'Big Ear' designer a pioneer in field
By Barry Kawa
Sunday Magazine section, September 18, 1994
If ever there is a radio astronomer's hall of fame, one of the first inductees would be Ohio State University professor emeritus Dr. John Kraus, the "Big Ear's" proud father.
Kraus emerged as one of the country's leading radio telescope pioneers in the 1940's. His contemporaries included Karl Jansky, a Bell Telephone Laboratories engineer who invented the radio telescope in the 1930s. A good friend, Grote Reber, another radio engineer, helped mold the science.
Today, Kraus, at 84, lives only a few miles from the Big Ear off U.S. 23 in Delaware County. Kraus is still acknowledged as director at the Big Ear, although he is retired from the project.
Kraus designed the Big Ear and built it in the late 1950's with the help of undergraduate and graduate students for about $250,000. In Kraus' classes, students got a working education. The Big Ear's assistant director, Dr. Robert S. Dixon, says he came to OSU in 1963 because he wanted to study under Kraus.
"This was one of the wonderful features of our academic institution," Kraus says. "Because the students in doing this got a fantastically good experience that they would not have obtained elsewhere."
The scope's basic design is similar to a reflector telescope. Its design has been copied for radio telescope observatories in Russia and France.
"Well, the whole idea was a maximum size for a dollar cost," Kraus says. "It achieved that objective. It was designed for mapping the radio sky, and it has been successful finding the most distant known objects in the universe."
In his 1976 book "Big Ear," [now in a revised edition called Big Ear Two] Kraus talks about starting the search for extraterrestrial intelligence on Dec. 7, 1973.
"There was no fuss or fanfare; switches were set; recorders started and the data began to flow," Kraus writes.
More than 20 years later, the search continues. Kraus won't predict the chances for success, only that "someday, something may occur. But that may be a long ways in the future."
"It's very tough," he says. "It's a lot more difficult than many people think. It may also be something that is found serendipitously. Somebody looking for something else may stumble on it."
In radio astronomy circles, Kraus is revered. His textbook "Radio Astronomy," published in 1966, is the bible in the field.
"I think John is a prime mover in SETI [Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence]," says Dr. Paul Horowitz, director of his own long-running search at Harvard University's Oak Ridge Radio Observatory. "I think John is such a gentleman, too. In fact, John had made a personal contribution to our search, and not an unsubstantial amount."
Kraus is an accomplished man, but he doesn't like to dwell on his fame. His inquisitive nature leads him to be the interviewer. His responses are terse and to the point; he doesn't speculate.
He updated his textbook "Electromagnetics," now in its fourth edition, a year ago. He still carries out electromagnetic experiments at the home he shares with his wife, Alice.
Kraus is a pioneer, but he's not willing to predict the future of radio astronomy.
"It's very hard to say," he says. "New discoveries will undoubtedly come. It has been said the greatest discoveries are yet to be made."
Kraus grows tired of the interview. It's the mark of a man who has always asked the questions. His eyes twinkle and it's his turn.
"Tell me a little about yourself," he says, warming to the task.
Copyright © 1996-2005 Big Ear Radio Observatory and North American AstroPhysical Observatory.