1970: ESO arrives at CERN

In 1970, CERN and ESO signed a collaboration agreement for the construction of the Observatory’s first telescope. That same year, ESO’s Telescope Division and Sky Atlas laboratory settled on the CERN site in Meyrin. Let’s turn back to the beginnings of this lasting and fruitful alliance.


Martin Cullum, ESO physicist from 1973 to 2009

In 1974, when I attended my first international conference on behalf of ESO, the first thing people asked was: “Where are you from?” “ESO,” I would say. The response: ‘'What on Earth is ESO?” Nowadays, people I meet seem to know more about ESO than I do! It is clear that ESO profited enormously from its sojourn at CERN.

The wise decision of the ESO Director General at the time, Adriaan Blaauw, to move to Geneva allowed ESO to build up its technical expertise to be able to build world-beating projects like the VLT, which has undoubtedly been the most exciting scientific and technical milestone in my career.

One of the lasting impressions I had on arriving at CERN in 1973* was the openness of the Organization. Neckties were definitely looked down upon as a sign of a sales representative. Here, everyone knew that Nobel Prize physicists wore jeans and sweaters.

Returning to CERN now, I am always amazed at how little CERN has changed since 1980. The old ESO buildings here are just as they were, and the overall impression has stayed the same.”

*Martin Cullum worked at CERN from 1973 to 1980.

Klaus Banse, ESO software engineer from 1977 to 2012

Initially, I was hired to help our astronomers programme their own algorithms for data reduction. But when I arrived in Geneva, where I stayed for about two and a half years, I took over work on the software control system for the ESO measuring machines.

This control system was written in the programming language Forth, but had the disadvantage of breaking down from time to time and there was no reproducible cause. Other times it would run smoothly... So, there I was, sitting in my office, with a beautiful view of Mont Blanc (depending on the weather), and fighting with a real-time system written in a language I soon hated, trying to find the errors in a code that caused the system to die in a random fashion. Then a young Swiss contractor, who disliked Forth as much as I did, persuaded me not to try fixing the existing code but to rewrite the complete system from scratch in assembler language instead. Fortunately, I did that. It took much more time but the system became very solid and was used routinely at ESO from that time onwards.”

Robert Andrew Fosbury, ESO astronomer from 1978 to 2010

When I was with ESO at CERN in 1978-79, I was an ESO Fellow. My time at ESO since then (1985-2010) was spent as an ESA employee in the Space Telescope European Coordinating Facility (ST-ECF, a joint ESO/ESA activity). For the last 5 years I was head of the ST-ECF. I am now an ESO Emeritus Astronomer.

I had the chance to watch ESO grow from a young(-ish) observatory shaped by the limited ambitions of European astronomers to what could be regarded as the leading ground-based observatory on the planet. In retrospect, this was a fascinating experience for me and when I look at the resulting infrastructure it takes my breath away.

One of my most enduring memories of my period at CERN was to do with food. There is no doubt that the canteens at CERN were an experience - and far, far better than the possibilities offered here in Garching. I remember one of the chefs in particular: he was large, happy and, I think, Italian. He would sing "Lasagne!" at the top of his voice and slap a large (delicious!) portion on the plate before handing it over with a wink. This does not happen in Germany…”


by Anaïs Schaeffer