A journey in astronomy

first_img Facebook Twitter: @NeosKosmos Instagram When Galileo Galilei invented the telescope to view the heavens, it is unlikely that even his genius could have conceived of the many parts of the light spectrum that astronomy would venture into by the 21st century.“My first job in Australia was to package toilet paper. I always say that I got a bottom-level introduction.”The telescope is no longer a tube of lenses that concentrates the visible light emitted from distant stars and planets; there are now telescopes that are uniquely sensitive to emissions in x- and gamma rays, as well as infra-red, ultra-violet and radio waves, and each presents a different facet of the worlds that inhabit the universe.The radio telescope at Parkes in New South Wales made world news when it relayed to the world the first live images of man’s landing on the moon in 1969. More recently, in May 2014, an astronomical team at Parkes detected a Fast Radio Burst from a very distant portion of the universe, 11 billion light years away – so fast was this burst of massive energy that it registered as a blip lasting milliseconds. While such an event had occurred before, it had only been noticed after the fact from the data that had been recorded on computer. The Parkes FRB was the first time that such an event has been detected by astronomers in real time. The problem has been to locate the source to be better prepared to observe the next such emission and many other phenomena out there.The man who is helping keep Australia’s telescopes in focus for such rare cosmic events is Greek-born Dr Tassos Tzioumis. He is the leader for all the programs for radio telescope technology at CSIRO under the Australia Telescope National Facility.“One of my interests at the moment is as an engineer, not as an astronomer. The engineering group [which Tzioumis heads as project manager] is tasked to build high-tech radio receivers for the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder (ASKAP) – a new radio telescope complex that is being built at the Murchinson Radio Astronomy Observatory in Western Australia,” says Tzioumis. “There are 36 antennas, each fitted with a ‘feed’ of 188 elements, and they will enable the new telescope to look at 36 directions at the same time. We can synthesise the beams and look at several places at once. With such equipment, the new radio telescope will be able to survey the whole southern sky in months rather than years.”Murchinson Shire is an ideal location for such a telescope; the size of the Netherlands, the shire has only 102 inhabitants. That means that the super-sensitive radio telescope will not have to contend with interference from mobile telephones, television and radio signals and other man-made noise. The universe will be observed in its purest possible form. But precautions are necessary, and Tzioumis’ engineers have some serious designs for the building that houses the telescope’s equipment. “We try up to a point to protect data. So we have a fairly large building where we put all the equipment that can generate interference into shielded rooms. These rooms are surrounded by a double cage. There are no wires and fibre optics connect the signals from the antennas to high-tech electronic equipment in the shielded room. After processing, the digital data is sent via fibre to a supercomputer facility in Perth, more than 700 kilometres away.“Optical instruments you protect from the light of cities by building them on top of mountains. For radio telescopes the ‘lights’ are your radio and TV transmitters, your mobile phones and wi-fi, so you have to put them out of the way of such interference. Radio astronomy has a set of allocated frequencies that have to be protected,” says Tzioumis.Tzioumis is a key figure in helping to formulate national and international legislation affecting his branch of research. In this role, he travels to Geneva up to three times a year. Every four years there is a full session where the international treaty is revised to take into account new technologies that affect radio frequencies. In November he will be in Geneva as a delegate for the Australian government, preparing and presenting a brief signed by Minister of Communications Malcolm Turnbull. “When I made my first contribution to the brief for the minister, I freaked out. I thought: ‘I’m the guy who used to look after sheep and here I am writing a policy document for the government of Australia. It is unbelievable and it cannot be happening to me.’ This world is crazy, and if you have the drive at the right time and the right place, you can do anything,” says Tzioumis.The fact is Tzioumis is the eldest son of a peasant family in Kerastari, Arcadia, in the Peloponnese. “My childhood was bucolic. I went to school in the morning and minded the sheep in the afternoon. We made our own bread and cheese. My mother made blankets and jumpers which I still have. It was very primitive,” he recalls.At the village school where he shone at maths, the young Tzioumis first learned to concentrate. “When I’m working, a bomb can go off next to me and I will not notice,” he says.“High school changed me. I moved to Tripolis when I was 12 and lived in a room with another older child from the village. Each week, I went back to the village and would return with a loaf of bread from mother, a bag of potatoes and some meat.“I was good at maths and science and the teachers spoiled me. I was a bit of a nerd, but I was respected and needed by my fellow students who turned to me to help them with their homework.”At 15 years of age the high-achieving student knew his future was down to him. “My parents loved me but they did not have the financial resources to help me. By Year 11 or 12 there was already talk of me going to Australia with my aunt Panayota.”“My father was very open-minded and he spoke words to me that I will never forget: ‘Australia is on the other side of the world. We have no idea what it is like. You are young, just go and have a look and see what it is like. If you can work, you can save to get the ticket to come back. If you can’t, I will borrow the money to get you back. But just go and see the world.’“This is the best advice my father ever gave me. I still subscribe to it. If there is an opportunity for change, for something different, I feel almost compelled to have a go. If it is a challenge, have a go.”After arriving in Sydney in 1970, Tzioumis spent two years working in factories while studying in the evenings.“My first job in Australia was to package toilet paper. I always say that I got a bottom-level introduction,” he quips.He put himself through night school to learn English and catch up with what was being taught in Australian schools. The maths and physics were easy, but learning the language was a tougher task, and in the ensuing years he purposefully did not speak Greek to focus on English. He enrolled in the science faculty of the University of Sydney and found the first term gruelling.“Even if I could do the maths, I did not know the words, especially the connectives like ‘hence’ and ‘therefore’. After a while I picked up and got a couple of distinctions.”He went on to complete three degrees and majored in physics before gaining honours in electrical engineering. “The professor of physics at the time came to speak to the class and offered valuable advice. He said: ‘Don’t worry about getting a job at this stage. Worry about being the best at what you can do. If you are the best at what you do, the job will follow you.’”And sure enough the job did follow him. The University of Sydney’s engineering department had built a radio telescope (Fleurs) at Badgery’s Creek near Sydney and Tzioumis built instruments for the project. A professor offered him a role as a laboratory assistant and radio astronomy became the subject of his PhD thesis.“I had to design special equipment for the telescope and make it work, take the observation, analyse it and write the science.“These days you build multi-billion instruments with a huge team of people, and other people do the astronomy. In those days you did it yourself, which gives you a lot of experience.”Today Tzioumis desribes himself as a jack of all trades. “I can do everything but not to the level that a specialist can. Now I run a department of 40 engineers, most of them can do the detailed things a lot better than I can, but I have the overall picture …”Tzioumis remains grateful for the opportunities that Australia has offered him and his family. He’s maintained his links to Greece and is a member of the Greek Astronomical Society. He’s also held conferences in his home village that have attracted some of the best minds in his profession. “We’ve been trying to get radio telescopes for Greece, but the financial crisis there means the country cannot afford such equipment. Traditionally Greece is strong in theoretical astronomy,” he says.“These days a lot of astronomy is done with computers, but some of it is still done with ideas. They don’t have expensive instruments in Greece, but they do astronomy through mathematics. There are some strong departments in theoretical astrophysics. However, there are more Greek astronomers working outside Greece than there are within the country.”As for the future, Tzioumis plans to keep ‘having a go’. “I’m old enough to retire if I wanted to. But I am having fun doing what I am doing. I’m building instruments for the telescopes, doing a little bit of astronomy. It is not a job but a vocation. Astronomy is a bit of a passion, you are always thinking about it. You are living it.”last_img read more