CSIRO says it hasn't sacked the LIGO mirror-makers

Precision optics lost its balls, not all of its brains, thanks to robots

In an example of how heated the debate over the much-reduced budget at Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has become, an argument has broken out over whether the division that helped craft mirrors for the groundbreaking LIGO experiment still exists.

Mirrors and their calibration are at the very heart of the LIGO experiment, which last week produced evidence of gravity waves. When those waves passed through Earth, the mirrors moved one-ten-thousandth the width of a proton, and that was the signal the hyper-sensitive interferometer caught.

Since LIGO was a huge international collaboration, it's no surprise that nearly every scientifically-advanced country had a hand in the work. Australia pitched in with optics, calibration, and with neat quantum noise-elimination work that The Register discussed in 2011.

If we strip out the hype from CSIRO's media release about its optics work, the Australian Centre for Precision Optics' (ACPO's) contribution came through developing the precision coating used on the LIGO mirrors.

When that got picked up by the Sydney Morning Herald, it drew an angry response from ex-CSIRO people – because the heavy cuts to the agency are controversial in their own right, and because they're leaving a trail of scientists whose sometimes decades-long projects have been terminated.

Hence the follow-up was criticism for claiming credit for work in an operation that's been “run into the ground”, according to former research manager Chris Walsh.

To try and resolve this, Vulture South asked the CSIRO about the current status of ACPO.

A spokesperson told us that while ACPO has, like all parts of the CSIRO, had budget cuts and redundancies, the team working on optical coatings (such as used in LIGO) is still operational, and is meeting with Caltech this week about potential future projects.

The cuts to ACPO, announced in 2014 and implemented in 2015, were in the division that worked on high-accuracy polishing. Morgan said the reasoning behind that decision was that robotic polishing is already overtaking specialist hand-polishing.

That involved five redundancies, he said.

However, former staff talking to the SMH contend that's not the case, and that the Lindfield facility where ACPO (part of the CSIRO's materials science division) operates has been all-but shut-down.

Farewell, glorious silicon spheres

It saddens Vulture South to report that one part of ACPO's science to be brought to an end is the polishing of silicon spheres as part of the ISO's work on the standard kilogram. ®

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