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Opinion: Ireland should be at forefront of modern science – Ireland should join CERN

International project collaboration, such as the pan-EU radio telescope LOFAR, would benefit Irish businesses and tourism, as well as our IT and science graduates.

Conor Farrell

TURN ON YOUR television, or your radio, and tune it to an empty station where you can’t receive any signal. See all those black and white dots scattering around the screen, or hear that faint hiss in the background? A part of that is a radio signal from the universe, namely the Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the heat energy left over from the Big Bang itself.

Light at radio-wavelengths is emitted by all kinds of celestial bodies: stars, galaxies, planets, and more. Visible light that we use “normal” telescopes for only gives us part of the picture, whereas radio astronomy opens up an entire new spectrum of the universe we are otherwise blind to.

Whether you listen to the universe on an out-of-tune telly or on a special astronomical radio dish, the brilliant and most useful part of radio astronomy is that it does not depend on weather or the the night/day cycle. And thanks to our often unpredictable weather, this is where Ireland comes in.

Radio signals from space

At Birr Castle in Co Offaly, the site of the Leviathan (once the biggest telescope in the world), a special new observatory has opened that can observe radio emissions from the Sun, and also has the potential capability of listening to radio signals from extra-terrestrial civilisations in the future. In a project led by Professor Peter Gallagher of Trinity College Dublin, the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory opened at the the end of June this year, and is named for the 3rd Earl of Rosse, who constructed the Leviathan in the mid 1800s.

While the Leviathan could not see through clouds, the Rosse Solar-Terrestrial Observatory can, and is a stepping-stone towards constructing part the biggest radio telescope in the world right here in Ireland: I-LOFAR is the Irish project to extend a Europe-wide telescope – yes, a single, continent-sized telescope – to our otherwise cloudy lands.

Telescopes have a special property that several smaller telescopes spread out can act as one giant telescope. LOFAR is a special type of telescope that detects the radio waves left over from the early ages of the universe, as well as from unusual objects spread out throughout space such as pulsars. Instead of having one small radio telescope, constructing lots of them across Europe allows them all to act as one, giving us some of the best views of the radio universe we have ever seen.

With the advent of new astronomy and space-science courses in recent times, Ireland is experiencing an ever-growing population of young graduate astronomers with a passion for exploring the universe. While these astronomers often travel abroad to work, the construction of I-LOFAR (the ‘I’ means Ireland) will allow them to pursue their passions from their home. Travel to facilities abroad is part of the job in astronomy, and the construction of radio observatories in Ireland will attract researchers from all over the world. This has an obvious and positive knock-on effect for local businesses and tourism, and of course, building and commissioning the facilities themselves also generates employment.

The development of infrastructure for this observatory is a massive opportunity for us, too: such a facility requires expertise in computer science, allows for research in data collection, and provides a way for educators to teach science in a brand new way, right on our doorstep.

Ireland’s underused knowledge base

Looking out into the universe at the big stuff is not the only thing that would be great for Ireland’s science and economy: we also have an opportunity to peer closely at the small stuff, inside atoms and at the very fabric of space and time itself. CERN is probably most well-known these days for the Large Hadron Collider and the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson and is providing vast amounts of data that could keep scientists busy for decades. The problem is Ireland is not a member of CERN, and you need to be a member of the organisation to make good use of it. As we only have very limited access to CERN right now, we cannot utilise properly the talents of our scientists here, who must work for institutes in other countries in order to do their research. This is clearly of no benefit to us.

A group of third-level students – along with the support of academics and researchers around the country – has recognised this issue and are pushing for Ireland to join CERN. The group, called Ireland for CERN, has listed numerous benefits in joining, which extend far beyond the ‘obvious’ atomic and nuclear physics, and into such things as: biomedics and cancer research, international partnerships and collaboration, computers and information technology, education and teaching opportunities at all levels.

Associate membership of CERN costs approximately €1 million per year, and the resulting contracts and opportunities will allow Ireland to benefit by about €3 for every €1 spent in membership. This is a no-brainer, and one that the Government is finally reviewing.

Whether we’re looking at the beginning of the universe or peering inside atoms, Ireland has an extremely talented, yet underused, knowledge base. Things like extragalactic astronomy and subatomic nuclear physics might seem rather esoteric and useless to many of us, but they are the forefront of modern science. Projects like the two I talked about can offer us huge benefits once we decide to go for it, invest some money, and commit to them.

We are looking a gift horse in the mouth right now, and we need to be confident enough to grab the opportunities and reap the inevitable rewards.

Conor Farrell is an avid science enthusiast and studied physics with astronomy at Dublin City University. He has worked at Astronomy Ireland and Dunsink Observatory in the past, and loves to promote all things space-related to a wider audience. In his spare time he writes about science and current affairs, and can be followed on Twitter at @conorsthoughts.

Read more articles by Conor Farrell

Read: Political favouritism can now be seen from space >

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