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The Meridian - S02E06

A transcription of the sixth episode of season two.



This is episode 6 of season 2 or our podcast the Meridian. It's April 8th and when we're recording this, we're located at 55 degrees and 43 minutes north of the equator and 13 degrees and 12 minutes east of the Prime Meridian, so in Lund.   

Crossing our local Meridian today. We have a distinguished guest who actually shared a desk with me during my master thesis. This is none other than Colin Carlile who decided to do a masters degree in astrophysics here at Lund observatory despite already having a PhD in physics. 

And as always in the second season will introduce a bit of field reporting from La Palma later in this episode. 

Don't miss it. 



The intro scene includes background music and 24 high school students saying astronomical words like “Space missions”,  "Solar wind", "The big dipper", "Galactic dynamics", "Gravitational waves", "Exoplanets", "Black holes", "Betelgeuse", "Dark energy", "Near earth asteroids", "Jupiter", "Ground based telescopes" and more.  Slowly it fades to everyone saying “The Meridian”.      




Hi Rebecca.  How are you? 


I'm fine actually, how are you? 


Yeah, not too bad actually. 


Good. So I've been thinking:  What made you interested in astronomy to begin with? 


Oh, that's a good question. I think I've always been interested in science from a young age. 

When my parents got our very first computer. They bought an educational science CD and that like had little songs about the Solar System.  And my dad is also a pretty big Star Trek fan.  So he had quite a lot of stuff, and showed that to me in a young age and it kind of resonated with me as well. How about you?  


I can actually sort of remember the exact moment when I became interested in astronomy, which is a bit strange.  It might sound super cliche, but I remember reading....  and it was like the headlines of the magazine or newspaper that my dad was reading.  And it sad: “There are 200 billion stars in the Milky Way - scientists say”.  And I was like... that's so many stars! 

I was seven or eight at the time, but I remember being like, “whoa, that's so many stars!”  

And from that point onwards I was consuming everything about space and wanting to grasp the vastness of it.   And yeah, then it was just a slippery slope. 

I think I was fairly young also when my dad showed me a lot of movies. He showed me Alien at a very young age, too young age.  But also “Contact: with Jodie Foster and that got me really hooked on the idea of sitting there with the giant telescopes and listening to space. 


Yeah, it was funny. 'cause like I think what really gravitated me towards studying astronomy was exploration.  I've always loved to explore things and I think you know, partly with the Star Trek movies, but also with like... There's a book called The Martian as well, which got made into a movie. 

I've always liked the idea of going to another planet. 

Everyone talks about going to Mars, and I think Mars is a cool planet, but it's not very habitable and it won't be super comfortable. 

I always wanted to go to these alien worlds out there. And then you learn, you know, if you study relativity and stuff, how we can't do that yet.  We don't have the technology.  We don't have even any kind of understanding of what might exist that may get us out to these stars.  

And so the next best thing was to study these planets, and so that's why I fell into exo-planets 'cause in a way, I am exploring science, but maybe at some point we might find a planet that would be worth searching, and then we start shifting the question of IF there is a planet we can go to, and then it becomes a ‘how can we get there?’ kind of question and that might push us forward.  

So yeah, and I think it's the imagination captured by all these creative artists of how it could be like that inspires me to push forward. 


So it feels like you're very driven by the wandering lust, or the lust to explore. Nic: 


Yea, I think that is what drives me. 


'Cause I want to say that I'm more driven by the “I want to know”, like extremely sort of curious. I guess you're curious too, but extremely curious about ‘How do things actually come to be?’ and ‘How do things work?’  

I guess that's sort of also why I study what I do, which is the origin of the elements, 'cause it's such a fundamental question for me. I really like the sort of basics. And yeah, those kinds of questions. 


Yeah, searching for stuff is something that I like to do. 


I think that's fun that you can go into this with like two different objectives. 

But yeah, you mentioned Star Trek. So the question: Star Trek or Star Wars? 


Yeah, it's a toss up.  I probably.... 


There is one correct answer you know. 


I would actually say Star Wars. How about you? 


Well, it's Star Trek, but that’s mostly because I've seen Star Trek more than Star Wars. But as you say, it's sort of hard to compare a very long and extended TV series to movies.  But also: Star Trek have so much politics and it's really about that exploration that you talk about, not so much about war. 


Yeah, exactly well, I think the reason why I would say Star Wars is my favourite of the two is, as I grew up... It's a fantasy. It's a space opera.  Luke Skywalker grows up and then he saves, and defeats evil and he's like he was something as a kid.... 'cause I watched these movies like religiously, 'cause my uncle had them on VHS. So, I idolised Luke and like with Star Trek there are some cool characters but it's more about the story of the crew going into it, so I couldn't sort of pick a character.  That's probably why. 

Plus lightsabers are pretty cool. I think everybody can agree to that. 


I guess, but phasers are pretty cool too. 


Phases are pretty cool, yeah. 

So is Star Trek your favourite TV series or do you have another one?  Is there any other ones that really come to mind when you think about space in popular culture? 


I would say Star Trek. Yeah, it's the one. Also of course Contact, that I mentioned before. 

One that I don't like, I guess I shouldn't bash too much here, but there is this movie that I saw once on TV that's called ‘Sunshine’ and the plot here.... Have you seen it? 


I have seen Sunshine, yes. 


The plot is that the Sun is dying. 

I don't know how we skipped 5 billion years. Or maybe they explained it at the beginning, but the sun is dying and we have to kick start it alive with bomb the size of Manhattan. 

And I'm like, yeah yeah, that's a kind of tiny bomb. For the Sun. 

The Sun is going to be like “Oh, an itch.” 


Yeah, exactly, yeah, it wouldn't really affect it that much. 

I guess one of the coolest things about science is that...  not science. Space! because it's endless and like there's so many different ways. 

And that's probably why you have all these creations coming out of it. 'cause really like you can't even imagine what's possible and like, I think that's why we get surprised every time we point our telescopes to the night sky. 

We keep getting surprised and then, you know, not even our imaginations can really fathom what's possible in the universe. 


And I guess there's... yea, to wrap up before our guest arrives...  there's some sort of beauty in that we actually get to study something that fascinates so many of humankind. 


Yeah, exactly, and sort of like bring out stories from the real world to them and sort of, you know, maybe stoke their imaginations a bit more. 






---------------------- Scene change with music.     



And now I'd like to welcome to the mic Colin Carlile. Colin, welcome. 


Thank you, Nic. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm looking forward to it. It's. 


A pleasure to have you.  So I I've only been here for a year and a half so we haven't really gotten to know each other that well. But how did you end up here in Lund, studying a Masters degree? 


I came to Lund in 2006.  I had lived in France before that and I came here to head up the Swedish bid to locate the European Spallation Source here in Lund.  And I spent then the next 7-8 years, first of all, the exciting process of winning the site decision against other countries, and then our building a team that could actually produce a full design of the facility, until I reach the Magic age of 2/3 of one century, at which point I formally retired. 

And then, because I lived down the road in Sölvegatan I could see the astronomy tower which you can no longer see because of the glorious building that has been built next door. 

But I thought, ah astronomy.  

I had toyed with the idea of doing astronomy when I was studying physics, but I thought, well, no one will ever pay me or anyone else to look through a telescope.  So instead I moved to nuclear energy. 


But did you change your mind or? Yeah 'cause you ended up doing a masters here in Lund? 


Oh yeah, and it was great, and it's the Swedish system and the Swedish system is wonderful because it's considered to be beneficial for someone, even at my age, to continue to study and I think it's correct. The fact that you've got free education.  As long as you're not actually pushing out a young person.  Then I think it's absolutely wonderful.  

