Sunday, 27 May 2012

Getting a bang for our buck - the BIG radio telescope

The Square Kilometer Array (SKA) the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope array will be split between Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The original plan was to use either South Africa or Australasia but now it has been decided to use both sites and divide the radio frequencies scanned between the two sites. South Africa will have the high frequencies and Australasia will have the low frequencies. You may ask why it of interest to you is. The answer is because you will pay for its manufacture, installation and ongoing running, and that’s billions of bucks. I sometimes wonder how academics can convince governments to spend so much money on research that has no visible return on investment.
Just to give you a feeling for how much these projects can consume money, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland cost $10 billion and costs $68 million a year to run. Fortunately the world did not end when the Collider was switched on in spite of warnings from doom and gloom soothsayers. I found an amusing resume of what the Collider may prove or disprove here

Both of the above projects hope to take the ‘Big Bang’ theory (not the TV show) from theory to proven fact, and the theoretical physicists are hoping, praying perhaps, that the fabric of their string theories does not become blown apart in tatters. There seems to be such a motivation to prove that the universe was created in a 'Big Bang', and is rapidly expanding, that its almost like a religious mania. Perhaps it is a religion; after all it was a Roman Catholic priest who postulated it.

The argument over a steady state universe, or, a ‘Big Bang’ burst into being, has been going on for nearly a century with each side claiming to disprove the other side’s theories. Some of the world’s leading astronomers and theoretical physicists have supported both views at one time or another, but the 'Big Bang' mathematicians have the advantage at the moment, however, each unexpected discovery causes a flurry of calculations revisited. With egos and reputations on the line some of the arguments have been bitter and vindictive. When you consider that the only evidence that the academics have is small packets of invisible energy that react with solid objects in specific ways, for example, photons will create a voltage across a photo cell, theories about objects a long way away are hard to prove.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, published in 1916, is said to be one pressing item on the agenda for observation. Nobody really knows what gravity is, we only know how it affects us. Perhaps the mega-bucks we have invested in the above projects will tell us.

Whether we get a 'Big Bang' for our buck or just a gently bubbling steady state universe is not going to alter my lifestyle any, although I will enjoy a snigger if the string theory people have to go back to the drawing board.

It’s not all a waste of money, previous projects like the above have produced spin-off products, lets call it collateral reparation, that have improved the quality of life, produced new materials and complex computer programs for processing large amounts of data quickly, and the list goes on. The truth is out there!

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