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Interview with Dr. Fred Watson

I have the great fortune to speak with Dr. Fred Watson, illustrious author of Stargazer, and a very busy man he is with his starry blue eyes on multiple universal projects.

Dr. Watson, having studied at St. Andrews, did you feel more connected to astronomy's history?

Dr. W:
"Yes, when I was at St. Andrews it was steeped in historical traditions in which the students were very much immersed. The University dates back to 1412, and I sometimes feel it wasn't long after that when I studied there ... It was only much later that I got heavily involved with the historical aspects of astronomy at St Andrews. When I was a student we were too busy trying to get our heads around the contemporary stuff!"

Dr. Watson, you've done a lot of study on optics. I see from reading a bio sketch: "Fred helped to pioneer the use of fibre optics in astronomy at the start of a new era of statistical studies of stars and galaxies. He was responsible for an instrument called FLAIR on the UK Schmidt Telescope, ancestor of the present 6dF system." What is FLAIR?

Dr. W:
"FLAIR (Fibre-Linked Array Image Reformatter), was a way of harnessing the wide field of view of a large Schmidt Telescope to modern multi-object spectroscopic studies rather than the traditional photographic imaging for which the telescope was designed. It was the predecessor of 6dF (the 6-degree Field), the 150-object system we use today."

There seems to be a quantum leap between FLAIR and 6df.

Dr. W:
"The difference between the two is one of technique - with FLAIR you had to position optical fibres accurately by hand (to 0.01 mm!) to intercept the light from target objects (one per fibre), whereas 6dF uses a robot with artificial intelligence to do the same thing - rather more quickly ...

"I've appended a note below explaining the technique in a bit more detail. You might also like to have a look at my webpage to find out what we do with these instruments: Fred Watson's homepage."

You sing and play musical instruments, you give radio shows, you contribute to valuable causes, a husband, father and grandfather, as well as being a prolific writer and communicator. It is so difficult to decide what to home in on for our readers! I see you've contributed to a book called 'Instruments of Science'.

Dr. W:
"'Instruments of Science' is a historical encyclopaedia of scientific instruments, published in the USA by Garland (1998). I wrote the section on binoculars, which have long been an eccentric passion of mine. A couple of years before, I'd written a little book on the history of binoculars, which is why I got the invitation to contribute."

Is Stargazer a 'spin-off' of your work here?

Dr. W:
"Stargazer was certainly a spin-off from my interest in the history of scientific instruments, but I also wrote it because I've spent my working life using large telescopes and have always thought of them as rather exotic tools for exploring the universe."

Stargazer is an extremely educational and entertaining book. The last chapter mentions HD172051. Do you believe this star has a few answers for us? How did you pick HD172051 out of your Stellar Lineup of Potentials in your soon to be unveiled 3-D map of 150K galaxies? (See Dr. Watson's website for more information on this intergalactic study.)

Dr. W:
"It may give us some answers in due course. I chose it because it's on ESA's list of Sun-like stars that may be targets for the Darwin mission. A BBC news story featured the Darwin mission."

Dr. Watson, is HD172051 on the same list as Tarter and Turnbull's HabStars?

"I would guess it is - it's certainly a high-ranking astrobiology target."

When do you expect to finish this amplitudinous survey?

Dr. W:
"The 6dF Galaxy Survey is now nearing completion, and the last observations will be made around Christmas. There have already been a couple of public data releases - you'll get details from the Wide Field Astronomy Unit at Edinburgh."

I highly recommend Dr. Watson's book, Stargazer. I have also ordered Instruments of Science from Amazon for my library.

A few additional notes on fibres and robots by Dr. Fred Watson:

"In brief, our robotic efforts here at the Anglo-Australian Observatory centre around autonomous devices for assigning and positioning optical fibres in alignment with target stars and galaxies in the focal surface of a large telescope. The fibres simply carry light to a spectrograph, where they are aligned on the slit for simultaneous analysis, so what we're doing is reformatting the random distribution of up to 400 objects in the field of view of the telescope into a neat straight line.

"Playing God, I guess! It sounds like an easy problem, but it involves some clever machinery - and even cleverer software.

"The basic method is to terminate each fibre with a magnetic assembly that will stay where you put it on a ferrous plate, and then use a pick-place robot to position each fibre in sequence (to an accuracy of about 10 microns). Because that can take up to an hour for all the fibres, we have two plates, one in use and one being reconfigured at any given time."

We've built three instruments of this kind:
2dF, a two-degree field system for the Anglo-Australian Telescope
6dF, a six-degree field system for the UK Schmidt Telescope
OzPoz, a fibre positioner for the European Southern Observatory

"In addition we are building a machine called Echidna, named after the Australian spiny anteater, which resembles a hedgehog. The fibres run down the centres of 400 independent spines, each of which can be addressed simultaneously to move the fibre to the correct position, thus saving the reconfiguration time.

"We'd love to build something similar to Echidna for the UK Schmidt Telescope, to which it's very well suited, but we can't afford the $A4 million price tag! More info: Ukidna Project."

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Author: Lydia Lousteaux

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