Science Interviews


Sun, 18th Apr 2010

The Royal Astronomical Society

Professor Andy Fabian, RAS President

Listen Now    Download as mp3 from the show The National Astronomy Meeting

Ben -   All this week, Iíve been at the Royal Astronomical Societyís National Astronomy Meeting, held at Glasgow University, and this show contains just a few of the highlights of the meeting.  To find out more about the Royal Astronomical Society, I spoke to their president, Professor Andy Fabian.  

Andy -   Itís a society of astronomers, both professional and amateur based in the UK, but we do have an international following.  Thereís about 3,400 members, so after the American Astronomical Society, itís the second largest in the world.  

Ben -   And whatís the National Astronomy Meeting?  What does that mean to you?  


The Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London

The entrance to the Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, London © Mike Peel (

Andy -   Well, most of the RAS meetings take place in London, that makes it difficult for some people who live a long way away to meet, so weíve had out-of-town meetings for some time.  In 1992, we started National Astronomy Meetings where one university would try and organise something for a lot of people to come to.  They've built and built, and now, we have 5- 600 people turn up for a week of astronomy.  

Ben -   Any particular reason you chose Glasgow University this year?  

Andy -   Well, they sort of chose themselves because there is the 250th anniversary of Alexander Wilson who was the first regent professor of astronomy there and he, amongst other things, did quite a lot of astronomy.  

Ben -   What do your members actually get out of the Astronomy meeting other than a chance to meet somewhere other than London?  

Andy -   I think a lot of networking goes on.  People meet people that they don't see every day, different groups, you get to see and hear talks about different areas.  Thereís this tendency for specialisation nowadays in science as in everything else, and itís good for people to hear about other branches of the science of astronomy.  Because after all, we all are funded from the same pot - we complete for use of the same telescopes and instruments.  It provides a better appreciation of what weíre all doing as well as lots of interest.  

Ben -   We were reminded in the opening reception today of quite how important astronomy is, not just for blue sky science but for us in our daily lives.  

Andy -   Yes.  Itís surprising how many things that first came out of astronomy, have gone on to be things that are everyday.  For example, Wi-Fi, which many people will have at home, is something that the patent is held by an Australian astronomer.  If you think of the CCD, the Charge-Coupled Device which is the detector in most peopleís cameras, which are in most peopleís phones, they weren't invented by astronomers.  They were invented by physicists, were discovered by physicists and indeed, they were looking for a storage device, an information storage device, and realised that they were light sensitive.  The original ones were completely useless for making images.  But astronomers early on realised the potential because they are a hundred times more sensitive than a photographic plate and they worked very hard in trying to perfect the CCD, which is sort of where it comes from.

In a way, what astronomers do is - they have to work on the detectors because we can't turn the light up.  If you are making a film and itís a bit dark, you can turn the light up.  Well, an astronomer can't do that.  We can't change the brightness of our stars or our galaxies.  What we have to do is take what we can and so, making our detectors more sensitive and more perfect is very important to us.  So we put in that extra effort which makes these things then appreciated by others.

There are many scanners at airports, in medical physics, and in even looking at the human genome and things like that where devices that were originally developed by astronomers and now used to do lots of things in everyday life.  

Ben -   A great many of their delegates here will be people whoíve only just started a PhD or perhaps are a recent post doc.  Do you think itís important for these people to get to spend more time with the established professors and the established researchers in order to find opportunities and to try and really shape the future of where astronomy is likely to go?  

Andy -   Absolutely.  I think the young people are very important for the field.  They are much more flexible in terms of being able to move from where the interest is.  For example, extra solar planets, planets around other stars.  A lot of students move in that direction.  They move where the field is most exciting to them where they can see thereís potential for development.  Of course, you don't want everybody in the same field but I think itís important that they do interact with everybody, and of course, in science, it isnít something where you have to kowtow to people.  A student can talk to a professor as long as they are being sensible about the science.  They can talk to anybody and I think that there arenít any barriers with regards to hierarchy or age which is a very positive aspect of what we do.  

Ben -   And also, you might hear about opportunities here for the future study, or for funding that you may not have heard of elsewhere.  

Andy -   Yes, indeed.  Thatís going to be very important for people who are trying to make their career, they need to assess things, they need to look at how other people have made their own career, and look at how they might copy them.  Not to replicate exactly what that personís done because probably, there isnít such a slot.  But what they can do is to see how people do things.

Itís also very important to be able to talk about what they have done and scientists can't just do something and not tell anybody else about it.  Scientists have got to get out there and tell their peers, other astronomers about what they've done.  Later, they might want to talk to the press or the public after they've done something really significant.  But generally, we need to tell each other what weíve done and then everybody learns and everybody benefits.  

Ben -   And on that note, is there anything in particular that you're looking forward to hearing about this week?  

Andy -   Well, I'm looking forward to seeing how some of our new telescopes are producing new information.  Weíve got new telescopes coming online.  Astronomy is full of discoveries and surprises, exciting new facts coming along.


Subscribe Free

Related Content

Not working please enable javascript
Powered by UKfast
Genetics Society