This is the blog of Ant Miller, senior research manager and dilettante geek at large at the BBC.
I wail moan and cuss about the challenges and fun to be found here.
These are my personal opinions, and not those of my employer. Or anyone else here for that matter.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A very pretty corpse

Went to Herstmonceux for the day and a delightful day it was too. The castle, though extensively rebuilt in the early 20th century, retains it's charming character and the grounds are well kept too. It's great that it's still very much a working institution too- Queen's University of Canada has its international study centre here, and in term time the place is all abuzz with students and faculty, and even when we visited they were setting up a reception for the Canadian High Commissioner. Also on the grounds is the Observatory Science Centre, Herstmonceux, occupying a classic peice of post war high quality British Architecture- I really hope it's listed as it combines the excellence of workmanship and aesthetics that the best of the UK can manage along side the hilariously excentric and impractical that we manage- at night astronomers would regularly find themselves stumbling into the lily pond placed centrally within the unlit compound.

There is a note of sadness to the centre though. Althought the castle itself and many of the other building the Royal Observatory built on the site during its residence are still in active use, and the observatory continues to provide excellent facilities for visitors and amateurs, the institution that founded it, one of the oldest scientific institutions in the world, was disbanded entirely in 1998. The functions of the once pre-eminent faculty are still ongoing, but again it strikes me that this was another example of the dying stages of an institutional life cycle.

The Royal Observatory had had a clear purpose when founded, a purpose defined by the limitations of the technology then available. It totally dominated the collection, interpretation and disemination of knowledge and expertise within its feild, and in a way this is another example of vertical integration (pace EMI of the 1920s, Sony of today). Key to this was the fact that all the science could be done in the UK, and that the end user of the knowledge was intimately intwined with the establishment- it was a department of the Admiralty, and ships were the end users of the astronomical data they produced.

So why is the RGO no more? Almost everything that could have changed did change- the science advanced to the point where a UK sited base was far less capable than one on the top of a mountain in, say, the Canaries, so that moved, leaving the Sussex Observatory something of a white elephant. More than that though, the science of cosmology marched on, demanding ever larger and more elaborate instruments to verify it's findings, so that the last soely UK financed telescope was procured in the seventies. The users marched on too- the Admiraly and the observatory became officially independant in 1965, and by the eighties astro navigation was an increasingly secondary tool behind the emerging sat nav kit. Astronavigation is still the fall back, but GPS is pervasive, cheap to buy, and requires far far less training to use. For the moment, we're pretty pally with the providers too. (It's not as if astro nav is any more independent from the USA- the almanacs are joint published with the US).

Still, it does seem sad that an institution that drew together such excellent science, and in such romantic surroundings, can have fallen from it's golden years so quickly. There is still n astronomer royal, but no flat in a castle, no extensive research staff, no rights of passage for astronomers allowing the formation of a proffesion wide esprit de corps. It may not matter, or it may. It's only eight years since the great institution disolved away into a collection of tourist atractions and disparate research functions in other instiotutions with different agenda. I suspect it'll be at least an orbit of Saturn before we begin to see the hole left.

A personal account of the rise and fall of the observatory.

The Observatory is having a special weekend to observe the 'String of Pearls' mini comets as they approach the earth on the 12th and 13th of May from 8pm to midnight (weather permitting!).


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