Secrets of the Hoary Deep: A Personal History of Modern Astronomy

October 16, 2008

In the past four decades X-ray astronomy has completely transformed astrophysics, and the discoveries made by space missions devoted to X-ray astronomy have contributed greatly to our knowledge of the highest-energy phenomena in the universe. No astronomer has done more to develop X-ray astronomy than Riccardo Giacconi, who received the Nobel Prize for physics in 2002. The Earth's atmosphere absorbs cosmic X-rays, so the subject could not take off without the prior development of rocket flights capable of lifting a scientific payload above the atmosphere. In this pioneering stage, youthful Giacconi demonstrated great management skill and technical excellence, leading a team of colleagues at American Science and Engineering, a private research corporation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their reward was the serendipitous discovery in 1962 of the brightest X-ray source in the sky, apart from the Sun.

Further rocket flights uncovered more surprises, which underpinned a campaign by Giacconi's group to launch a dedicated satellite for X-ray astronomy. But Giacconi soon found himself in philosophical conflict with Nasa, a situation that would recur throughout his long career. He disliked the fact that Nasa had responsibility for both scientific programmes and spacecraft, with the result that arguments internal to Nasa led to a five-year delay in launching the Uhuru satellite, which was a brilliantly successful mission.

In 1973 Giacconi took a position at Harvard University, where he became responsible for the scientific leadership of the Einstein Observatory, an X-ray mission operational from the end of 1978. Einstein carried the world's first X-ray telescope capable of making images, and, largely thanks to Giacconi, it was the first Nasa observatory to have a guest observer programme. The scientific outcome of the mission (it lasted two and a half years) once again transformed X-ray astronomy: Einstein discovered thousands of new sources.

When the Einstein mission ceased, Giacconi could not face a 20-year wait while Nasa got its act together for the next X-ray satellite. Instead he became the first director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which he created from the ground up and staffed with a brilliant scientific team. The Hubble Space Telescope, which should have launched in 1983, did not get into space until April 1990, when it became immediately obvious that the telescope had a defective focus. I clearly remember the press conference at which Giacconi gave the dreadful news to the media. It was an astonishing performance in which he remained completely calm, quietly expressing confidence that an engineering solution would be found.

The European Southern Observatory provided his final career opportunity, and he was director there from 1992 to 1999. In that role he had responsibility for the construction of the Very Large Telescope, which required him to introduce a different management approach to the one that he had inherited.

This autobiography develops several themes in parallel. The importance of technical innovation to establish X-ray astronomy is given in some detail. The management challenges of very large projects are recounted throughout the book, as is the difficulty of conducting science with agencies controlled by government officers, rather than the working scientists. The author writes of institutional failure as well as success. He is strong on what should be meant by the scientific method when applied to big science. In his final paragraph, Giacconi expresses regret that discoveries in astronomy have not done more to create an enlightened and rational society. He writes his popular science extremely well and, above all, this account will be an important source book for scholars interested in the history of modern astronomy.

Secrets of the Hoary Deep: A Personal History of Modern Astronomy

By Riccardo Giacconi. Johns Hopkins University Press, 454pp, £30.00. ISBN 9780801888090. Published 1 July 2008

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