Insanely Large Machines

Posted on 2013-November-23 in astronomy

Just saw this xkcd being pointed to by ESO today: xkcd Telescope names.

The Very Large Telescope is a project I was lucky enough to help bring from its infancy to daily operations. In the crowd of engineers who worked on that project, Daniel Enard was considered by most as the spiritual (and technical) father of the VLT. I remember him mentioning once at lunch time that he picked the name Very Large Telescope as a temporary placeholder and it finally stuck for lack of finding a better one. Engineers may be creative but not so good at marketing, it seems. We heard a bazillion jokes about astronomers having something to compensate and Very Large finally ceased being ridiculous as we heard it again and again. Everybody worked on the VLT and that was it.

When the next project had to be named, the term Extremely Large Telescope was naturally coined in reference to being bigger than very large. After all the jokes we had about Very Large it only seemed fitting that we would start again on Extremely Large. Half a bazillion jokes later, everybody talked about ELT and we all forgot about the biggerness, again.

When the next project started emerging from a few busy brains with too much time on their hands, it was obvious they had been looking to extend the pattern towards biggerness. The name Overwhelmingly Large was probably coined one afternoon in a Biergarten after one too many beers by a team of French and Italian guys, so there had to be something gross and funny about it. When they announced it for the first time in the ESO auditorium there was an outburst of laughter and people roaring in their seats. This time the name stuck. Not for lack of finding a better one, but because the pattern had become a real tribute to largeness. Prepare more jokes.

I thought OWL was pretty cool and the project quickly got a mascot. Project was never cancelled because it was never really started or achievable, it would have bankrupted a few European countries for a too risky enterprise. We kept the jokes though.

Fun to see it revived in an xkcd comic after all these years.