Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

May 1, 2001
12 min read
David Malin (Frank Lindner)

By Wilson da Silva 

FEW PEOPLE  have an asteroid named after them, much less a planet or a star. But a whole galaxy filled with billions and billions of stars? 

That’s what happened to David Malin, one of Australia’s most celebrated astronomers and one the world’s foremost astronomical photographers. And it happened by accident. In 1976, he was collecting new images for a book by fellow astronomers at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Siding Spring, near Coonabarabran, in outback New South Wales. 

“I started playing with these plates from the UK Schmidt Telescope in the darkroom,” he recalls. Trialing a technique he had only just invented – one that extracted more faint light from stars – he noticed something unusual.

“A galaxy near the Virgo cluster had a funny thing sticking out of it. I didn’t know what it was or even if it was meaningful.” His fellow astronomers were surprised – it was a new object never before noticed, even though the region had been well surveyed previously. The discovery was dubbed Messier 89, after the other galaxies in the area, and he found himself the author of a scientific paper published in Nature – his first.  

This made Malin rather fond of Virgo cluster. Years later, while re-photographing the region at higher resolutions, as part of a survey of the faintest galaxies, he found on one of the plates another strange blob with wisps around it. He planted an exclamation mark next to it, and sent the image to his colleagues in the United States.

They were flabbergasted – they had never seen anything before quite like it. Later, when a radiotelescope was pointed at this mysterious new object, his colleagues found to their astonishment that not only was it a completely new type of galaxy, it was much further away and very, very large. “They were very enthusiastic about it,” said Malin in his characteristically modest way. “In fact, we ended up producing another paper in Nature. They listed me as first author, which was a bit of a surprise.”

The new galaxy was named Malin-1, and is among the most massive galaxies ever discovered – some 20 times the size of our own Milky Way galaxy, itself rather large. And despite 14 years of searching since, only three more of these faint and elusive conglomerations of stars have ever been uncovered. 

Malin seated in the prime focus cage of the 3.9-metre Anglo-Australian Telescope in 1976 (David Malin)

Not bad for someone who wasn’t even an astronomer. In fact, Malin had begun his working life in England as a chemist. 

After graduating from a technical college in Lancashire, Malin landed a job in Manchester working as a laboratory assistant for the giant chemical company, Ciba-Geigy. Although he’d taken apart his grandparents’ box camera at the age of 6, and had played with lenses and magnifying glasses as a child, it wasn’t until he took a holiday in Paris in his early twenties that he developed a passion for photography. “To a kid from the grimy suburbs of north England, Paris was just a mind-blowing experience,” he recalls. “I was pointing this borrowed camera everywhere … click, click, click.” 

He returned with a dozen rolls of black-and-white film he couldn’t afford to develop, so friends at the lab showed him how to do it himself. “They showed me how to mix the chemicals to make developer, how to use an enlarger which was hiding in some dark corner of the company. And suddenly, my French holiday was re-appearing in front of my eyes. This was a magical experience for me, because I was not only able to recreate the images I made in Paris, but fiddle with them, get them to say what I felt when I took the picture. I was able express something creative.”

He was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the process he didn’t notice a Ciba-Geigy executive stumble upon him developing his holiday snaps on company time. “Now, the right thing to do was to fire me,” said Malin. “But he went to my boss and said, ‘This man clearly has some photographic interest, you should encourage him in that direction’. And my boss did: he gave me a microscope and some crystals and said he wanted pictures of them.”

The Anglo-Australian Telescope (centre) and the UK Schmidt Telescope (bottom) on Siding Spring Mountain, with the Warrumbungle Ranges in the distance (David Malin/AAO)

At the time, industrial chemists were becoming increasingly interested in how chemicals like pigments and additives behaved at a microscopic level. Malin began to conduct microscopic studies of common chemical problems. His work proved so successful that within a few years he was heading a research team of four people, using fancy new microscopes and x-ray machines.

But despite being widely lauded by other researchers and advancing several company projects with his discoveries over the 18 years he worked there, the company refused to officially make him head of the laboratory – which would have meant a much-needed pay rise. “It was very British,” Malin said dryly. “I didn’t have the right paper qualifications.”

