West Australia's Astronomical Blunder
Submitted: Monday, 25th March 2013 Toner Stevenson
Last week Perth Observatory, Bickley, ceased research and removed the Government Astronomer and Assistant Astronomer positions. This appears to have gone pretty much unnoticed by the media, the people, heritage and history organisations and the politicians, yet it is a monumental occasion as Perth Observatory was the last remaining State supported research observatory. Perth Observatory has made an important contribution to science and society since John Forrest gave the go ahead and appointed W.E. Cooke as the Government Astronomer in 1896. Using gravitational micro-lensing the Perth Lowell 61cm automated telescope was used to find some of the first exoplanets http://www.perthobservatory.wa.gov.au/research.htm.
Perth Observatory houses the books, records, and instruments used to survey the land, and map the stars in a major international program called the Carte du Ciel (star chart of the sky) and Astrographic Catalogue, and, more recent instruments used to find some of the earliest exoplanets. The danger is that in losing the associated expertise, Perth Observatory may lose its ability to interpret, and hold as complete, its heritage collection during the process currently in hand. This is not just heritage that belongs to Western Australians, this is important to all Australians and internationally.
When I visited Perth Observatory in late 2011 I was astounded at the number of important heritage items on the site and the excellent state of their condition, many still operational. Also that the buildings they are housed in are most suitable for their preservation and retention. The structure of the buildings and the site layout reflects the process of science up to the present day. I am hoping that the importance and completeness of this collection is recognized. The library is world class and unique in its astronomical holdings. Its research value has not yet been mined.
The World Heritage Committee has shown concern at the lack of astronomical heritage on its preservation list and has been seeking advice from astronomers about listings. The International Astronomical Union and ICOMOS produced a report (2010) that listed themes. Colonial observatories and the Carte du Ciel, are themes in which Perth Observatory (Bickley) could have a potential World Heritage fit. It certainly had important links with Sydney and Melbourne Colonial Observatories and together with these catalogued 18% of the sky as Australia's contribution to the Astrographic Catalogue.
Using the heritage of astronomy as part of science education marked a new era in Sydney Observatory’s visitation and business. Retaining former Observatory astronomer, Dr. Nick Lomb, has given the organisation expertise to understand what it has and communicate that. The history humanises astronomy, and is an important part of scientific literacy education, a focus of the National Curriculum. Annually Sydney Observatory has now over 160,000 visitors, many of whom are schools students, and the expertise of astronomers is vital to maintaining the quality of message.
People with astronomy expertise must be appointed to oversee the protection of the intangible (knowledge-based) heritage of this site and retain this Western Australian history and heritage. In our global society this heritage also belongs to the broader Australian and International community. If it does not act quickly WA may also miss a unique opportunity to use a real research site to stimulate its schools education programs.