Professor Stanisław Gorgolewski (1926-2011)

Professor Stanisław Gorgolewski
Professor Gorgolewski at a barbeque in 2004 CREDIT: Stuart
Yesterday I received the sad news that Professor Stanisław Gorgolewski died age 84. Professor Gorgolewki, or Stan, was one of the founders of radio astronomy in Poland.

Stan studied physics in Poland after the war and went on to spend some of his PhD at the University of Cambridge working with Martin Ryle of aperture synthesis fame. For many years after that he led the radio astronomy group in Torun and helped to build the 32 metre diameter RT-4 radio telescope in 1994.

During my studies I had the pleasure to visit Torun Radio Astronomy Observatory several times. I got to know the great people that work there and met Stan on a few occasions. He may have been small of height, and advanced of age, but he always had a twinkle in his eye and stories to tell. He was unstoppable. One winter night after some observations I started making dinner for myself in the small kitchen. Stan saw the light on and found me making my dinner. After discussing what I was making, he started telling me stories about his visits to Cambridge, dinners with Martin Ryle, and how they went about building a VLBI correlator during the time that the Soviets were in control of Poland (a story full of intrigue and secrecy). Several hours later, long after I'd finished making my dinner, eating it and washing up, I had to make my excuses to leave so I could actually go get some sleep. He had a lot of stories but I'll always remembering him telling me that "you go up to Cambridge" (his emphasis).

Professor Stanisław Gorgolewski
Stan with his electric field experiments CREDIT: Professor Stanisław Gorgolewski
After his retirement in 1997, Stan took an interest in electric fields and particularly in how they might boost the growth of plants. He operated several experiments to look for an effect. He was optimistic about these experiments and told me that the results could be useful for astronauts on extended missions to Mars (and beyond) who needed to grow their own food. Entering a new field when you retire is a brave thing to do especially without funding. Unfortunately, I got the impression that biologists didn't take his results too seriously.

Stan was a committed vegetarian and practised yoga to keep himself fit. Like many great astronomers, he kept active and kept doing science long into his retirement.

His funeral will take place in Torun tomorrow.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 27th Apr 2011 (14:32 BST) | Permalink

Kudos to the METRO

Back in January I reported on the shoddy journalism that produced two articles in the Daily Mail and the METRO newspapers. Both articles referred to a recent image from ESA's Herschel Space Observatory as being from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. I was particularly frustrated by the one in the METRO because they generally do a pretty good job of covering space/astronomy news.

I'm pleased to say that, following my email to them, the METRO have corrected their online article. They even added that some of the Herschel image was taken with ESA's XMM.

Well done METRO.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 25th Apr 2011 (19:19 BST) | Permalink

Plurality of Planets

Last week, at .Astronomy in Oxford, Amanda and the "Trans-Neptunian Objectors" created a music video about Pluto. The video laments Pluto's change in status as a planet although that doesn't necessarily represent the views of those taking part (in fact I don't think any of them care about Pluto's status).

On Amanda's blog, Laurel Kornfeld, long time defender of Pluto's status, was quick to comment. She brought up all the standard arguments she has used on this blog and elsewhere since August 2006. Laurel really didn't like the decision. Despite what Laurel says, I am yet to meet an astronomer that really cares about it one way or another (in fact Laurel is the only person ever to be annoyed about it to me). Astronomers care much more about the fact that Pluto is an interesting object than the linguistic box it happens to be in. The word "planet" isn't really that important, scientifically, as astronomers know that there are objects of all sizes out there. The boundaries are blurry even if we pretend to have scientifically defined hard cut-offs. We need to stop caring what is or isn't a "planet".

To reinstate Pluto as a planet, many other solar system bodies would become (again, in many cases) planets. We would go from a situation of 50 year or so period of knowing there were 9 planets in our solar system, to there being 8, to there being an ever increasing number. We would probably have to reinstate the minor body asteroid dwarf planet Ceres (~NSFW) for one. Why stop there though? Let's go back to the original definition of planet. To the ancient Greeks it meant "wanderer" - any celestial object moving compared to the "fixed" stars. That definition is very straightforward to understand. The Sun and Moon would both be reinstated. No worries. Let's make high-proper motion stars into planets too. Hey, why not add the ISS while we're at it? We'd have to demote the Earth. I'm OK with that.

(Note: all mentions of Pluto in the comments will be replaced with Goofy)

Bonus points for comments in song form

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 11th Apr 2011 (09:37 GMT) | Permalink
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