Two weeks in Thailand with NARIT

In February I returned from my annual trek to Thailand to sit on the International Scientific Advisory Committee (ISAC) of the National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand (NARIT). NARIT was established just seven years ago, but has already made extraordinary strides forwards to become one of the leading countries for astronomy in SE Asia. Why are they pouring tens of millions of dollars into astronomy now, even though there was no great Thai tradition for astronomy in the past? The answer is because the NARIT director Prof Boonrucksar Soonthornthum (MSc at the University of Canterbury in 1982) has been able to show how the support of astronomy, more than any other science, can enthuse young people in science, and that in the long run, science (and therefore astronomy) is good for the economy. In addition, astronomy is supported by Princess Sirindhorn, the king’s second daughter, and this royal patronage has been very beneficial for Thai astronomy, given the princess’s enthusiasm for the subject.

Thailand now has a 2.4-m telescope on Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain. It is the largest (first equal) optical telescope in East Asia and is delivering excellent research results in its first few years of operation. NARIT in seven short years employs about 100 people, many of them in administration and outreach, but including about 14 active researchers in optical and radio astronomy and in theory. In the year since the committee’s last visit, four excellent new post-docs have been appointed, from India, China, Austria and the Philippines. At present the recruiting is mainly from overseas, but with about ten Thai graduate students doing PhDs in astronomy overseas, and returning to NARIT for post-docs in the next few years, that situation is expected to change.

The committee this year gathered in Bangkok, then travelled on to Nakhorn Ratchasima, about 300 km NE of Bangkok where the first of five regional observatories has been built for outreach. Each regional observatory has a 70-cm telescope, half a dozen smaller telescopes for student use, a digital planetarium, a display and exhibition area and nine staff for astronomy outreach and technical support. We also saw nearby Thailand’s impressive new synchrotron light research facility based on a 1.2 GeV electron synchrotron and ten light beams. Next day we also visited NARIT’s second regional observatory at Chacheongsao, some 70 km east of Bangkok.

After two days on the road, the committee returned to Bangkok where we were splendidly entertained to dinner by the British ambassador to Thailand, His Excellency Mr Mark Kent, in the spacious ambassador’s residence. Senior NARIT staff from Chiang Mai joined us for this event.

We then flew up to Chiang Mai in Thailand’s north-west and home of NARIT’s headquarters for our annual meeting over three days. While there, we had a chance to inspect NARIT’s impressive new headquarters under construction on a 22-acre site on the outskirts of the city. The site includes workshops, a new aluminizing facility (designed and built in Thailand) for the 2.4-m telescope, and a 4-storey building for the 100 or so staff, plus a lecture theatre and planetarium. There is also here a small radio-telescope as a test bed for NARIT’s next big leap forwards into radio astronomy, hopefully with funding for a 45-m dish approved during 2016.

The ISAC meeting is always enjoyable, because of the manifest progress NARIT has made every year since its inception. There is a palpable feeling of success in this young institution, and the contrast between the Thai development of astronomy over just seven years and the near collapse of professional astronomy in New Zealand in the same time interval was very poignant. This was my seventh trip to Chiang Mai and I am already looking forward to my eighth visit in 2017. I expect there are some lessons for NZ astronomers who look at the rapid growth of NARIT in just seven years to become one of the leading astronomical institutes in SE Asia.

At the conclusion of the NARIT meeting in Chiang Mai, I had an invitation to go to the new University of Phayao, some 150 km NE of Chiang Mai, where I gave a 2-hour lecture on the Milky Way to about 140 eager science students. This was followed by half an hour of lively questions, all in English, which was great fun to participate in.

My host, Professor Chayan Boonyarak, an astronomer and physicist from Phayao, then took me and my wife Vickie on an excursion into northern Thailand, that included a trip to the Royal Villa at Doi Tung near Chiang Rai, a stay at a remote mountain village of Doi Mae Salong amidst tropical forest and tea estates (just 5 km from the Burmese border) and a day trip into Burma from the border town of Mae Sai. We had a fabulous time, and there is nothing better than going to two outstanding Thai restaurants every day for nearly two weeks and enjoying delicious Thai cuisine.

John Hearnshaw
President RASNZ
19 March 2016