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The travelling astronomers. International collaborations after World War II and the reorganization of European astronomy (1953-1985)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ISHTAR (The travelling astronomers. International collaborations after World War II and the reorganization of European astronomy (1953-1985))

Reporting period: 2015-06-01 to 2017-05-31

This research project has investigated the history of astronomy in Europe after World War II. The analysis has focused on the international collaborations for professional research in astronomy and the construction of ground-based facilities for optical astronomy and solar physics. Between 1953 and 1985, several initiatives were taken by European countries aimed at strengthening astronomical research in terms of capacity and competitiveness. These initiatives resulted in new transnational scientific networks and new international observatories being built in both hemispheres. They inaugurated in fact a new era of international cooperation in astrophysics in Europe.

The research project has dealt with a remarkable aspect of the European cultural heritage – the science of the universe – through the analysis of its intangible aspects (ideas, knowledge and practises), the tangible movable heritage (instruments and archival sources), the natural heritage (the sky and the landscape), and the material patrimony (telescopes and observatories). The project has pursued three research objectives:
- 1: To bring to light the connections established between European astronomers in their search for sites on top of high mountains, where observatories could be erected. This objective has been achieved through the investigation of the reports on the travels, meetings, and site-testing campaigns organized in both hemispheres from 1953 to 1985. The analysis is based mainly on a comprehensive review of written primary and secondary sources.
- 2: To explore the border area between pursuing domestic scientific objectives and creating productive synergies in a transnational dimension. This objective has been achieved by investigating the activities carried out both in the early phases of the European Southern Observatory (ESO, 1953-1966) and in the foundation of the astrophysics observatories in the Canary Islands (1959-1985). The investigation has been based mainly on unpublished archival sources.
- 3: To identify the transformations in astronomical research that were brought about by astronomers working in an international environment. This objective has been achieved through the analysis of the organization, implementation, and coordination of the site-testing campaigns.
The work that has been carried out during the project includes research activities, dissemination, network, and training activities, as well as communication and public engagement activities. Special attention was paid to research in archives. The research results based on the analysis of the archival material have been disseminated in scientific publications, and in international conferences, workshops, and seminars. A book on the history of the foundation of the astronomical observatories in the Canary Islands is in progress. Networking initiatives resulted in the edition of a special issue on the history of general relativity, the organization of an international meeting on the history of astronomy and physics, and the organization of a number of interdisciplinary seminars at the investigator’s host institution.

The research results distinguish between two aspects of international scientific collaboration: observational practice on high mountains and science policies in post-WW II Europe. They are briefly described later on.
Regarding the research practice on high mountains, this historical reconstruction identifies the site-testing campaigns with what might be called “laboratories of internationalisation”. From the 1950s to the 1970s, European astronomers and solar physicists explored several sites in both hemispheres and tested the sky quality at high altitude. They experienced a number of practice transformations, which were brought about by scientists working in remote sites and which in fact favoured expertise exchange. Indeed, these scientists shared the elaboration and the results of different observation programmes, the adaptation of instrument techniques to new natural environments, and the diurnal and nocturnal observation tasks. This research suggests that such “high altitude scientific exchanges” played a remarkable role in moulding international groups of experts in astronomy and physics.
The history of the “travelling astronomers” also raises questions about national and international scientific concerns in post-WWII Europe. Scientific cooperation at the international level was a key aspect that inspired in fact a “big science” project such as the foundation of ESO. However, the road to make this transnational collaboration effective was rather rough and complicated by issues like, for example, the decision of the UK not to join ESO, the initial reluctance of the French government to finance the project, and the somehow tense relationship between ESO and AURA – the US Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy – in view of the possibility to operate facilities in nearby zones in Chile. The case of the observatories built at the Canary Islands also shows that international collaboration is not always a primary concern of scientific institutions and governments. The implementation of a multinational network for cooperation in astrophysics in La Palma and Tenerife was a necessary step, which was taken essentially to overcome the political obstacles and difficult negotiations between the British and Spanish government about the British site-testing campaigns in Spanish sites. At the same time, what might be called the “internationalisation of the sky” of the Canary Islands was instrumental in achieving the domestic scientific objectives of each country that formed the multinational network, namely Spain, the UK, Sweden, West Germany, and Denmark. This study therefore suggests that the borders between national and international scientific concerns became blurred. In other words, different “degrees of internationalism” can be perceived in the reorganisation of post-war European optical astronomy and solar physics, where the negotiations and the decisional processes were characterised by a certain oscillation between the opportunity and the necessity to implement or join multinational scientific projects.
The research results contribute to the understanding of the way science is organised and the impact of science in society, as they shed light on the processes of building scientific expertise, and the formation and growth of international research groups. Concerning the development of physical sciences in post-war Europe, so far the attention of historians of science has been devoted mainly to nuclear physics, space science, and radio astronomy. This project therefore integrates the history of the post-war reorganization of European optical astronomy and solar physics into the existing historiography on modern astrophysics, post-war science, and European scientific cooperation. Furthermore, this research has analysed the transformations in the observatory practices and techniques of the new era of European astronomy. This study thus offers an original contribution on the role played by astronomical observatories in the scientific and cultural life, supplementing the existing literature on this topic with the case of modern high-altitude observatories. In addition, the activities carried out during the project have reinforced scholarly networks and enhanced synergies between academic institutions and historical archives.
European Southern Observatory facilities at La Silla (Chile, 1982). Credit: Gerardo Ihle, ESO
Astronomical observatories (La Palma, Canary Islands)