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2019 Issue 1

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The early years of radio astronomy at Queen’s

The early years of radio astronomy at Queen’s

[photo of Professor G.A. Harrower]
Photo courtesy of William McCutcheon

Professor G.A. Harrower at the Westbrook field station in September 1962. He is standing by the first experimental radio telescope he built with Queen's colleagues.

The development of a research program in radio astronomy at Queen’s originated with Professor George A. Harrower, who joined the Department of Physics in September 1955. The university leased a 12-acre farmer’s field near Westbrook, 12 km west of campus, where Dr. Harrower established a radio observatory in 1956. To begin with, he and his graduate students studied the earth’s ionosphere: this continued until about 1962.

The first specifically astronomical observations were of the sun by David E. Hogg in 1958. By this time, Professor Harrower, with Professor Robin M. Chisholm of the Department of Electrical Engineering Department, had evolved a design for a major radio telescope which, with a length of 3 km, would then have been the largest in the world. As a test bed, a prototype was built at Westbrook starting in 1959. Work continued on this prototype until 1964, when numerous technical difficulties overcame our modest university resources.

Meanwhile, starting in 1961, two other prototype antennas were designed and built at Westbrook. By using one of them, a map of the intensity of the radio waves, from a portion of the sky, was produced in 1962. This instrument was modified and improved over the next two years, ending in 1964. The second was developed to the point that it also detected strong cosmic radio emissions. Work on it, too, was finished in 1964. This triplet of developmental projects demonstrated how effective a small group of researchers can be. These projects were developed about as far as our limited resources allowed, and they also demonstrated just how difficult it was becoming for individual universities, with limited staff and funding, to compete at a world-class level.

All these experimental radio telescopes in practice were the work of a small group of MSc graduate students: Richard Butler, Michael Gibbons, Philip Gregory, Helmut Hesse, Philipp Kronberg, William McCutcheon and Aage Sandqvist, all supervised by Professor Harrower. Their work was done at both Westbrook and at Ellis Hall, in which Professor Vibert Douglas had obtained space, when it opened in 1959, for a small optical telescope as well as for offices, a seminar room and some lab facilities. It was here that Professor Harrower, in addition to evolving ideas for radio telescope design, did his own research. This was concerned with the numbers, distribution and energy generation mechanism of cosmic radio sources.

In 1964 Professor Harrower became Dean of Arts and Science (in 1969 he became Vice-Principal, Academic) and gradually withdrew from active research. He was replaced as head of radio astronomy research by Professor Victor A. Hughes. From this time on, several other members joined the Department of Physics with a variety of astrophysical research interests. So the entire section became simply the Astronomy Group, which still exists.

Under Professor Hughes, two more instruments were built at Westbrook, again to investigate whether new and improved radio telescopes could be created with the resources of staff and finance available. The four MSc students of Professor Hughes were Alan Blackwell, Daniel de Kock, Donald Retallack, and David Routledge. These students began work on the new projects initiated by Professor Hughes. In the meantime, the Algonquin Radio Observatory, run by the National Research Council of Canada as a national facility, was opened in Algonquin Park and research gradually shifted from the Westbrook field station to Algonquin Park. In fact, Routledge and Butler took their PhD degrees at Queen’s under Professor Hughes using observations obtained at the Algonquin Observatory. The Westbrook field station was not actively used after 1970.

Also in 1964, Professor Hughes established a link between Queen’s and the Communications Research Centre at Ottawa. This was part of his growing conviction that such links with other institutions were the research model of the future. In this case it resulted in a PhD degree being earned by Henry Bradford using radio observations of the sun made by the Alouette 1 communications research satellite.

The group of graduate students listed above, who worked in Ellis Hall and at Westbrook, formed a kind of cabal because of their relative isolation. In addition, many of us shared apartments in twos and threes during this period. This continued with the Westbrook researchers after the move to Stirling Hall where radio astronomy, at first, had a floor to itself. Those who made observations at the Algonquin Radio Observatory had an equivalent experience, as we made observations together, usually in pairs, from dusk to dawn several nights in a row at intervals of a few weeks. Each would have his own project, but the work was shared in common. No wonder that the personal friendships and professional relationships thus established lasted a lifetime.

[photo of members of the Queen's physics department in 1962]
September 1962: members of the Queen’s Department of Physics in front of Ontario Hall (the former home of the department).
Back row, left to right: #4 Aage Sandquist, #6 Philipp Kronberg, #7 Richard Butler, #10 William McCutcheon.
Front row, seated, Professor G.A. Harrower is third from the right. Photo courtesy of William McCutcheon.

Superficially, Professor Harrower’s dreams seem not to have been fully realized. Yet the processes of designing, constructing and attempting to use the various instruments are an example of real scientific research in which proving the impracticability of certain ideas, as well as constructing successful telescopes which obtained new data, can be of great importance. Moreover, the Westbrook enterprise did provide a training ground for physics graduate students, seven under Professor Harrower and four under Professor Hughes, and almost all of these students went on to receive doctorate degrees in the discipline.

Move forward to 2016

In July 2016, the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory (D.R.A.O.) near Penticton, B.C. held a workshop on the early history of Canadian radio astronomy. There were about 50 attendees. The emphasis was on Canadian radio astronomy, but in addition to Canadian astronomers, there were attendees from the U.S. and Australia.

Included in the meeting were 11 astronomers who were affiliated with Queen’s at various times from the early 1960s to the late 1990s (see photo 3). Phil Kronberg, Phil Gregory, Dick Butler, Henry Bradford, Dave Routledge, and Bill McCutcheon were at Queen’s during the early history in the 1960s. Phil Kronberg and Dick Butler gave extensive accounts of the research done at Queen’s in the 1950s and 1960s. The other four gave accounts of other research of historical significance in which they had been personally involved. All six are formally retired but several continue their association with astronomy in various ways, either through active research, or regular attendance at meetings, and service on committees.

[photo of Queen's astronomers at DRAO Observatory, 2016]
July 2016 photo of the astronomers who had an association with Queen’s, at the D.R.A.O. Observatory meeting.
Left to right: Dave Routledge, Henry Bradford, Bill McCutcheon, Dick Butler, Phil Gregory, Gerald Moriarty-Schieven, Joe Fletcher, Bob Hayward,
Jacques Vallée, Phil Kronberg, Jo-Anne Brown.

Read the September 2016 announcement of the new particle astrophysics research centre at Queen's.

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 4-2016]