Polish astronomer has stars in his eyes and Copernicus in his genes

February 3, 2005

Brussels, 02 Feb 2005

If you were to ask Polish astronomers themselves why it is that their country produces more than its fair share of leading space scientists, it would not be long before one of them told you: 'It is because we have Copernicus in our genes.'

In the early 1990s, when the immense Arecibo Observatory radio telescope in Puerto Rico was undergoing repairs, Professor Alex Wolszczan took advantage of the telescope's immobile state and convinced its directors to let him use it to look for short-period pulsars. He found his pulsars, one of which exhibited particularly strange behaviour, and later proved to be the home of the first planetary system ever discovered outside of our own.

Following its publication in the early 1990s, Professor Wolszczan's research sparked a worldwide hunt for other extraterrestrial planetary systems, and the subsequent publicity has made him, in his own words, a 'low level' celebrity in his homeland. So low level, in fact, that his likeness was used on one of 16 commemorative postage stamps celebrating Poland's achievements during the last millennium. Bohdan Paczynski, Professor of Astrophysics at Princeton University in the US, describes Professor Wolszczan's discovery as 'the greatest discovery Polish astronomers made since Copernicus.'

Whether or not Copernicus is present in any greater amount in Professor Wolszczan's genes is hard to say, but in terms of the general strength of Polish astronomy, he feels there may be some truth in the saying.

As well as recognising the contribution of the Copernican tradition, however, Professor Wolszczan also points to another, more practical reason for the country's current strength in space science. 'There is a sizable number of good [Polish] astronomers working in the US who maintain a connection to Poland, which also helps a lot. We do have some very good people that are well placed strategically in US institutions,' he said.

Although he still teaches at the Torun Centre for Astronomy of the Nicolaus Copernicus University, Professor Wolszczan now spends most of his time in the US, where he holds an Evan Pugh Professorship in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University.

Given his own emigration, CORDIS News asked Professor Wolszczan whether he feels that brain drain from Poland to the US is a widespread reality, and if so, what the reasons are. 'I do agree that there is a brain drain to the US, and I have strong suspicions why. There are more opportunities in the US, and somehow there is also more flexibility. If a US institution finds someone good, that person will have lots of opportunities - life is made easier for the best people.'

He continued: 'I'm not saying that this [flexible] attitude doesn't exist in Eastern Europe or Europe as a whole, but there is too much administration. The Framework Programmes, for example, are extremely useful, but first you have to get through a jungle of paperwork. The process should be made quite a bit easier, which shouldn't be too difficult to do.'

Although Professor Wolszczan admits that as he spends most of his time in the US his views on science in Poland are somewhat subjective, he still feels that further restructuring of the science base is needed. 'European integration will help if used properly,' he said. 'But we must move away from the unwanted heritage of the previous system, which was too hierarchical and traditional. [...] There are still some people that are resistant to change, and that resistance hasn't been overcome yet.'

Despite the fact that Polish science in general has done 'surprisingly well' compared to other countries of a similar status, according to Professor Wolszczan, he is still unsure which path the country should follow in future. 'I'm tempted to say that if you're not a giant in science, identify a few areas of universal importance and go for it. But that way you do run the risk of losing the broader perspective, and perhaps it is necessary to find some sort of compromise between the two,' he mused.

Asked how his discovery has changed his life and outlook, Professor Wolszczan is understandably philosophical: 'It has made me into something of a low level celebrity, which obviously is a nice feeling. But the important thing is that this status allows me to do useful things in Poland. When I accidentally made my discovery it changed my perspective entirely - I realised how important it is to convey what you know to others.'

Professor Wolszczan is adamant that a deeper understanding of our universe is vital for our long term survival as a race. 'If we do find life elsewhere - and it doesn't have to be little green men, even the most basic form would do - that would be an important element for changing civilisation here on Earth, and hopefully we will become a bit more sensible,' he said. And if we look long and hard for life and ultimately find nothing we would still benefit from the experience, as we would have an idea of just how rare our bustling planet really is, Professor Wolszczan concluded.

For further information on R&D in Poland, please consult the following web address:

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
Item source: http:///dbs.cordis.lu/cgi-bin/srchidadb?C ALLER=NHP_EN_NEWS&ACTION=D&SESSION=&RCN= EN_RCN_ID:23294

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