Now in his mid-30s, married to an Australian and with three children and a mortgage on a country cottage in Cheshire, he realised his career could advance no further. One day, reading the international science journal, Nature, he spied a job advertisement for someone to run a photographic laboratory at a new observatory in Australia. It was 1975, and the Anglo-Australian Observatory – the country’s pre-eminent astronomical facility – was about to open its doors. “This job just seemed the bee’s knees,” said Malin.

He applied, and soon enough had moved to Australia. “I jumped into at the deep end, because I didn’t know much about astronomy when I joined. But everyone was new, everything was new. If you wanted a cloth to wipe something, you had to go out and buy one. It was a big adventure – so falling into the deep end was a really good way to go. If you survive, you learn to swim very effectively and quite quickly.”

In those early years, as now, astronomers were forever trying to extract more light from very faint objects in deep space. At the time, they used large glass plates with special photographic emulsions coated on them. Using his training in chemistry, Malin began to experiment with different techniques to ‘hypersensitise’ the plates, baking them to remove the oxygen and water, and then soaking them in hydrogen gas for a few hours, all of which made the emulsion more sensitive to the faint light of stars.

It was hit and miss at first, but once he and his colleagues at the UK Schmidt Telescope in Siding Spring had hit on the winning formula, he standardised the production process. Soon, he had improved the sensitivity of the plates to faint light 30 times over. Exposures of far away galaxies that might take several nights of observing could be done in an hour or two.  

At the time, all deep space photography was in black-and-white; distant galaxies and star clusters were too faint to register colour, and it was expensive and time-consuming to extract even the faintest colour from them. Not content with this, Malin went back to the early work of James Clarke Maxwell, who in 1861 was the first to develop colour photography by using black-and-white plates with red, green and blue filters. These were then merged together to give colour images. Malin began tinkering with this otherwise antiquated process, and developed a new way of extracting even more light, as well as colour, from the same astronomical plates. 

The results were stunning, and soon, the astronomical world was buzzing with talk of the Anglo-Australian Observatory’s fantastic new colour images of deep space. There were fine wisps of pink clouds energised by the solar wind of distant stars, clouds of electric blue around young stars – colours that had hitherto been invisible to astronomers. Malin published several scientific papers on the new photographic techniques, which were dubbed ‘malinisation’ and quickly adopted around the world. 

A reflection of the Orion nebula, made from plates taken in October 1979; image width is about 27 arc minutes (David Malin-AAO)

Suddenly, Malin – who was not even an astronomer – was being asked to collaborate with big-name astronomers from all around the world. “Often astronomers said to me, ‘I know this object, I’ve observed it and I know the spectrum, but I never thought it looked like that’,” recalls Malin. “Colour is a very powerful diagnostic, and people had never seen these objects in colour.”

Along the way, Malin accidentally discovered another new class of galaxies, now known as ‘Malin-Carter shell galaxies’. These fuzzy, seemingly featureless elliptical galaxies actually have unexpected, sharp-edged but still faint features associated with them – believed to be the marks left by massive collisions between two galaxies billions of years ago. And, just for good measure, he has also had an asteroid named after him. 

So at what point did Malin actually become an astronomer? “That’s a good question, nobody has asked me that before,” Malin mused.

“I think of an astronomer as somebody who has worked many years, got a first-class degree, a masters and spent four or five years on a doctorate. I haven’t had that education, and there are many areas where my knowledge is seriously lacking. On the other hand, I have made some useful scientific discoveries based on what little knowledge I have. So I’m not an astronomer out of the standard box. I’m not a complete astronomer, but I have made a contribution.”

For someone who professes to be an incomplete astronomer, David Malin has had a huge impact on the field. He has published more than 120 scientific papers on astronomy and photography in his 25 years with the Anglo-Australian Observatory.

He has also written or co-written seven books, and a collection of his images have even become artworks, touring art galleries in Australia, Britain, Sweden and the United States. In October 2000, he was awarded the Lennart Nilsson Award for his achievements in astronomical photography, a prize given by the Karolinska Institute of Sweden, the same people who annually award one of the Nobel Prizes. 

In July 2001, David Malin will officially retire from the Anglo-Australian Observatory. But he will continue to curate the hundreds of spectacular colour images he has created there over a quarter-century of looking at the night sky … and bringing colour to a Universe that was once strictly black and white.