i2eye with astronomer Russ Taylor

i2eye with astronomer Russ Taylor

Infinity and Beyond: A look at the universe, one atom at a time
July 24, 2007

Not everyone sees their dreams come to fruition—especially when those dreams are so big they literally encompass the entire universe. But for Russ Taylor, head of the University of Calgary’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, the creation of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope—one of the most important astronomical projects ever—will be a major dream come true.

Plans for Canadian participation in ALMA were developed in Canada in the late 1990s, when Taylor and a group of fellow Canadian scientists met to discuss the country’s long-term radio astronomy plans. Since then, scientists from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Chile, 11 European countries, Taiwan, and Japan have joined together to make ALMA a reality. Construction of the $1-billion project began in 2003. It is scheduled to be available for first scientific use in 2010, and is located in the mountainous region of Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert—the driest desert in the world.

InnovationCanada.ca spoke with Taylor about the extremely powerful telescope (10 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope) as well as other projects, and their impact on the future of global astronomy.

InnovationCanada.ca (IC): What makes ALMA so significant?

Russ Taylor (RT): As the first international telescope to operate at millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths, ALMA will reveal a more detailed picture of the universe than ever before, and give a glimpse into how the universe was formed shortly after the Big Bang. It will make possible the study of the formation of stars and galaxies previously undetectable from Earth. And through the Internet, non-scientists will also be able to learn about ALMA’s discoveries, bringing a broader understanding of the universe into living rooms, classrooms, and boardrooms around the world.

IC: Did you envision this immense project from works of fiction?

RT: This is much better than a book or movie because it’s real. Being part of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge is very exciting for me. It’s what makes us human beings such an interesting species—that we’re so curious.

IC: When the telescope is finally completed in 2012, what will you see?

RT: We’re not sure what we’re going to see. We know what we expect. If our understanding of the nature of the universe is correct, that’s what we should see—the evolution of matter in the universe as it changes from hydrogen and helium into the complex things that are needed to create life. We’ll all be very surprised if we don’t see the evolution of dust and molecules in the universe, but when you develop a big new telescope, you often see things you don’t expect… That’s part of the excitement. It’s space exploration. You just don’t know.

IC: Why is it so important for Canada to take part in this project?

RT: It’s a one-of-a-kind, unique international telescope. You’re either part of it or you’re not. There are no alternatives. If we want to be part of the cutting edge of discovering the origin and evolution of the universe, we have to be part of that project. That’s what drives people across Canada like myself to do this. Canada will be sidelined in the advance of astronomy in the world if we’re not able to be part of it. Because these telescopes are one of a kind, you have to develop the equipment. You can’t just go out and buy it. It’s all new. Everything is innovative. By being part of this project, we will build expertise in the Canadian industry; it will make us competitive in the global high-tech community.

IC: How important is Canada’s role in the project?

RT: Very important. We’re building a whole set of receivers for the telescope. It wouldn’t function without it. There’s also a team in the U.S., a team in Canada, and a team in Europe, all developing the software to manage the phenomenal data flow that this thing will produce.

IC: What impact do you think ALMA will have on the future of Canadian astronomy?

RT: There’s a whole generation of astronomers who will grow up studying the universe with ALMA—leading to a whole series of questions and research that we can only imagine now. If we’re not part of projects like ALMA, these young researchers will leave Canada. But we are part of it. So, this generation of really bright young people is staying in Canada to do this. They’re going to put Canada on the map. Canadian scientists will be leaders in terms of answering questions on behalf of the world. I’m 54 now. I’ll be 59 or so when it’s done, so I’ll be using it for sure. It’s fantastic. But what’s even better is to have a bunch of young scientists around me who are excited by the project and who want to build their own careers around it. It’s going to be their life.

IC: What comes after ALMA? What’s the next evolution of the telescope?

RT: The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will be the next big telescope built by the international community. It’ll be a major part of the next 10-year plan for the Canadian Astronomical Society. It’s even bigger, by a long shot. It’s going to observe the universe before the first stars. The SKA will see into the dark ages before stars and galaxies formed. ALMA will be able to see the formation of the first stars and galaxies. The SKA will see even beyond that. We call that the dark ages because there was no light yet. It borders on being sort of spiritual. When we’re observing the universe this way, we’re really searching for the answer of what our place is in the universe. We’re talking about the dawn of creation and the dawn of light.

IC: Is it fair to say that ALMA is a big career highlight for you?

RT: It’s a big one. It’s transformational. This was my dream from the get-go. I’ve always wanted to be an astronomer, to study the universe. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t.