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VLA: Meet the new name, only slightly different from the old name

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The managers of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory heard you loud and clear, you who think “Very Large Array” is a just fine name for the Very Large Array.

But they did tinker just a bit. In an announcement this evening in Austin, they official dubbed New Mexico’s most famous observatory the “Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array”.

Jansky is the founder of radio astronomy, which made him a leading candidate as they considered the possibility of naming the telescope after someone famous, NRAO director Fred Lo told me in an interview this afternoon. Lo acknowledged the buzz saw of opposition to a name change. “There’s a lot of sentiment for retaining `VLA’, so it’s there,” Lo told me.

Jansky was working at Bell Telephone Laboratories in the early 1930s, trying to figure out how to reduce the noise that contaminated the nascent field of radio communication, when he stumbled into a discovery that would launch and entirely new field of science.

That static you hear on the radio is coming from somewhere, and Jasky had built an ungaingly contraption to try to figure out where.

According to a history by William Imbriale for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Jansky attacked the problem with a meticulous attention to eliminating noise from the contraption itself, building a radio detector capable of really “seeing” what was coming from the sky.

In his first paper on the research, written in 1932, Jansky reported the ability to distinguish noise from both nearby and distant thunderstorms. But beyond that, Jansky report a “very steady hiss type static, the origin of which is unknown.”

Jansky spent a year collecting data on the hiss, trying to detect a pattern. Finally he nailed it down — the hiss was coming from direction of the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Jansky had for the first time detected naturally occurring radio waves from the distant sky.

Jansky died in 1950 at the age of 44, not living to see the flowering of the scientific field he helped launch. Today, radio telescopes based on the principles he pioneered have been instrumental in our 21st-century understanding of the cosmos.

We’ll have more in tomorrow’s newspaper.