Valedictory Lecture of Professor Colin Cunningham, Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor in Systems Engineering


Alder Lecture Theatre, Nucleus Building, King’s Buildings, University of Edinburgh


Wednesday, September 25, 2024 - 17:30 to 19:00

Space telescopes: from science fiction to reality – and back?

The origins of the idea of telescopes in space go back to the 1920s, with a combination of science fiction writers and early proponents of space flight. I will describe how this led to the reality of the Hubble Space Telescope and the currently amazingly successful James Webb Space Telescope, with some emphasis on contributions from Edinburgh. After discussion on plans for the next generation of telescopes, I will return to speculation on what might be possible in the more distant future, and how this might enable us to discover signs of life on planets outside our solar system.

All are welcome to attend.


My early career was spent designing and building instrumentation for botanical sciences, freshwater ecology, and geophysics. I then moved to astronomical instrumentation at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), where I became project manager for the Submillimetre Common User Bolometer Array (SCUBA) which was the first instrument to produce detailed images of the submillimetre universe, including discovery of a new class of early galaxies. With the formation of the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) at the ROE, I was the first Chief Engineer and Deputy Director. During this time, I was Systems Engineer for the SPIRE instrument on the Herschel Space Observatory, and chair of the UK Space Agency projects review panel. Subsequently, I was UK Project Director for the European Southern Observatory’s Extremely Large Telescope. Towards the end of my career at the UK ATC, I was awarded a Visiting Professorship at Edinburgh University, funded by the Royal Academy of Engineering for the first three years, and for the last seven years I have been developing material to boost the exposure of students to techniques of Systems Engineering and Systems Thinking that are vital to solving many of the complex problems that the world faces.


Register for in-person attendance by emailing or for online via Teams Webinar.

Professor Colin Cunningham
Professor Colin Cunningham

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Louise Farquharson

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