Universiteit Leiden

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‘Do something for the broader astronomy community as well’

As Director-General of the ESO for the past ten years, Leiden University astronomer Tim de Zeeuw had ‘the best astronomy job in the world’. Back at the Leiden Observatory, he is focusing on the first 3D map of the Milky Way.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is busy building the best telescopes in the world for astronomical research, such as the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), under construction in Chile.

What was it like being Director-General of the ESO?

‘Incredible! It is the best astronomy job in the world. I was responsible for the entire international organisation, from the scientists to the telescope technicians in Chile. My goal was to optimise the Very Large Telescope, complete the construction of the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) and carry out the first observations. In addition, I was responsible for the design of the Extremely Large Telescope, including finding a mountain in Chile to set it up, the donation of the mountain to the ESO by Chile and the funding for it. It’s all worked out now. I’m really pleased that Leiden University gave me 10 years of special leave so that I could concentrate on this job for the ESO.’

What do you think is most unique about the ESO?

‘That it is an intergovernmental organisation. At the moment, there are fifteen member countries, including the Netherlands. With that kind of partnership, you are able to achieve far more than a single country on its own, and it offers stability in the long run. That's unique in astronomy and it ensures that the ESO can realise massive international projects.’

What ESO discoveries were highlights for you?

The discovery of the earth-like planet orbiting the star Proxima Centauri: the closest star from our sun. And the extremely precise observations of the properties of the super-massive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way.’

What are you going to focus on in the coming years?

‘As Professor of Theoretical Astronomy, I study the structure of our Milky Way and other galaxies. When you look up to the starry sky from the Earth, it is difficult to perceive depth. You don’t know which stars are near or further away. The Gaia space telescope is like a 3D pair of glasses for astronomical observations: for the first time, we can explore the structure of our galaxy in three dimensions.’

‘In the past few years at the ESO, I didn’t have much time for research, so that’s what I’m looking forward to focusing on more in the coming years. I am also working on a book about the structure and dynamics of galaxies. I’m doing that at the Leiden Observatory and the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany.’

What would you like to impart to the next generation of atronomers?

‘Don’t just focus on competition, but do something for the broader astronomy community as well. For example, you can join ESO committees or become engaged in an international project. It may not directly benefit your own research, but it’s a way of giving something back to your community.’

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