Photo: ESO
Gerhard Samulat

”Astronomy enriches our everyday life”

Tim de Zeeuw, General Director of the European Southern Observatory, on the universe and what we can learn from it.

solutions: How far into the universe can we look today?

de Zeeuw: Due to the fact that it takes a very long time for the light from the stars and galaxies to reach earth, it really isn’t a matter of a physical distance, but rather a view into the past of our universe. With telescopes, like the Very Large Telescope (VLT/photo) in Chile, we are able to look back around 13 billion years, into a period some 700 million years before the big bang that created the universe.

solutions: What has been your most impressive discovery, so far?

de Zeeuw: I would say the planets that circle around foreign suns. We suspect that nearly every third sun-like star has at least one planet that is similar to earth. Only recently, we ­discovered three celestial bodies all at once circulating around the star HD 40307. Another important discovery has been the black hole located at the center of our galaxy that is capable of swallowing everything. The VLT has allowed us to prove that it is approximately three million times heavier than our sun.

solutions: What do we learn from looking into the universe?

de Zeeuw: We learn something about our place in the universe, that we were formed by the big bang around 13.7 billion years ago and basically come from the dust from previous stars. Or how long our sun will still be able to provide us with light. Astronomy allows us to learn more about the physical laws of the ­universe and their importance to us here on earth. For instance, whether there are more than the three dimensions known to us? Or if there is something like a “dark energy” that presses space apart? Or ”dark matter” that fills up the galaxies? Here, at least our observations suggest that this is the case. However, astronomy also brings a number of achievements that enrich our daily lives. Scratch-resistant coating of plastic glasses was originally developed for the visors of space suits. The clinical thermo­meter for measuring temperatures in the ear also comes from aviation. The intelligent Mars rover is nearly independent and capable of making many decisions on its own. This holds immense potential for the industry.

solutions: Why have telescopes become larger and larger?

de Zeeuw: The most important function of a telescope is to capture as much light as possible. After all, the further away objects are from us, the darker they appear. This principle is similar to that of our pupils. They too widen at night to collect more light, so we can see much better. Nevertheless, there are, of course, limitations. Many of these are related to the design of the telescope or the size of the mirrors. Here, SCHOTT achieved a milestone in 1986 by using the glass ceramic Zerodur® in the New Technology Telescope (NTT). This highly temperature resistant material enabled us to produce active optics from what are now thin and relatively light mirror substrates. This ­allows for even the slightest unevenness in the reflector to be compensated for and increases the quality of the images. Thanks to this technology, the NTT and the VLT have revolutionized modern astronomy.
Additional informations
Prof. Tim de Zeeuw