Montse Villar: "We must know how to interpret what we observed"

Galarraga Aiestaran, Ana

Elhuyar Zientzia

Astronomer Montse Villar visited San Sebastian last November. In the framework of the Science, Technology and Innovation Week came to give a conference that we did not want to miss. In fact, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy and Montse Villar is the Spanish coordinator. The appointment was easy and it was very easy for us, because she is a close and pleasant woman. He is a researcher, but he is also noted for his informative spirit.
Spanish Coordinator of the International Year of Astronomy
Montse Villar: "We must also be able to interpret what we observed"
01/01/2009 | Galarraga Aiestaran, Ana | Elhuyar Zientzia Komunikazioa
Montse Villar, in Donostia.
A. Galarraga
Montse Villar, astronomer. I have read your resume, but I hope you tell me who you are.

I am a researcher at the Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics, where I have specialized in active galaxies since 2003. These galaxies have a gigantic black hole in the center and have an extreme influence. There are many active galaxies, and in recent years this field is having great importance.

In addition, I have managed to coordinate the International Year of Astronomy. In fact, in February 2007 we started working on it and now I am working on both the research and the organization of the International Year of Astronomy.

You have told us that you are currently in the Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics, but before you have been in other centers, right?

I did my doctoral thesis in Germany at the European Southern Hemisphere Observatory (ESO). Then I was in England, with a postdoctoral contract, barely three years, and from there I went to Paris, with a two-year contract, but only one year there, because I got a job as a full professor in England, at Hertfordshire University. And after eleven years of absence I returned to Spain, to the Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics.

And during all these years have you been researching active galaxies? With what methodology?

Yes, the truth is that I have always been researching active galaxies, they are my specialty. In terms of methodology, in astrophysics there are two large interrelated areas. On the one hand we are the observers who use telescopes. Through telescopes we obtain data that we then analyze and interpret. And on the other hand there are theorists, who make models. These models are able to imagine what we see and make forecasts.

I am above all an observer. I use telescopes and make observations with the technique called spectroscopy. And, through the spectrum of a single galaxy or star, you can get a huge amount of information, much more than an image can bring, such as chemical composition, the properties of stars, age, etc.

Before we mentioned that he was a full professor, so in addition to dedicating himself to research, also to teaching.
(Photo: A. Galarraga)

That's right, at Hertfordshire University. And I also loved it. It was almost four years and the discovery was enormous: I had the opportunity to meet young people, I realized what you learn to teach, what you share... The research is wonderful, but very hard, it is very cold. Everything is very calculated, very scientific, and although there is a lot of collaboration, especially work alone. In teaching and outreach we share what we know and some like to share what we know.

Why is it dedicated to disclosure?

Yes, the person responsible for the disclosure of the Andalusian Institute of Astrophysics is another person, but I also participate. Because, although I have been researching especially since I came to Spain, I have always written articles, I impart informative talks, I have coordinated activities... For example, I worked on coordinating the activities that took place during the passage of Venus.

That was a few years ago, right?

It was in 2004. Venus passed in front of the Sun, looking at the Sun there was a black dot. But if you know, for example, the trips they made in their day to see it, and to what extent they risked on those trips, because they wanted to measure the distance that there is from the Earth to the Sun which can be used for it – then when you know them and are part of what happens in nature, it is really fascinating. So yes, I dedicate myself to disclosure, because I love sharing this kind of stuff with others.

And now he is the coordinator of the International Year of Astronomy. Could you explain what it will be?

Well, the initiative was born from the International Astronomy Association. The association has 10,000 partners, brings together astronomers and researchers from all over the world and decisions are made among all. For example, two years ago Pluto decided to stop being a planet.

General meetings are held every two years. In 2003 they met in Sydney and unanimously decided that 2009 would be the international year of astronomy. From then on, great political work has had to be done for the United Nations to grant them that designation and finally we receive approval from the United Nations.

And what is celebrated? The social and cultural contribution of astronomy has been celebrated since ancient times. In the construction of houses, for example, one looked at the stars, to be oriented, to agriculture, to hunting... The influence of astronomy has always been enormous, and has endured for centuries. It began as astrology and is now astronomy.

When did astronomy separate from astrology?
The image on the left is of a nebula and the next of a galaxy like ours. There are active galaxies within nebulae.
Keck Telescope; Hubble Telescope

I think the total distribution is XX. It happened in the 19th century, since from the beginning they have gone almost together, but now they are completely separated. Many of us prefer not to pay attention to astrology because it is not worth fighting against. We prefer to spread astronomy and use reason.

Thus, we have chosen 2009 to celebrate the year of astronomy, since in 1609 Galileo Galilei first looked to the sky with a telescope. He did not invent the telescope, but with his observations began a new stage. Don't forget to see the images for the first time with a telescope. It would be amazing! This made things look differently. For example, until then it was thought that the Moon and other stars were perfect spheres. But Galileo saw that the Moon had craters, that is, it was not a perfect sphere, and that was against the religious belief of the time.

Moreover, Galileo, besides making observations, was able to interpret the seen. For example, seeing that there were satellites around Jupiter understood that it strengthened what Copernicus said, that is, if there are satellites around a planet, why will the Earth not revolve around the Sun, as proposed by Copernicus? Galileo knew how to interpret what was observed, so next year we will honor.

There will be a tribute. What kind of actions will they have in the year?

130 countries participate, each with a coordinator. I am from Spain. A total of 120 entities participate: observatories, museums, interpretation centres, research centres, associations of astronomers... The participants are very varied and each of them will participate to a greater or lesser extent and will work according to their resources to socialize astronomy. We have all created a network through which participants receive all the information.

Is it difficult to socialize astronomy?

Well, for the media and not as attractive as the environment, but we are not so bad compared to other scientific issues. The truth is that the images are really beautiful and spectacular and easily attract people. Mathematicians, for example, have more difficulty than us in drawing people's attention. In addition, astronomy has a huge technological development that interests governments a lot. Therefore, selling astronomy is not so difficult.

Galarraga de Aiestaran, Ana

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