For one thing, it keeps your mind alive. It helps you to pass on the successes and the failures of your own career to other people and maybe to guide people in some way. And so I think it's really excellent. And so I came here and I started the process of studying, having last studied and sat exams, oh, 50 years ago. 

It was a shock to the system, particularly the five hour exam for stellar physics.  Five hours. So when I gave my feedback, I said, “what can you learn about a student in five hours that you cannot learn in three hours?” 

As a result of my rebelliousness, the exam the next year was reduced in terms of the number of questions because I was not used to five hours sitting and I began to get warning signs when I saw other students coming in with boxes of pizza and other huge quantities of food. 

Because I never ate food in an exam, but I realised what a mistake it was after 2 1/2 hours when my brain suddenly dissolved. 

So it's been a great experience and I'm here now and I am formally a researcher and I really enjoy it here. I really enjoy it. 


So then maybe we could wind back the clock a little bit and talk about what inspired you to have a career in physics? 



Nuclear fission, because when I was a youngster, maybe seven or eight years old in the mid 1950s from my bedroom window, I could see the coastline of the Lake District in England on a good day you could see beyond to the Isle of Man and you got this wonderful view.

But there was being built what in that phase was called Sellafield – and every now and then they would change the name because nuclear energy became something ‘uhhhh’... must change their name.

And it was very very much in the public consciousness at that time that nuclear energy was going to solve all our problems of burning coal and oil and whatever. And it would be so cheap that you would not have electricity metres in homes, it would be so cheap!

That promise was never delivered, but it influenced me enormously and I thought, yeah, this is for me. I mean in those days you don't think that way, but clearly it moved me in that direction and I remember the talk that there was of splitting the atom.

This was so exciting! You could split the atom! So I decided I'd do an experiment myself, so I got the table salt and I poured it out onto the step and I got my fathers hammer and I started hammering the salt, but then I got cold feet because I thought “My God, if I really split the atom I could blow the whole damn place up”.

I mean really this, this was the thought process, “better not hit this too hard”, and so I stopped at that point, trying to split the atom of sodium and chlorine.

But also what happened in those days we lived in an area where there was a dark sky. And I used to be – believe it or not – a member of the church choir, which was, I don’t know, some 4 kilometres away from home and so I used to have to go up in the darkness to this church, and the skies were so dark and the stars were so bright and the Milky Way was visible and there were events.

I remember standing on the front lawn, and there was a comet. Was it 1956 or 55 or something? There was this comet. And there it was in the sky.  Wow.

And I used to have dreams. They weren't exactly nightmares, but they were dreams of “where was I in this night sky”, when I'm doing this 4 kilometre walk to the church, the thought came to me, “Where am I? Where is the Earth? If I go up there, where do I get to and will I come back on myself? Or where is the edge? And if there's no edge, where is everything?”

And this really fascinated me. And even now you can have many, many explanations by theoreticians who will say that you can't even ask that question. And my response is: But I have asked the question, the question still is: “Where are we?”.

And then, as a 6 or 7 year old, that troubled me. And I was an only child and I had really no one I could talk to about these strange things. And so I carried these things with me. And then when I went to school, I mean secondary school, I focused in on the traditional subjects, maths, physics and chemistry. Maths was my best subject, maths and art, in fact, for some strange reason.

And I thought “Maths, I'm going to do maths.” But then when I did my final exams my top marks were in physics. I thought right, I'd apply for math. So I was accepted for maths. But when I got to university, I went up to the tutor and said “I want to change the physics”.

So I did change to physics and then I came to the end of that bachelor course. I was in Leicester, which was a kind of – I mustn't say this – but it was a new university.  It wasn't high up in the rankings, but it was rather “person sized’” shall I say. It wasn’t this huge faceless place.

At that time in Leicester, there was a very strong X-ray astronomy group and they were putting up X-ray detectors, either on balloons or using Skylark rockets to put detectors up for a certain short length of time, and the guy who was then head of the astronomy section was Ken Pounds.

