Happy 40th birthday to the AAT

Fred Watson

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A British–American X-ray astronomy satellite, Ariel 5, had been launched on 15 October; on the same day the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Martin Ryle and Antony Hewish the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics (Gascoigne et al. 1990). And HRH Prince Charles inaugurated the 3.9 m Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring Observatory by “declaring this aperture open”.

The Prince arrived at the telescope amid the bone-rattling gales that have become familiar to generations of Anglo-Australian astronomers. Protocol demanded three flags: the Prince's standard highest, the Australian flag next, and the banner of the Australian National University lowest. Somehow, the university flag always seemed to be at the top, despite identical flagpoles and repeated adjustments. History reveals that the clandestine flag-raiser was Olin Eggen, director of the ANU's Mount Stromlo Observatory, who had previously campaigned vigorously in favour of ANU proprietorship of the new telescope. By the time the Prince arrived, the halyards had been secured beyond his reach, and order was restored.

Eggen's gesture was a final dig at the decision to operate the telescope through an independent Anglo-Australian Telescope Board, as strongly advocated by the UK's Secretary of State for Education and Science – one Margaret Thatcher. Eggen had learned the hard way that Mrs Thatcher was not to be messed with; he resigned from the board in August 1973 (Frame and Faulkner 2003). The AAT Board turned out to be the ideal governance arrangement for the telescope, and was held up as a model for multinational scientific projects until its supporting Act of Parliament was repealed on 30 June 2010.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)6-6
Number of pages1
JournalAstronomy and Geophysics
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014
Externally publishedYes

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