Since 1966, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory has awarded the Jansky Lectureship to an individual in the field of astronomy. The Lectureship is named for Karl Jansky, who first detected radio waves in 1932.
The 2023 recipient is Dr. Paul Vanden Bout, who will present his lecture, “Space Molecules to Solar Systems – Five Decades of Discoveries,” at the Green Bank Observatory, Thursday, Novem- ber 9, at 7 p.m.
Vanden Bout began his career in astronomy in graduate school when he got a post doc position at Columbia University. He studied phys-ics at the University of California, Berkeley before mov- ing on to Columbia.
“I got a post doc position with someone at Columbia University who was doing x-ray astronomy,” he said. “We launched rockets at White Sands Missile Range and tried to observe x-ray sources. That was the first exposure to astronomy.”
From there, Vanden Bout went to University of Texas in Austin, where he taught astronomy to undergraduates while he himself was learning the science.
“I didn’t know any astronomy,” he said. “I taught undergraduates, staying ahead one chapter in the book.”
He and a friend from New York discovered there was a radio telescope at the McDonald Observatory at the university and found themselves working on a project with a group of astronomers.
“At the time it was just after the discovery of carbon monoxide gas in the interstellar medium and the people who made the discovery wanted lots of telescope time, so we put together a little partnership,” Vanden Bout said. “They brought a receiver and my friend brought some equipment, and Harvard brought some more equipment. We equip-ped the little telescope to look at CO.
“That was my introduction to radio astronomy.”
Vanden Bout pioneered work in millimeter-wavelength astronomy at McDonald Observatory.
In 1985, Vanden Bout became the director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and worked in Charlottesville, Virginia. He went on to oversee the completion of several large NRAO projects, including the Green Bank Telescope.
“I never lived in Green Bank,” he said. “I was certainly there a lot. I was over all the time. The Green Bank Telescope adventure was one of mine. It’s interesting that I spent most of my career in millimeter-wavelength astronomy – short wavelengths. The GBT actually works at those wavelengths, which is sort of amazing.
“On a cold winter night, with no wind, [the GBT] is the biggest millimeter telescope in the world,” he added. “We never thought we’d be able to do that sort of thing at Green Bank, but we did.”
His work with the GBT is one of many parts of his career Vanden Bout will share in his lecture.
“It’s kind of more my story of millimeter astronomy in the country, at first, and then at NRAO,” he said.
Vanden Bout said he will expand on the several projects he worked on, including the Very Large Array in New Mexico; the Very Long Baseline Array in Hawaii; and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array – or ALMA – in Chile.
“NRAO had a project before I got there to build a single dish, millimeter telescope – 25-meter – in Hawaii,” he said. “That project failed. It never got funded. The timing was bad. There was really high inflation and then [President Ronald] Reagan canceled all new projects and the project sort of died.
“People thought, as a substitute project, we should build an interferometer like the VLA out in New Mexico, but one that worked at millimeter wavelengths,” he continued. “That was called the millimeter array. They asked me to be the director and I was rather excited to promote this project. That was 1985.”
That millimeter array was the ALMA in Chile, which was inaugurated in 2013.
“It was a long time from the first suggestion in the 80s that we build this thing, to realize this big project in Chile,” Vanden Bout said. “Along the way, there were other projects and the Green Bank Telescope was one of them.”
As most know, the GBT was built to replace the 300-foot telescope which suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed on November 15, 1988.
“The 300-foot fell down – you had to do something – and so we were occupied with that,” Vanden Bout said. “NRAO built the Very Long Baseline Array at that time, and we also upgraded the VLA in New Mexico, so those were big projects that intervened.”
Vanden Bout stepped down as director of the NRAO in 2003, but didn’t retire until 2010.
Vanden Bout is the 58th recipient of the Jansky Lectureship and joins the ranks of individuals including eight Nobel Laureates – Drs. Subrahmanyan Chandras-ekhar, Edward Purcell, Charles Townes, Arno Penzias, Robert Wilson, William Fowler, Joseph Taylor and Reinhard Genzel – as well as Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, who discovered the first pulsar; and Vera Rubin, who discovered dark matter in galaxies.