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The Jewel on the Mountaintop: Fifty years of the European Southern Observatory.

The Jewel on the Mountaintop: Fifty years of the European Southern Observatory

By Claus Madsen

Published by: Wiley-VCH

Publication date:2012

ISBN: 978-3-527-41203-7

Hardcover or PDF, 560 pages, approx. 150 illustrations and historical photos

Size: 16 x 24 cm

Available from for 49.90 [euro]

Available from as a free PDF download

Claus Madsen, who is from Denmark, joined the European Southern Observatory in 1980 to assist with the production of their Sky Atlas. He soon moved on to the essential field of public relations and outreach activities. More recently he has been involved in handling ESO's international relations. He is one of their longest-serving employees and has had an insider's view of its development over the past thirty years. I found the book well written and fascinating. It is a tale of how every kind of obstacle can be overcome in the pursuit of science, whether in the minds of people, in international relations or in the difficulties associated with remote sites.

At the time of the ESO founding convention in 1962, European astronomy, though holding its own in theoretical maters, had fallen behind the United States in terms of large telescopes. The Mount Wilson, Lick and Palomar observatories dominated the field. They had a near-monopoly in observational cosmology and in the investigation of exciting new objects that were being discovered by radio and space techniques.

European astronomers had not yet harnessed the power that international cooperation can bring to 'big science'. But this had become apparent to forward-thinking leaders in several countries and eventually led to the formation of ESO. It was by no means an easy matter to get individual national communities to work together. For example, when the new organization was formed, there were many special problems relating to salaries and conditions of service. It was necessary to adopt a model similar to that of the CERN nuclear organization in Geneva, an international laboratory that had been established eight years earlier.

ESO started slowly. Adriaan Blauuw became its first Director. A site-testing programme soon revealed that the foothills of the Chilean Cordillera offered beter sites than could be found elsewhere on Earth. By the late 1960s, observations had begun on La Silla, inland from La Serena, and plans were being made for a large telescope to be placed there.

I believe that it was the vision of Lodewijk Woltjer who became Director of ESO in 1975 that turned it into a first class organization. Watching him in action when I worked at their new headquarters building in Garching near Munich in 1980-81, I could see that he was fulfilling two clear aims. One was to make ESO into a truly science-dominated organization, and the other was to persuade each participating country that they were getting their money's worth (or more!). Running an international organization involves undreamt of levels of patience and protocols and it is to his credit and to that of the senior staff of the organization that these maters did not overwhelm their enthusiasm for science.

Madsen's book documents the many trials and tribulations of keeping the organization together and of moulding it into a highly motivated unit. By the early 1980s ESO had developed the technical capability to take on new initiatives in telescope and instrument design through its own team of instrument and optical designers. The alt-azimuth New Technology Telescope (NTT) offered a new approach to large telescope design that used the power of computers to control a thin primary mirror and a light-weight structure. It achieved images of a quality not yet achieved by any other ground-based telescope.

When the decision was made to go for the VLT (Very Large Telescope) array of four 8-m telescopes in the late 1980s, it had already been found that another mountain, Cerro Paranal, further to the north, offered even better observing conditions than La Silla. This remote and waterless mountain had to be developed before construction could start there.

ESO is now a large organization and its history is hard to summarize, but I found it fascinating to read of the many problems that had to be overcome. At times political relations with Chile became strained and at least once ESO's continued presence there was threatened. At other times, budget cuts in specific member countries threatened to derail major projects that were already under way.

Following the completion of the VLT, more recent projects have included the VLT Survey Telescope (sometimes jokingly called the Very Small Telescope) and VISTA (Visible and Infrared Telescope for Astronomy). These were designed to make sky surveys using large array detectors to give high sensitivities appropriate to the era of large telescopes --the traditional photographic Schmidt survey instruments were no longer adequate.

ESO is now a participant in a giant radio telescope project-ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimetre Array, with the United States and Japan. This is situated on the Chajnantor plateau (also in Chile) at 5 000 metres altitude.

The next step in the race towards bigger and bigger telescopes, the E-ELT or European Extremely Large Telescope, has recently been approved by the ESO Council. It will be of about 40 metres in diameter. As with other recent large telescopes, the topics will be controlled actively to provide the best possible images.

Besides its several visionary Directors, ESO has had the services of some very able and dedicated astronomers, engineers and others. To them also must be attributed much of the success of this great European institution.


Prologue: The Hinge: The VLT

Part I: Catching Up

Chapter I-1: The Oldest Science

Chapter I-2: Returning from the Abyss

Chapter I-3: A Dramatic Twist

Chapter I-4: In the Most Remote Place God Could Find

Chapter I-5: ESO--Quo Vadis?

Chapter I-6: Towards the 3.6-metre Telescope

Chapter I-7: Sky Mapper

Chapter I-8: Of Heaven and Hell, the Vatican and the Mission

Chapter I-9: Changing of the Guard

Chapter I-10: Garching United

Part II: Years of Experimenta?on

Chapter II-1: Upping the Ante

Chapter II-2: Inventing a Game Changer

Chapter II-3: EMMI, SUSI, SOFI and the other Darlings

Chapter II-4: Hubble at ESO

Chapter II-5: History in Passing

Chapter II-6: An Annus Mirabilis

Chapter II-7: The Day of Decision

Chapter II-8: A Mountain in the Middle of Nowhere

Chapter II-9: NTT First Light

Part III: The Breakthrough

Chapter III-1: Back to the Drawing Board

Chapter III-2: Aux Instruments, Chercheurs!

Chapter III-3: Breaking the Seeing Barrier

Chapter III-4: From Double-sight to Supersight: Interferometry

Chapter III-5: The Return of the Dalton Brothers

Chapter III-6: Bang for the Buck

Chapter III-7: Paradigm Revisited

Chapter III-8: Upgrading, De-scoping

Chapter III-9: Clouds on the Horizon

Chapter III-10: At the Brink

Chapter III-11: Tranquillity in Chile, Stiff Winds in Europe

Chapter III-12: Tuning a Formidable Science Machine

Chapter III-13: The Countdown

Chapter III-14: Clear Skies, at Last

Chapter III-15: First Fringes of the Phoenix

Chapter III-16: Not Just a Telescope, an Observatory; Not Just an Observatory, a Home

Part IV: Towards New Horizons

Chapter IV-1: ALMA

Chapter IV-2: Into New Territory

Chapter IV-3: Buds at Paranal

Chapter IV-4: Of Eponymous Birds and Euros

Chapter IV-5: The VLT in Retrospect

Chapter IV-6: A Love Affair

Chapter IV-7: A Growing Organisation

Chapter IV-8: The Surge

Chapter IV-9: Born in Europe, at Home in the World

Chapter IV-10: A Window to the Public


Appendix 1 Important Milestones

Appendix 2 List of ESO Council Presidents and Directors General

Appendix 3 List of Interviewees

Appendix 4 Index of Names

Appendix 5 Subject Index

Appendix 6 List of Acronyms
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Author:Glass, Ian
Publication:Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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