And he was quite an inspiring person. And the opportunity came either to do X-ray astronomy or something... useful. I thought “no one is going to pay me to look through a telescope, therefore I will actually do nuclear energy.”

And so I then went on to do a masters course in Birmingham, which again was a great time. It was very, very intense, but it was reactor physics and neutron physics and I then did a project at a weapons establishment where they had this lovely 5 MW reactor, a swimming pool reactor and you can look down and see the Cherenkov light as the reactor is operating and you think “wow, look at this”. It's a beautiful sight to see a nuclear reactor operating is a beautiful sight.  This blue glow very intense.

And so I did a project on that reactor measuring neutron fluxes. And there was an exact facsimile of that reactor just a few metres away that was used to test the reactivity of certain items. They were put in the reactor core to irradiate them. That was where I had my tea!

In the UK, in England, you always have tea. And there were only four or five of us there, and so the operator of the reactor, Irish guy, used to say, “Come on, come on, you can drive the reactor to criticality.” So he'd sit me in the operators seat. I was what, 22 at the time, and he sits in the operating seat, you got these two handles, and you're watching what's called the doubling time of the reactor. In other words, when the doubling time becomes short, you're in trouble.  

And if it goes to zero, you'd better run away quickly, but of course there are all kinds of safety things in place, so the reactor will trip out if you get anywhere near a short doubling time and so I used to do this and what, and then you would say, “come on, let's go and move the fuel around”.  

And so you'd go onto the top of the reactor and it was rather small. It was in a grid and they would go in and you put a tool in, turn it around and pull it down. Pull the fuel element out. You'd move it all around according to what it was you wanted to measure the reactivity of.  

And I this is great. I loved it. It was great and then I interviewed for jobs in the nuclear power industry. It somehow didn't catch my imagination, but that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to build reactors. This was something useful. But then my supervisor, Keith Ross, he said to me: “Why don’t you do a PhD?”  

I didn't want to do a PhD. I don't want to go around scattering neutrons off this, that and the other. I want to build nuclear power stations. A friend of mine actually did just that. Who was doing his PhD with me. He did just that, but I didn't. I went into what's called neutron scattering.

And that took me to a postdoc in Italy. That was a wonderful experience. To go to an international lab where you found that people were speaking different languages and were switching from one language to another.

You'd be invited to dinner and their teenage kids would be able to speak in German and English and Italian. I thought, “Ah, this is really where the future lies.”

It inspired me, something that changed my view of the world. Uhm, I just read something about someone who was very pleased that they've now got a postdoc in the same place they did their PhD. And I thought, “Don't do that, go somewhere else and come back if you want”.

And so I found that very inspiring. You see different cultures.  

I mean science is science, but it's people who do science, and it's the interactions with the people. It's very, very few people who sit isolated doing science, it is about how you click with someone? What kind of collaboration can you get involved with?

It's, you know, sometimes people are very high minded about this. Anyway, I then applied for a job at Rutherford Lab near Oxford and got that.

And then we started on a new project to build a spallation source.  No longer fission. Spallation, which is back to the hammering the salt.  Breaking the nucleus up into many, many particles. I spent two years in Grenoble and that was also great.


I've got a few notes here saying that it [Grenoble] is one of the world leading facilities at servicing other universities. So, what are you doing? What did you do in Grenoble?


When I went there, you see we were planning to build this neutron source based on an accelerator not on a nuclear reactor, and we did.

But it was the time of the blessed Margaret Thatcher, who imposed spending limits. And so this project, which had been agreed by the government, was delayed by two years and therefore - what do we do?  

So I went to gain experience at this place, which I refer to as the iLL, which is the Institut Laue-Langevin, in Grenoble.  

And this was the world's most powerful research reactor, 57 megawatts. Not like the reactor that I talked about where you move elements around, that reactor was called Horace. Don't ask me why... some Greek God.

And this reactor, however, had got one fuel element, and it was actually smaller than this table. It was the same height as his table. But it was this diameter.


