As you may already have picked up, I am a science aficionado. When given a choice, I tend to gravitate toward telescopes, formulae, experiments, science fiction, fossils, and volcanoes rather than some of the other recreational choices available to humans. I have never outgrown my childhood love of outer space, dinosaurs, and atoms. I think Albert Einstein was, and is, cool. I think kids who like science and technology are cool .. in fact, far cooler than some of the types who usually rule the roost during adolescence.

High school rock stars in action.

High school rock stars in action.

So, I had a particularly enjoyable day when I was in Auckland last week. I drove up to Massey University’s North Shore Campus in Albany to visit my robot-building friends from the Home School, Kristen School, Rangitoto College, Albany Senior High School, and Lynfield College. As you know from my prior Kiwibot post, these guys and girls have been doing wonderful work, and I wanted to see what they are up to now.

As it turns out, they are up to their eyebrows in new design, programming, and operability challenges for the upcoming Vex Robotics competition season. Organized by Texas-based Vex and supported in part by NASA, last season’s championship event included approximately 400 teams – a total of 3,000 secondary and tertiary school students – from 14 countries around the world. This season’s grand finale is going to be even larger, and I hear that it will be held in one of my favorite American cities, Orlando, Florida. (My youngest godson, Alexander, lives nearby in Gainesville, and I would be happy to tag along to Orlando if one of the Kiwibot teams needs a pit crew assistant.)

Attempting to operate the robot, to the amusement of robotics pros Georg Gillard and Rhiannon Waller of the Home School.

Attempting to operate the robot, to the amusement of robotics pros Georg Gillard and Rhiannon Waller of the Home School.

I very much enjoyed catching up with the students and watching them put their robots through trial runs to test capabilities. My friend Georg insisted that I operate the Home School robot for awhile, which of course didn’t end well. There was also a special surprise waiting for me … a team of fellow robo-fanatics from Chaminade College Preparatory School in West Hills, California were hooked in by digital video conference to say hello, compare notes, and watch the trial heats.

Located in the Los Angeles area (just over the hill and up the valley from my house), West Hills has performed exceptionally well in previous Vex competitions. Teacher/coach Nancy McIntyre will be bringing 15 of her students to New Zealand the first week in December to participate in the Upper North Island regional competition at Massey. Ms. McIntrye is no stranger to New Zealand, having travelled over to help launch a robotics program at Westlake Boys High School a few years ago.

I could have stayed with my old friends at Massey all day, but I had to leave at midday to head farther north to meet with my new friend Professor Sergei Gulyaev, Director of Auckland University of Technology’s Institute for Radio Astronomy and Space Research.

In front of the big 12er with (from left to right) AUT Director of Corporate Relations Nigel Murphy, AUT PhD student Jordan Alexander, Prof. Sergei Gulyaev, and AUT PhD student Stuart Weston.

In front of the big 12er with (from left to right) AUT Director of Corporate Relations Nigel Murphy, AUT PhD student Jordan Alexander, Prof. Sergei Gulyaev, and AUT PhD student Stuart Weston.

The Institute operates a 12 meter (39 foot) radio telescope at Warkworth. Typically parabolic in shape, radio telescopes detect radio-frequency radiation emitted by sources in outer space. Because radio waves penetrate dust, radio telescopes are useful in studying areas and phenomena that cannot be seen in visible light, such as the dust-shrouded regions where planets and stars are born.

I am particularly drawn to radio astronomy because it allows us to step directly into realms once reserved for science fiction – navigating black holes, probing the nature of space before the formation of the first stars, and even catching remnant signals from the moment of the Big Bang when the Universe was born. Absolutely fascinating work, using a tool of relatively recent vintage.

The first radio antenna used to identify an astronomical radio source was built in 1931 by American engineer Karl Guthe Jansky, who worked at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New Jersey. While investigating sources of static interfering with long-distance telephone calls, he discovered radio waves emanating from the Milky Way. Really. The popular media widely publicized his discovery, and in 1933 he published a more scholarly paper with the marvelous title, “Electrical disturbances apparently of extraterrestrial origin.” (As an aside, Karl’s contribution to astronomy was memorialized when the unit used to measure the strength of radio sources was named the jansky in his honor.) The first parabolic radio telescope was built a few years later, in 1937, by Grote Reber of Illinois.

Sergei showing me that size does matter (at least in radio astronomy).

Up on the 30.5er with Sergei, seeing that size really does matter (at least in radio astronomy).

Back in Warkworth, Sergei showed me around his facility, described his research, and then walked me down the road a bit to see an exciting new research tool – a 30.5 meter (100 foot) dish long used commercially by NZ Telecom that the company is now turning over to AUT for use in Sergei’s research.

I thoroughly enjoyed touring Sergei’s new facility, particularly climbing onto the roof and then high up to the dish itself with Sergei. We were joined in our discussions, but not in our climb, by Sergei’s AUT colleagues Stuart Weston, Jordan Alexander, and Nigel Murphy.

I had been looking forward to meeting Sergei and seeing his facilities because the Institute is a vital component of the joint bid by Australia and New Zealand to host one of the most exciting science projects of our era, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA). Driven by an international consortium funded largely by the U.S., E.U., and Japan, SKA will be a massive radio telescope composed of thousands of radio telescope dishes spread over an immense distance. The surface area of the dishes will aggregate to approximately a square kilometer, thus its name, and it will “see” things that have never been seen before. The other main competitor for the project is South Africa. The funders will likely choose among the various bids sometime in early 2012.

Evidence that my friend Rob Talbot got to Warkworth ahead of me.

Evidence that my friend Rob Talbot got to Warkworth ahead of me.

After our meetings, Sergei and his colleagues surprised me with a late lunch over the hill at the Ransom Vineyard in Matakana. We sat out on the back terrace overlooking acres of grape vines and engaged in animated discussion of cosmic origins, string theory, Richard Feynman’s legendary physics lectures, Stephen Hawking’s latest book, winter in the Urals, science fiction, and other topics. Quite incidentally we also ate a large volume (though not quite a square kilometer’s worth) of antipasto and sampled Ransom’s new Cosmos Chardonnay, named in honor of Sergei’s radio astronomy efforts.

Vineyard owner Robin Ransom pouring the Cosmos.

Vineyard owner Robin Ransom pouring the Cosmos.

All in all, a cool day with cool people who are doing cool things that actually matter.