Unrideable bicycles

Ken Tapping, January 23, 2013

In the sky this week…

  • Venus is very low in the eastern sky before dawn and Mars equally low in the Southwest, in sunset twilight.
  • Jupiter dominates the southern sky during the night. Saturn rises about 2am.
  • The Moon will be Full on the 26th.

In one of my filing cabinets I have a certificate stating that I have successfully ridden John Galt’s collection of unrideable bicycles. I got it at a conference held here at DRAO years ago. One of the conference events was a barbecue, tour of the observatory, and the challenge of taking on this very strange collection of bikes. One of them had to be pedalled backwards. On another each pedal was attached to a gear of different diameter, so your feet ended up going round at different rates. Another had a castor instead of a front wheel, so the handlebars actually did nothing other than provide somewhere to put your hands. The last had its steering reversed. That one was a horror. John Galt was an amazing scientist, engineer, inventor and practical joker. He was also one of Canada’s foremost radio astronomers and one of DRAO’s unique personalities. Sadly he died on Boxing Day.

In 1967 a group of Canadian scientists, one of whom was John Galt, made Canada the first country to successfully demonstrate the radio astronomical technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry. Two radio telescopes, one in Algonquin Park, Ontario, and the other here at DRAO were used to independently collect data which could be combined later to emulate an antenna with a diameter equal to the distance between the antennas. This required extremely accurate clocks, a special data recording system and an equally special data processing facility to extract the data. The main objective was to develop an instrument capable of imaging quasars, objects that are small, very far away, and incredibly powerful sources of radio emissions.

A couple of years after, an experiment was designed to use this technique to dig for even finer detail, which needed the antennas to be even further apart. In this case, on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The Algonquin Radio Observatory was used in combination with the radio telescope operated by the UK Science Research Council at Chilbolton, in Southwest England. I was a very junior member of the UK team and got to first meet John when he was a member of the Canadian team that came to Chilbolton, bringing all the exotic equipment needed to do the project, and the expertise to operate it. This Canadian success earned John Galt and his colleagues the Rumford Medal. That joint project also established the connections that ultimately pulled me across the Atlantic, and eventually here to DRAO. All the fun seemed to be on this side of the pond.

John was one of a generation of astronomers now disappearing. He was a combination of scientist, engineer, technologist, programmer and whatever else was needed to get his projects done. When an oil seal on DRAO’s 26m telescope needed attention, he was 25m above the concrete apron, fixing it. John and I carpooled for a while, and the conversations en route were fascinating. One day he turned up with one leg in a cast. He had been a victim of one of his unrideable bicycles.

Ken Tapping is an astronomer based at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory, Penticton,  BC, V2A 6J9.

Telephone: 250-497-2300
Fax: 250-497-2355

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