So about like half a meter.


Yeah, about 35-40 centimetres, and this reactor produced 57 megawatts of power.


Wow, you said the other one had five megawatts.


The one had 5, yes.


This would fit into a pool.


And it was in a pool that one, but this one was also in the pool - but deeper.

Shut-down rods all around, a control rod in the middle - and again the same kind of thing. You know you’ve got the levers and you go backwards and forward - although they didn't allow me to run that reactor sadly.

And you look down in that pool and it's 10 times brighter than the 5 MW reactor. When you look down - even the used fuel elements glow with Cherenkov light.  

So I went there for two years as an instrument scientist and my job was to enhance the instrument that I was working on. There were then in those days 25 instruments at the ILL, each one being used for a few days by a university group, tackling a particular problem in material science. “What is the structure of a super ionic conduct?”, “What is the confirmation of a protein binding to a drug or water?”, “What are what are the magnetic properties of various materials now that are used in the very high power magnets that are necessary for electric cars or windmills”, for example.

And so we were constantly getting people coming in and out, and you as the instrument scientist - you knew how to make the measurements and the person coming in had got a scientific problem that they want to solve and so together you would then do the experiments.  

I did a lot of work on molecular physics, basically.  Methyl group rotation, the diffusion of hydrogen in metals, so nowadays when everyone talks about hydrogen and the storage of hydrogen - 50 years ago I was doing that for my PhD.  Taking pieces of platinum and palladium, in particular, and it would just...  it would just suck the hydrogen in.  It's a metal and it just sucks it in like a sponge  


Wow ok, uhm, so then yeah, I've got so many questions that I want to ask you now. Like with your research you are attaching instruments onto your reactor so that kind of reminds me a little bit of how telescopes work.

We have this giant mirror which funnels the light into, say, a spectrograph which will then allow us to create a spectrum. But you can also analyse the polarisation or the intensity of the light. Is that sort of similar to what you were doing with your research?


Yes, very similar, very similar.  

Basically, a large telescope or a set of telescopes is something that... Time can be granted on these telescopes to university groups. To do this, or to do that with this spectrometer, or to observe a particular star or Galaxy or whatever.

The difference with a nuclear reactor and the instruments that are built around it.

For example, on the ILL in Grenoble there are 44 instruments and therefore 44 different groups can measure at the same time.  Totally independently. It's like sitting around a campfire. If you sit around a campfire you can have 10 to 12 people getting warm from the campfire.  With a neutron source you can do a similar thing.

Everyone is observing the neutrons coming out from the reactor and using them to investigate their own material.  And so you can have someone studying the dynamics of a polymer on one instrument and beside you can have someone looking at the magnetism in praseodymium, for example.  Totally different.

Whereas on a telescope I don't think you've got quite that plurality, I would say.  But it's a very similar thing.  You apply for time, a worthy group of people decide whether you get the time or you don't. And you then come, and you do your observations. You do your measurements.  Very, very similar.


That's really interesting!   

Since you have had a very well established career through nuclear physics. So, do you have any idea of what the trajectory is going to be? What is the new frontier?  

I guess fusion often gets mentioned. What do you think?  Where are we going with this kind of research?


Well, this is maybe not politically correct, to say this, but for me, fusion has missed the boat. And why do I say that? Because I think that the growth of what might be called renewable energy - solar panels and windmills - has risen at such a rate, whereas the development of fusion has gone really at a snails pace.  

And in the South of France at Cadarache there is the huge fusion reactor being built – Iter.

It is at the limit of materials technology and it will be a great test-bed. But when will you get to the situation where you can draw from a fusion reactor a 1000 megawatts? And so, I feel that fusion has missed the boat.  

I think that that the policy of certain governments, Denmark being one, Germany being another, to say we will shut down all our reactors. I think that's very precipitant. I think it's very unwise. I think in some ways it's anti-science - because a lot of the medical isotopes are generated in nuclear reactors.    

