As the last day of the symposium wore on, participants began to take stock. They had witnessed for themselves the state of the art of telescope-making at the turn of a new millennium. They had seen a vision of the future, with a football stadium-sized telescope harvesting the secrets of the Universe, and perhaps discovering everything there is to be known. But what they had not been given was any sense of how the telescope had found its way to this point in its developmenthow, as it approached its 400th birthday, it had been shaped by the dreams and aspirations of earlier generations of astronomers and sculpted by the technological realities they faced. History had played no part in these proceedings. And, while that was entirely understandable in such a futuristic, space-age gathering, it had left the symposium with an air of clinical soullessness.
It was history that finally restored a sense of proportion to the symposium and put humanity back on to the agenda. But it was history of a different kind: modern-day history, intertwined with recent political turmoil.
The last presentation in the adaptive optics conferencealmost the last of the whole symposiumwas given by
two professors from a former communist bloc country. In faltering English, one slowly read a prepared text while the other illustrated it with old-fashioned overhead projector slidesa dramatic contrast to the slick presentations most speakers had conjured up from their laptop computers. The subject matter was of the highest quality, describing plans for adaptive optics on a proposed 25 metre telescope in the ELT class. But when, at the end of what had clearly been an ordeal, they were questioned about the time-scale on which this telescope would be built, they simply smiled and shrugged. 'We don't know,' they said. 'There are no prospects that it will ever be funded.'
Within the previous year, perhaps half the audience would have received electronic mail from academic colleagues in this same eastern bloc nation asking for help with the barest necessities of life. Food, clothing, books. As a result, many were aware of the economic hardships these two scientists would have left behind at home. They might not have been paid for weeksmaybe even months.
The reminder had a dramatic effect. The air of embarrassed tolerance that had pervaded the room during the stumbling presentation quickly gave way to a wave of genuine sympathy. Thoughts of one-upmanship in the super-telescope league suddenly seemed uncomfortableand rather unimportant. Thoughts of telescope closures also subsided as new possibilities for innovative and economical modes of operation began to suggest themselves. And, slowly at first, the preoccupation with aperture began to evaporate. The excitement of OWL remained undiminished, but its potential to rise above national boundaries seemed to take on new significance. Perspectives were restored; the fever abated. At last, 'Power Telescopes and Instrumentation into the New Millennium' had begun to find its soul.
Thus was the present and future of the telescope mapped out in the closing hours of Munich's epoch-making conference. A little while later, after all the goodbyes had been said, and promises to keep in touch and exchange information made, the last few delegates left the International Congress Centre. The late afternoon sunshine welcomed them back into the real world, inspired, no doubt, by what they had heard, and perhaps a little wiser. It felt pleasantly warm as they headed for home.
From Stargazer by Fred Watson, pages viii - x of the Prologue, and pages 1-17 of Chapter 1. Copyright Fred Watson. All rights reserved. Excerpt reproduced by permission of Da Capo Press.
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