“With these, we go to the stars.” So said mathematician James Gregory in 1663 when he showed the world his designs for the Gregorian reflecting telescope.
His words, like his designs, spoke volumes. Within the decade Gregory had discovered diffraction grating and had laid the groundwork for the estimation of stellar distances. In 1675, he assumed the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. A year later, he suffered a stroke while viewing the moons of Jupiter, and died shortly after. He was just 36.
Today, Gregory is regarded as one of the forefathers of modern astronomy. Although his own telescope is now largely superseded, his contributions to the field as a whole live on – and no more so than in Edinburgh.
“There’s the history of Gregory, the Royal Observatory, the University; there’s been astronomical work going on here for hundreds of years,” says SPIE Event Manager, Rob Whitner.
SPIE, a non-profit member society committed to advocating light-based technologies, hosts its biennial Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation conference to bring together the world’s greatest minds working in the field. Approximately 50% of the attendees come from Europe, 35% from North America, 10% from Asia, and 5% from the rest of the world. This year the host city was Edinburgh, the venue the EICC.
“It’s really important to give our audience and community an interesting place to go, ideally with some sort of astronomical connection, either historically or currently. Edinburgh absolutely has both”
“Edinburgh is a perfect fit,” says Rob. “The way we pick cities and venues is complex: part of it is to do with the destination city, and part of it is to do with logistics. It’s really important to give our audience and community an interesting place to go, ideally with some sort of astronomical connection, either historically or currently. Edinburgh absolutely has both.”
The conference, which took place from Sunday 26 June to Friday 1 July, was attended by record numbers of people from all over the world. Hundreds of plenary sessions, technical programmes and courses took place throughout the week, covering such topics as gravitational waves and the fate of the universe to comet landings and extrasolar planetary imaging.
“We were up to 2,715 delegates,” says Rob. “Of all the events we run, this one is unique in that most of the people working in the field today come to it. Everybody is here, and to me that’s massively exciting.”
Needless to say the week required no small amount of preparation, organisation and space. “Edinburgh was always a bit of a pipe dream,” says Rob. “The EICC just wasn’t big enough previously, but after the remodel we knew it would work. It’s first-class in terms of the IT backbone infrastructure. The facility is beautiful and the location is perfect. All of the staff we’ve worked with have been fantastic. The organisation and the support, both in the lead up to and during the conference, have all been top notch.
“The conference Chairs have said that the audio-visual (AV) staff support at the EICC was the best they’ve ever seen at a conference. The astronomy community is particularly exacting when it comes to AV quality because of the nature of the images and videos in their presentations, so this isn’t idle feedback.”
SPIE’s Astronomical Telescopes + Instrumentation conference is expected to contribute some £4.85 million into the local economy, and Rob puts a large part of this year’s success down to the location. “Just based on the dramatic increase in numbers this year, I think it’s clear that Edinburgh was a major draw. We completely sold out of industry exhibition space three months before the event.”
The impact of the conference on the global research and development of these discovery tools goes beyond measure – and with every such event in the future our vision and understanding of the cosmos will be advanced.
Gregory was right: the journey he began all those years ago is now well under way.
Cosmology in the capital
Professor Colin Cunningham, Local Symposium Chair for SPIE and Director of the UK Extremely Large Telescope Programme based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, turns his gaze to some of the capital’s past and present astronomic achievements.
James Gregory publishes his design for a reflecting telescope and later assumes the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh.
The Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE) is relocated to Blackford Hill. Edinburgh moves to the forefront of world astronomy.
First light for the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii, built by the ROE. It was the biggest telescope in the world dedicated to infrared observing for many years.
The Infrared Array Camera is designed and built by the ROE for the UKIRT. It provides data for hundreds of papers on topics from the origins of distant galaxies to comets flying past the Earth.
The Submillimetre Common User Bolometer Array (SCUBA) is installed on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, built by ROE. It is the first real camera for observing sub millimeter wavelengths and discovers the source of half the light in the universe.
The Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is integrated with the James Webb Telescope prior to launch in 2018. MIRI is a joint European-US project, with the European-side led by Professor Gillian Wright, Director of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the ROE.