And people can take decisions which will influence the ability of medics to investigate medical problems in humans. For example in Australia, you come from the southern hemisphere...


I do.


There they have no nuclear power stations, but they do have a nuclear reactor. And this is a source. They do neutron scattering material science, but it's also a source of medical isotopes, and when that shuts down there is a loss of radioactive molybdenum which is used as a tracer element, for example.

Everyone thinks France.... France is the example of the use of nuclear power, and it is there's no doubt about it. And when I was the director of the ILL - which I became after going back to Rutherford lab and was then recruited as the director of the ILL - you saw the way that the French authorities, the nuclear safety authorities... my God, were they serious, they were serious!  

They could turn up at any time. Our reactor operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week and they would turn up at any time, from Paris, and they would want to know what the hell you were doing.

And on Christmas Eve, because then we lived up in the mountains above Grenoble, there was a phone call.  “Monsieur Director”, the French are very formal, “the Nuclear Safety Authority delegates have just arrived.”  

It was 9:00 o'clock in the evening, on Christmas Eve. Oh, I thought.

 “All right,” I said “I'll get in the car I'll come down.”


On Christmas?!


Christmas Eve.  And they turned up and by the time I got in the car, my wife shouted down to me “They've left.  They've gone.  You don't need to go down there”.

What had happened, they had just turned up and they had gone to the reactor control room. The reactor was shut down over that Christmas period and they went to the crew - it was always crewed, there were always people there.

And they went to the crew and they said “What would you do in the event of something happening? Take me to your instruction. Show me where your instructions are.”

So the head of the reactor crew went over to and take the file out and says this, this, this.

“Fine, thank you very much. Happy Christmas.”  

So you knew at any time you were being watched. I mean it was great. People used to say to me, “Oh my God, you're the head of this organisation with 57 MW nuclear reactor, how do you sleep at night?”  

So I used to say “Well, actually I live up in the mountains, 25 kilometres away, so I'm not worried at all”. But then I would say “No, that's not the reason. The reason I can sleep at night is because I've got these engineers and physicists at the group leader level, who are absolutely excellent.   

And not only that - I've got the weight of the French nuclear safety authorities above me who are watching our every move”.

So when you come to nuclear power - to get round to the original point that I made about an hour and a half ago:  Whilst nothing is safe, nothing is safe - the roof might fall on us now, we might get killed crossing the road. Nothing is safe. Nuclear power has developed at such an extent that actually it is safe in comparison to other the global effects of burning coal, for example.

But it scares people. And so I think that there will be...  France, as I said, the world leader but Sweden, even above France in the power generated from nuclear energy per head of the population exceeds slightly France, Sweden does!  Whereas Denmark is completely non-nuclear and every time I drive by the Barsebäck Power station, I think: “Politics.”


So then maybe if I could play devil's advocate before we start to wrap up, people say that the cost - you know like Tjernobyl is often quoted, and also the meltdowns in Japan.  

They say it's just a matter of time before you have another reaction meltdown.  Obviously the French are being very strict in regards to safety, but do you agree with that kind of mentality? That it's going to happen? Or do you think it's possible to mitigate the risks of fission reactions which might lead to better understanding of nuclear technology?


Well, these things are always possible. I mean the situation in Chernobyl was basically very poor oversight. People bending rules, but I've got experience of nuclear installations in other countries, and it requires the International Atomic Energy Agency to be extremely strict.

Like aeroplanes, if you've got a lot of Cowboys flying aeroplanes with 300 people in them: Yes, they will crash. They will crash.  

Therefore, nuclear power, fission requires, that reactors are made ultrasafe and that all of the coefficients of reactivity have got to be negative.

So if they go in one direction, they come back to the equilibrium.  And this can be done and is well known.  And that you move away from these huge nuclear power complexes, which can generate 1000 megawatts per reactor to the modular reactors, they can be built much more quickly. They can be built very safely.  

