Throwing away the chance to be the centre of the universe
Australia could lose its bid to host the World Cup of science, accused of being “cheap” and “arrogant”.
Although it’s slipped under the radar, Australia is one of two countries short-listed as sites for the world’s biggest radio telescope.
The Square Kilometre Array is one of the “most important international scientific projects of the 21st century”, according to Brian Boyle, the SKA director at the CSIRO.
Thousands of radio dish antennas, with 10,000 times the potential of existing telescopes, will reach for the earliest traces of the universe searching for alien life.
It will shed light on the so-called dark ages – from 300,000 years after the Big Bang, to a billion years later when young galaxies were seen.
A tad more impressive than a bunch of blokes kicking a ball around a field, don’t you think?
While the World Cup would have added $5.3b to the economy, if you believe Sports Minister Mark Arbib, it would have cost billions in infrastructure destined to become a white elephant.
The SKA will be around for 50 years, creating thousands of jobs.
A consortium of 20 nations will contribute to the 12 billion dollar construction.
“Discoveries made with this huge instrument might be as profound as those made by Einstein, Dirac, Maxwell and Bohr; major advances in our understanding of how the physical world works,” the editor of Cosmos magazine, Wilson Da Silva, says.
“Investing in science improves society through the development of things like computer chips, mobile telephony, GPS, laser and digital technology – even renewable energy. You can’t say the same about the World Cup!” he says.
For once, Australia’s isolation is to its advantage. The site needs to be well away from man-made radio signals.
China, Argentina and the United States have already been knocked out of contention, leaving Southern Africa and Australasia.
Our SKA would be based at Mileura station, 350 kilometres northeast of Geraldton in Western Australia.
Other dishes would be distributed up to 5,500 kilometres across Australia and New Zealand.
The South African site centres on Karoo in the Northern Cape region, spreading to Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.
But there’s disquiet in scientific circles about Australia’s bid. “We’re doing it on the cheap,” according to one of the senior scientists on the project.
He says the lead agency – the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research – has a “sense of entitlement” but no coherent strategy.
Meanwhile, South Africa is running an exciting, innovative campaign including competitions in school science classes and extensive media coverage.
Their lobbyists are said to be gaining traction with the European partners, by appealing to their sympathies for the African continent.
A decision is expected late next year, with construction due to finish by 2020.
For once, instead of being at the arse end of the world, we could literally be at the centre of the universe.
Whatever happened to the clever country?
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