The 1997 science-fiction movie Contact helped popularize radio astronomy. It also led to two major misconceptions: that scientists actually hear things from space, and that radio telescopes are primarily used to search for extraterrestrials.
One thing Paul Vanden Bout ’61, an astrophysicist and long-time director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), has never done is put on headphones. In fact, he has never heard anything from beyond the earth.
“I guess the word radio throws people off,” said Vanden Bout in a 2002 interview for Spark magazine. “Radio telescopes are designed to make images of things in the universe, and different wavelengths produce different images. We’re simply adding different information to what visible astronomy has given us. The Milky Way, for example, is not just stars — there’s gas and dust particles and clouds of molecules. We’ve been able to delve into the origins of galaxies.”
Radio astronomy was first recognized in 1932 as a way to “view” things in the universe impossible to observe with the eye or any visual telescope. The science did not catch on in the United States until the mid-1950s.
“Radio astronomy can detect molecules of all sorts, which help us understand the makeup and origin of celestial bodies,” Vanden Bout said.
Vanden Bout and colleague Robert Brown contributed significantly to the scientific knowledge in this area in 1991 with the discovery of carbon monoxide in an interstellar gas cloud ten times farther away than any other molecular gas cloud seen previously. The presence of carbon monoxide indicated stars were forming. Vanden Bout and Brown had discovered evidence of one of the universe’s earliest galaxies.
Discoveries like this are mind-boggling to many of us; yet for scientists like Vanden Bout, they only reinforce his belief in an amazing Creator God.
“I know other scientists have had to grapple much more than I with the faith-and-science issue,” he said. “It’s always been a fairly straight forward thing for me. I don’t think the Bible is the source for ‘how’ questions; it addresses the ‘why’ questions. Since Galileo’s time, some have worried that science will contradict the Bible. But if you don’t insist on the Bible being a scientific textbook, you shouldn’t have that conflict.”
A physics major at Calvin, Vanden Bout has always been interested in science. After graduating from Calvin, he put off his enrollment at MIT in physics to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship in mathematics at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. There he became acquainted with current U.S. Congressman and former Calvin physics professor Vern Ehlers ’56, who was in Germany on a NATO fellowship. Ehlers convinced Vanden Bout to attend UC-Berkley instead, where the young researcher met up with Alex Dragt ’58. Both Ehlers and Dragt have also received the Distinguished Alumni Award from Calvin.
In fact, Vanden Bout is the fourth physicist to be recognized with this honor. “I am glad for the broad recognition of the program in physics that Calvin has built and maintained over the years,” he said.
After doing his post-doctoral work at Columbia University, he accepted an appointment as a faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin. While a professor there, he established a collaboration between the school’s electrical engineering department and the astronomy department to update an antenna that could then be used for millimeter-wave astronomy, a field that Vanden Bout helped bring about from its infancy.
He and his colleagues used the University of Texas Millimeter Wave Telescope to demonstrate that interstellar gas clouds do indeed collapse to form stars and planetary systems.
Vanden Bout was at the helm of the NRAO from 1985 until last year, when he resigned as director to pursue his research interests. Under his leadership for 17 years, the NRAO made several major advances.
The Very Large Array telescope in New Mexico, dedicated in 1980, received funding for major upgrades during Vanden Bout’s tenure. Today the 27-antenna system is the most powerful, flexible and widely-used radio telescope in the world.
The Very Large Baseline Array telescope, a 10-antenna system widely scattered across North America, was planned and built during Vanden Bout’s administration. It is the largest astronomical instrument on Earth.
Dedicated in 2000 under Vanden Bout’s direction, the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia is the most sophisticated, large, single-dish radio telescope ever built. With a surface area of almost two acres, the instrument offers access to the entire sky.
In his current position as interim director of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), Vanden Bout is leading an international collaboration to build a 64-antenna telescope in Chile, which will collect the millimeter wavelength “light” given off by cool objects like the gas and dust near stars and galaxies. When ALMA is completed (by 2012), it will be the largest and most capable imaging array of telescopes in the world.
With the emergence of new technology like ALMA, the radio astronomy field is constantly changing. Future study of star formation in early universe galaxies like this one is the intent of the ALMA project in Chile.
“As a direct result of Paul’s efforts, scientists in the U.S. have a complete suite of superb research facilities that is more than adequate for the needs of radio astronomy in the first half of the 21st century and perhaps beyond,” said Brown, deputy director of the NRAO.
Upon completing his term as interim director of the ALMA project this summer, Vanden Bout will be taking a “traveling research sabbatical” with his wife, Rachel (Eggebeen) ’61. During this time, he hopes to discover more about this vast universe of ours.
“Some people have a hard time with science because of the deep desire for fixed answers,” said Vanden Bout. “Many want to ‘learn and know.’ But science is really a way of thinking, of inquiry. We only think so at this time. Some don’t want to live with that uncertainty.
“But for Christians, the most important answers are already known. We don’t need pat answers to the mystery of the universe. We are free to be curious explorers of planets, stars and galaxies far beyond our imagining.”
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