So the population at large and politicians are right to challenge these things. They are right to challenge them. But in my view, fusion will not be a viable source of electricity in this century.


OK, so then maybe to wrap up, 'cause you did do a masters in astronomy. And I'm a biased towards astronomy, ‘cause I did a bachelors in physics actually, and I was more than happy to leave the field when I found astronomy instead, but obviously it's not for everyone. How do you feel about astronomy or physics? Or do you love physics a bit more? 


Well, I suppose what drives me are large facilities. A lot of the pleasure I've got out of life is by building spectrometers, and saying to myself, “I'm going to build a better spectrometer than already exists”. It's been building things, it's being saying, “Look, if we invest this, we can produce that”. And therefore, the university people who want to study, complex magnetic materials, will be able to understand them better. 

But what turns me on is the building of the infrastructure and that's what was such a pleasure at the pulsed source in the UK, the accelerator driven, ISIS, as it was called - long before the word became a bit of a taboo word. Together we built that. I was then a division head. I go to Grenoble, it's a fantastic place.  

The ILL in Grenoble and sitting next to it is the European synchrotron. It's a world centre. Then with the ESS, that was a challenge for big infrastructure and so the thing that appeals to me now, is the work that we're doing in the basement down here, which no one knows about... 

Instrumentation! I'm now on the thin ice... But down in the basement, we have a rather lovely setup for photon correlation from stars.  

And that would lead us on to using the big arrays of telescopes that are being built - and the smaller ones - in Chile, the Cherenkov telescope array. The smaller arrays that are being built on La Palma and Teneriffe, in order that you can see things better. You can see stars! At the moment they're pinpoints, at least main sequence stars, and even the giant stars, and so this is what drives me. 

It is that we can do things better. And building something better, I think “yes, we can do that” and I've got the opportunity of contributing in my own small way to doing that. Together with Dainis Dravins and others here. So the thing that has driven me has been that goal of building better things. 

If you read Freeman Dyson, guy who was at Princeton, he is very inspiring.  And the argument of which comes first. I mean, this kind of apartheid into science (bow down), or instrumentation (you are at a lower level). I think this is complete nonsense. It's complete nonsense. “Instrumentation is just technicians” – absolute complete nonsense! 

And that's why I'm very happy to build equipment here because you need the two, and it's often that good ideas come from the people with the vision for how you can build things better. Hanbury Brown was the guy who, had this idea, in Jodrell Bank in ManchesterL “Photons are correlated!”   

“Complete nonsense” – people said, and he then went ahead and he showed it was correct and people saw it and said “you've obviously got the experiments wrong”. 

But gradually over 10 years it was shown this guy was correct. Photons are correlated from the same source. If you detect one photon, there's a higher probability of detecting another photon, than just random. And physicists said this is completely crazy, but it wasn't, and Hanbury Brown built the first stellar intensity interferometry, in Narrabri near Sydney. 


My family lives quite close actually. 


Do they? I'd like to go. I want one of the mirrors from the telescopes, but I haven't succeeded yet. There are these hexagonal things. So there he measured the diameter of 32 main sequence stars, with this technique. He was not a physicist; he was an electrical engineer, this guy.  

And sadly, he died before he was awarded the Nobel Prize and Roy Glauber, the theoretician who made it respectable, this technique, he got the Nobel Prize. But in brackets, Robert Hanbury Brown. Anyway, that's my view. 


OK, well thank you so much for coming on to talk with us Colin. Uhm, it's been an absolute pleasure to have you.  

This is more I guess for me, but do you have any parting advice for a young researcher like myself or Rebecca? You know, just people who are interested in science and pursuing it. Since you have had such a fulfilling career and it's still going, in science. 


Yes, what I would say is that persistence pays off. That you can be told “I don't think you're cut out for this”. It can be very blunt. The kind of advice that you're given, and then you turn around and say, “But I want to do this! I don't give a damn what you say.”  

