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Ewine van Dishoeck shows us new worlds in Dies lecture

Her specialist field is molecular astrophysics, and she is the most quoted scholar in her field. In this, the year of astronomy, she is the ideal person to give the Dies lecture at the university with the world's oldest astronomy institute; it goes without saying that the lecture will be on the newest developments in the field.

Prof. Ewine van Dishoeck: ‘The cultural significance of astronomy and of fundamental science in general, is enormous, and should never be underestimated.  An American historian once told me about the great trek westwards, about the pictures of the unbelievably beautiful natural environment which the pioneers sent back to those left at home in the east.  The people back home couldn't get enough of these pictures. Everyone wanted to see images of that beautiful unknown country.  You see that today a broad public is equally fascinated by the images of the Orion nebula, for example, or other photos which can be viewed on the Hubble website.  They appeal to very basic questios: where do we come from and what is our place in the universe?' These are questions which also occupy artists, as Van Dishoeck will demonstrate in her Dies lecture.

Our place in the universe

These questions cannot be dismissed as lekenromantiek. Van Dishoeck is head of Leiden's molecular astrophysics research group.  Since she gave her inaugural lecture in 1996 on the interdisciplinary puzzle of research into molecules in space, astronomy has undergone enormous advances, helped by new telescopes which are becoming increasingly sensitive and of ever higher resolution.  The discovery of planets of other stars than the sun, and the new possibilities forfollowing star and planet formation in detail have radically changed the perspective on our place in the universe. 


In the coming years Van Dishoeck will be focusing primarily on water, one of the most important molecules for the origin of life. 'Research into water in space will literally develop at a very fast rate,' she predicts.  'In April the Herschel satellite will be launched.  This has a telescope of almost four metres, and is particularly suitable for studying star and planet formation.  We are going to study water with it.  It's not possible to do this from the earth, because there is too much water in our atmosphere.  We want to understand the water cycle, and the role played by water in star formation.' The Herschel space telescope is an ESA project, and has a significant Dutch input.  The Herschel will orbit the sun at a slightly greater distance from the earth, but at the same rotational speed. 


The Orion nebula

Astronomers have to set the right priorities.  'We can only use our observation time once,' says Van Dishoeck. ‘And you know that there will be no subsequent mission in the next twenty to thirty years.' She shows a photo from 1982 of a group of astronomers, taken in the Keukenhof in the Netherlands: one of the first meetings on the Herschel.  She herself is in the centre of the photo; she was then still a PhD researcher.  In other word: this is how long things take.  Now, more than 25 years later, she is heading the WISH project:   Water in Starforming Regions with Herschel


Patience, a forward-looking approach and a good feel for what is important to focus on. These are necessary characteristics for an astronomer.  Being able to work in patnership with others nationally and internationally is a further important trait. The Dutch seem to be particularly good at this.  'We are above all good at convincing other countries that there are more advantages than disadvantages in working together.  We are bridge-builders.' NOVA, the national research school for astronomy was founded in 1992, and in 1998 it acquired the official status of top research school, including the resources to work on developing an optimum set of instruments.


The birth of the world, Juan Miro, 1925.

'Now we are making the step from European to global co-operation,' says Van Dishoeck. ‘The ALMA project (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array) is a first example of this. It is a partnership between North America, Europe East Asia and Chile. The idea came from the astronomers themselves, not from the funding agencies, as is generally the case.  We realised that if we all want to carry out our own plans, our telescopes would become a factor or two or three greater than the state of the art in the millimetre wae length area.  But to make really interesting observations, for example to see galaxy systems at the start of the universe, requires much greater sensitivity. Such a project is only financially feasible once. So why should we compete with one another in this wavelength area?' 


Astronomy is an open science, as she herself experienced when she entered the field as aa chemisty graduate, and was seamlessly accepted as one of the members. 'You also see it in the way i which we include students from the very beginning as young scientists.  And not only to have them become top astronomers.  Of course we are very pleased if the really talented ones carry on, but we also like our students to enter society. Astronomers are people who have learned how to handle problems which are not well defined. They are forced to devise a scenario themselves based on a great quantity of unchecked input.  If you observe the Orion nebula, you will see enormous inhomogeneity: temperatures of 10,000 Kelvin, but also of 10 Kelvin.  Areas of high pressure, but also low pressure. And then try to find out what is going on there.'

Research profile area

As well as the cultural aspect, the educational aspect of fundamental science is also important, is the message she wants to get across. She is pleased that the Executive Board has designated the interdisciplinary research field of ‘Fundamentals of Science’ as one of the 11 new research profile areas.  Together with nanophysicist Carlo Beenakker, she will be driving this area.  She accepted the invitation with enthusiasm.  ‘A classical university in particular has to show its commitment to fundamental science.'

New worlds

Dies lecture, University Leiden, by Prof. Ewine van Dishoeck 
Celebration of the 434th Dies Natalis of Leiden University 
Read the lecture, 'New Worlds' (pdf) 

Monday 9 February 2009, 14.45 hrs 
Venue: Pieterskerk 
Programme en registration  


WISH (Water in Starforming Regions with Herschel) 

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