From star to satellite – science in a post-Brexit world

In matters scientific, European nations do far better working together

Our civilisation has advanced dramatically in the last few hundred years and we have only to look to the leaps made in science and technology to understand why. Yet how many people realise that a key element of science lies in cooperation between different nations?  There is no such thing as “British science”, and attempts to separate our science from the rest of Europe will inevitably end in failure. Boris Johnson was being disingenuous when he implied that leaving the EU would enable the UK to “supercharge” its science. The very opposite is the case.

Science can trace its roots back to the efforts of the ancient Greeks. It is worth concentrating on the science of astronomy in particular, because it is in this field that what we think of as modern science would first emerge many centuries later.  It is also here that the strength of international cooperation is so evident. An advance in one country has typically enabled a subsequent advance in another.

The Greek philosophers Plato (c 428-348 BC) and his pupil Aristotle (c 384-322 BC) both believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe, and that the sun, the moon and the planets all orbited round the earth.  Beyond them, they thought, was a gigantic sphere, centred on the earth, to which all the stars were attached. The mathematical details of how a system based on these ideas might work were set out by a later Greek astronomer, Claudius Ptolemy (c 90-168 AD). After Ptolemy, Greek astronomy came to an end. Over the following centuries, it was the Arab nations that took on the cause of advancing scientific understanding.  It was the gradual recovery of ancient Greek texts (from Arabic sources) that slowly helped to bring about a revival of knowledge in the West.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was born in Toruń, in modern day Poland.  He was a canon at Frombork cathedral in the north of Poland. Although his job was a busy one, he nevertheless found time to be able to devote much of his life to astronomy. Copernicus was very conscious of the flaws and problems that were part of the Ptolemaic system.  He realised that, at least in principle, he could eliminate these problems by instead postulating that it was the sun that was at the centre of the universe, and that the earth orbited it along with the other planets.  His great work on this, ‘De Revolutionibus’, was published in 1543.  Legend has it that a copy of the book only reached him on his deathbed.

Copernicus crater on Moon image “Copernicus” by Michael Karrer is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

His central idea was rejected by most people at the time, as it seemed to be totally contrary to common sense, as well as to the teachings of the Bible and the ideas of the ancient Greeks. It was to be many decades after Copernicus’s death that two key figures in the history of astronomy, the German Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) and the Italian Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) were to come to his support. Kepler is famous for his three laws of planetary motion, which assumed a sun-centred universe, and which (for the first time) enabled precise predictions of future planetary positions. His derivation of these laws depended entirely on the observations of planetary positions (and particularly those of Mars) obtained by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546–1601).

Galileo was one of the first people to use a telescope to view the night sky.  His observations of the phases of the planet Venus showed conclusively that Venus orbited the sun, and not the earth.  He was the first to observe the four large satellites of Jupiter, and the first to draw attention to the fact that the moon – far from being a perfect body, as the followers of Aristotle believed – was covered in craters.  He was also the first to show that the Milky Way consisted of innumerable stars. Although he got into trouble with the Roman Catholic church for daring to publish a book supporting the Copernican position, it is nevertheless thanks to the efforts of both Galileo and Kepler that the idea of a sun-centred Universe became much more widely accepted.

The Englishman Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is arguably the greatest scientist that Britain has ever produced.  In deriving his universal law of gravitation, and his three laws of motion he was dependent on the earlier work of Kepler and Galileo, although reluctant to admit it.

Astronomy would be further advanced thanks to Sir William Herschel (1738-1822), who came to Britain as a penniless German musician. (Priti Patel would never have let him in.) Herschel’s hobby was astronomy, and he built huge telescopes to observe the night sky.  His discovery of the previously unknown planet Neptune (in 1781) doubled the known size of the Solar System.  And his careful star surveys provided the first observational indication that we live in a massive grouping of stars, our galaxy, which we now know contains some 100,000,000,000 stars. Our sun, it turns out, is only an insignificant member of our galaxy, and is certainly not the centre of the universe.

The study of astronomy widened in the 19th and 20th centuries to countries beyond Europe, primarily the USA. It was here that most of the evidence arose for the realisation that the Universe began in a Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago, and that our own galaxy is just one of billions and billions of such galaxies.  Scientific advances have come increasingly from big international projects, rather than the work of individuals. For example, the European Space Agency (funded by 22 European countries – including the UK – and a perfect example of the need for cooperation among European nations) was responsible for the Planck satellite, launched in 2009, that has provided a huge amount of invaluable data on the early Universe and its evolution. The lesson is clear that astronomy and the space sciences (and indeed all the sciences) are very dependent on international cooperation.

So it has been terribly sad to see that the UK’s departure from the EU is going to have an adverse effect on science in this country.  An early example is the necessary withdrawal from the Galileo satellite system, which was funded by the EU (which included us, of course!), and which provides a more advanced global positioning system than the GPS system, run by the US military.  The UK played a major role in developing Galileo, and it is tragic that this country will now be restricted in our access to this system to that of other third countries. Specifically, the UK loses the right to access the high security military encrypted signal that is part of Galileo. The idea that we could afford to create our own global positioning system is, of course, ludicrous.

Nor is this the only area where UK science will suffer as a result of Brexit.  The utterly mistaken withdrawal from the Erasmus programme (which funds thousands of students – in science and other subjects – to spend time studying or working in other EU countries) can only reduce prospects for future cooperation. In 2018 alone, some 17,000 UK students benefited from the scheme.

Fortunately, common sense has prevailed in a few areas.  The UK has decided that it should continue to be part of Europe’s €95-billion flagship research programme, Horizon Europe (the world’s largest research programme), but only as an associate member rather than the full member that it was in the past.  It would have been madness not to have continued with this – admittedly no greater madness than any other area of Brexit.  Even so, as a mere associate member, the UK will be excluded from Horizon Europe’s European Innovation Council, which will support start-up and university spin-off firms. Tragically, the UK also loses any say in the policy decisions on the EU’s science programmes. 

The UK has also foolishly abandoned full membership of Euratom, the organisation that is responsible for nuclear research and that runs ITER, the world’s largest nuclear-fusion experiment (currently being built in in southern France). Fortunately, pragmatism has to some extent overcome ideology, because we will now become an associate member. This lower status may or may not produce problems when it comes to renewing funding for the UK’s JET (Joint European Torus) facility, near Oxford, that is largely funded by the EU. The UK will also remain part of the EU’s Copernicus Earth-observation satellite programme, which generates valuable climate change data.

Aerial view of ITER complex, courtesy of ITER

As Prof Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, the previous president of the UK’s Royal Society, has pointed out “half of international academic talent in UK universities comes from the European Union and the EU is our single largest research collaborator”. It is fervently to be hoped that the realisation that it is in the UK’s best interests to cooperate with other European nations (in Horizon Europe, in Euratom and in Copernicus) will gradually bring about the further realisation that more, not less, cooperation with our European neighbours is very much to the UK’s advantage.

The history of astronomy is covered in more detail in David Love’s book “Kepler and the Universe”, published by Prometheus Books.