Of course, you've got to listen to advice, and you've got to weigh it up. And at some point you might say, “Well, maybe that isn't for me”, but no one should define to you what you are capable of. 

If you've got determination and you want to do something, you can do it. You can't say to yourself “I want a Nobel Prize”.  But you can say to yourself, “I want to do that. That's what I want to do.” 

If you have that vision as to what you want to do and what actually gives you pleasure to be quite honest, it doesn't need to be a grind. Go for what you want. And persistence pays off, at least in my experience. 

So thank you, Nic, thank you for that, I've enjoyed it. Thank you for indulging me in my wandering round memory lane. Thank you. 


Very much well if you're up to me, I'll I'd let you wonder even more. But we gotta keep... 


Keep to time 


Yeah, keep the time. Yes, it's been an absolute pleasure, Colin, thank you so much! 


On me, thank you very much! 


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If you've been following along this season, you will know that we've been including a short field report from La Palma in every episode. Operating world class telescopes can be quite challenging, but fortunately our team does not have to deal with the telescope all alone. 

They have Sarah Vitali, their support astronomer who's ready to help out if they have any questions or concerns. The Nordic Optical Telescope has been running the Johannes Andersen student programme for many years and we have had several students here from Lund Observatory successfully applying to this programme. 

Accepted students get to move to La Palma for a year and they get a stipend to cover their living expenses while they get to work on their Masters or PhD thesis. In return they must assist the visiting astronomers with their observations. It's a unique programme and I encourage you listeners to look into it. 

In todays field report, Nic has set up a microphone in the actual control room of the Nordic Optical Telescope and has convinced Sarah, the support astronomer, to sit down with him and tell him how it is to work on the NOT. It is a slow night and clouds or make it impossible for the team to observe. 


---------------------- Scene change with music.     



Hi Sarah. Hi how are you? 


I'm fine, very good. 


That's good to hear. A bit of a rough night I guess. So clouds have blocked our view this time around. 


It's a process, we have to accept it. 


Yes, yeah, exactly so, but how don’t you start off telling us a little bit about yourself? So how did you end up here as a support astronomer? 


So actually, it was a lucky coincidence because when I was studying in Berlin I had a flatmate and she was part of a Nordic university so she received the call the application from NOT and she just forwarded me the email because she knew at the time that I was looking for a project to do after my master that I was about to finish.  

So, she just forward me the email and said “You might want to give it a try even if you are not part of a Nordic University” and I decided to send an application.  

I had to say that I was not really at that time aware of what the NOT was doing with the students or the project. So I sent it a little bit in the dark, and they accepted my application and so after two months I was here on La Plama observing. 


Wow, so only two months after the application, that's pretty cool. So at what university were you studying at before? 


I was studying at the Potsdam university - so close to Berlin - and the time I was writing my master thesis at the Leibniz Institute. 


So what's it like being a support astronomer? Are you nocturnal? Does the sun, you know, make you dizzy when you look out it out during the day. It's like, yeah. 


I think the sun makes the night even more beautiful when you finish. Let's say you're on a night shift because you get the best part. You get the sunset, which is a very nice beginning. Then you get the night that sometimes, maybe not tonight, it also can be also very pretty and beautiful, when we see actually stars. And then there's the sunrise, which it's very nice and pretty closure to your work. 

So yes, I would say that I am nocturnal, but you still want to enjoy both like the start and the end with the Suns. 


Yeah was it did kind of strike you when you sort of looked out at the horizon and you were above the clouds like it seems that it's so surreal to me like it's like another world, yeah? 


Yes, you have to get used, so I guess you have this....  first time when it's so beautiful that it's also difficult to deal with because something yes so beautiful. 


Yeah, yeah. 


But after a while. You know, when is the best moment to go and se it.  It becomes more of a nice habit. 




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Frida Palmer in front of telescope
Frida Palmér standing by the meridian circle (taken ca 1929)

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