 1998).
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Title Annotation:spectrum; South African Astronomical Observatory public relations and services
Author:Robinson, Leif J.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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