The Fires of Canberra – Lament for Mount Stromlo

Four people have lost their lives, scores injured and hundreds of houses full of precious memories have been destroyed. Nine years ago I was supplying cricket commentary and updates on the Sydney bushfires on Internet Relay Chat from my room in Canberra. Today I was in Sydney when Canberra burned.

Along with all the other damage suffered by Canberra, a very special place was also lost. Mt Stromlo Observatory, part of the Australian National University was almost completely destroyed in the fires. Shots from the news helicopters showed the white domes turned brown by the heat and smoke.

I visited Mt Stromlo as part of my astronomy studies at the ANU. We took turns viewing clusters and nebulae through one of the smaller telescopes as part of a field trip for Introductory Astrophysics. I remember lying on the lawn, gazing out at the very scenic view, when I should have been focusing on reading my notes from Galactic Dynamics.It was such a beautiful place, both at night and in the day.

The drive out to Stromlo took you through pine plantations that could have been a forest in Europe. Now they are blackened stumps. The Great Melbourne Telescope, a controversial and historic instrument from early last century, moved to Stromlo and now gone. Australia’s last major observatory near a capital city, still able to do useful research despite the encroaching city lights, is now a smouldering ruin.

Great instruments have been lost, along with research and historical items. The ANU still retains it’s telescopes at Siding Springs, still has its theoretical department in the School of Mathematics. But this will surely be a big blow for astronomy in Australia. I doubt that they can justify rebuilding the Mt Stromlo Observatory, for major optical astronomy has moved to more remote locations in other countries (like Chile, Hawaii, the Canary Islands). I just hope that the ANU can retain it’s commitment to world class astronomical research, for despite Australia’s incredible heritage, few other universities in this country now so actively participate in the field.

And I hope that once the ashes have cooled that much that was feared lost may be found.

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