On a long flight, I read a fascinating and frustrating book about the history of the twin Gemini 8m telescopes and the optical/infrared astronomical landscape: Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology by historian Patrick McCray. Time for a book review and a new wiki page for books!
“Giant Telescopes” is two books in one. The second half tells the history of the Gemini Observatory. (Gemini is two 8m telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, built by the US, UK, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina, and managed by AURA.)
The first half of the book examines the roots of post-WWII US astronomy — how telescopes have been funded and built. Reading this first half, I felt like someone who has hiked the Grand Canyon for years, and who finally reads a book explaining the geology of the Canyon. McCray’s thesis is that the landscape of optical/infrared astronomy has been shaped by two consistent trends over 70 years: 1) the tension between the Pasadena elites (the lords of Mt. Wilson, then Palomar, then Keck) and everyone else; and 2) the three-pipe funding system (from NASA, private/state partnerships, and the NSF). The book fleshes out how that landscape gave us telescopes, specifically Gemini.
I thought I knew this landscape, given the decade I’ve spent in the Arizona and California observatory systems. But I’m embarrassed to say that I learned a lot from this book. For example, I’ve been paying attention to the push for next-generation ground-based telescopes (TMT and GMT are the two US-based projects; there’s also the European ELT.) I knew that these telescopes have very different designs: TMT uses 492 tessellated 1.4m hexagons, whereas GMT uses seven 8m round mirrors. But I didn’t know that the competing designs for the two US projects can be directly traced back to a competition in the early 1980s between U. Arizona and U. California to build a 15m National New Technology Telescope (NNTT). The book has a (not available online) photo of little balsawood models of competing 1980s-era designs for the NNTT, which clearly shows that these were the designs that would evolve into the current generation of observatories — Keck and LBT — as well as the future observatories TMT and GMT.
The second half of the book (building the Gemini telescopes) I found much less interesting than the first half. I don’t know the history of Gemini well enough to judge the factual accuracy of this section — comments are welcome.
A few questions that this book answered for me:
- Why is funding for US astronomy a three-pipe system? (NASA, NSF, and private/state funding)
- How did Caltech become the dominant partner in Keck, if the University of California designed it?
- Why was there so little innovation in telescope design for 30 years, between Palomar and the MMT?
- Why weren’t Gemini’s mirrors made by the Arizona Mirror Lab?
- Who was Leo Goldberg, anyway?
- How did AURA come to be, and how did it come to run observatories as different as Kitt Peak and Hubble?
The book raised but did not answer some bigger questions:
- What is the role of a national facility, when it’s not the biggest or best? (McCray spends much time comparing astronomy (where the biggest facilities are private) to particle physics (where all the facilities are national.))
- Are international projects more scientifically productive? Are they better for national needs?
- Why has California dominated US astronomy? Will that dominance continue?
The book also explores several other theses that the author finds important, which you may or not:
- Gemini was built in the modern way, through systems engineering.
- Astronomy, like its big brother particle physics, has moved toward big projects and large collaborations.
- Astronomy has evolved from steer-the-telescope-and-freeze, to push buttons in the control room, to remote observing, to queue access. (He sees this as a fundamental shift; I’m unconvinced it’s that big a deal. Just as I don’t really care whether I get my news by radio, print newspaper, or online newspaper — the important thing is to get the information.)
Several aspects of the book disappoint. There’s insufficient discussion of the tension between ground-based and space-based telescopes and funding. McCray does acknowledge that astronomy transitioned in the mid-1990s from being mostly funded by NSF to mostly funded by NASA, and that space telescope time (unlike ground-based time) comes with analysis money. But otherwise NASA is mostly off-stage, which causes McCray to miss the obvious evolution in the 1990s, in which NOAO’s core constituency (astronomers without access to private telescopes) transitioned from using Kitt Peak to using Hubble, in part because Hubble observations comes with data analysis money.
Nor is there discussion of the divorce between Caltech and Carnegie (which used to share facilities), though this divorce had a major impact on the development of large telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, the eventual sites of the twin Gemini telescopes. Most frustratingly, since the book was published in 2004, shortly after Gemini was completed, there’s no comparison of the science return from Gemini as compared to other observatories. Dollar-for-dollar, was Gemini a good investment? McCray doesn’t ask.
And some nits to pick: dollars aren’t inflation-adjusted; units aren’t consistent; there are too few (and oddly-chosen) figures; and Gemini’s infrared optimization is described ham-handedly, with no separation of near-IR and thermal IR, which if course have very different design drivers.
Colleagues, I’d really like to hear what you think about this book. I’ve not used Gemini (though I’ve benefited from my collaborators’ large Gemini program), so I was less interested in the history of Gemini per se, than in the backstory, and in what a disinterested historian perceives to be the major driving forces in our field.