Commonwealth Solar Observatory

August 1, 2008 /
From Wallal, in Australia’s far north-west, to Goondiwindi, near the New South Wales-Queensland border, local and international scientists watched the sun and waited.

A total solar eclipse was due on 21 September 1922. An eclipse always held scientific interest, but this one offered the chance to confirm one of the most revolutionary theories in science. Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted that light passing near an object such as the sun would be bent by gravity. In 1919, Arthur Eddington’s observations of a total solar eclipse lent support to Einstein’s theory, but some challenged his results. The 1922 eclipse, best observed in Australia, promised to decide the matter. Read MoreLooking at the sun

June 1, 2004 /

Few institutional histories could boast such a dramatic conclusion as Stromlo: an Australian observatory. The manuscript was substantially complete when a savage firestorm swept through the pine plantations flanking Mount Stromlo, destroying all the major telescopes and many of the observatory’s buildings. Among the losses was the Oddie Dome, built in 1911 to test the site – one of the first buildings in the nation’s yet to be inaugurated capital. This sudden twist of fate forced the authors to add an epilogue, providing both a poignant account of the fires, and an expression of hope for the institution’s future. Inspecting the scene shortly after the devastation, Prime Minister John Howard promised government assistance in rebuilding the site. Like many others, he lamented the loss of what he described as a ‘national icon’. Read MoreStromlo: an Australian observatory

January 3, 1996 /

Ben Gascoigne, a young New Zealand physicist, stepped off the train at Canberra station. It was August 1941. A tall, good-looking man strode across the platform to greet him.

‘Woolley’ he said, offering his hand, ‘Do you play bridge?’.

That evening Ben Gascoigne found himself seated at a bridge table in Woolley’s residence at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), atop Mount Stromlo, some fifteen kilometres south-west of the nation’s bush capital.1 Richard van der Reit Woolley had been appointed Director of the CSO less than two years before, in December 1939.2 At the age of 33, Woolley had arrived in Australia, direct from the ancient halls of Cambridge, determined to breathe new life into the observatory, which had languished for ten years without a permanent head. Cla Allen, one of observatory’s astronomers, wrote excitedly that Woolley was determined ‘to make the CSO an observatory of which the Empire can be proud’3. War, however, had put these plans on hold. Read MoreA wartime observatory observed

  1. The name changed in 1943 to ‘Commonwealth Observatory’, however, CSO is used throughout this article. For the history of the CSO generally during the Woolley era see: S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo: the Woolley Era’, Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia, vol. 5, no. 4, 1984, pp. 597-605; S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Bok, Woolley and Australian Astronomy’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 1992, 119-126; R. Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vo1. 1, no. 3, November 1968, pp. 53-57. []
  2. William McCrea, ‘Richard van der Reit Woolley’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 1988, pp. 315-345 []
  3. Diary entry, 5 December 1939, vol. 16, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []