Saturday night I did the coolest thing; My friend Lori took me to a party at the Mt. Wilson observatory, about 5,000 feet above Pasadena in the San Gabriel mountains, where we got to use the 60-inch telescope.
The 60" is almost a hundred years old. When it was built it was the biggest telescope in the world, and it was the first one that could resolve stars in other galaxies.
When you're inside the dome, it's nearly pitch black and it takes a while to get used to moving around without bumping into things (before we went in, the astronomers warned us about bumping into things so we wouldn't get a limb sliced off when the dome started moving, or be electrocuted by the bare 110-volt line running around the perimeter). Weighing 70,000 lbs., floating on top of 40 gallons of mercury, the telescope swivels pretty easily. It's awfully disorienting though when you're looking up, watching the telescope slew to a new target, and suddenly see the entire dome begin to rotate around you.
We looked at nebulae, double stars, globular clusters, Mars and its moons, and our moon (really bright, and hard to track since it's so close). My favorite thing was definitely seeing the ice cap on the south pole of Mars. Hello, carbon dioxide! Hello, future human habitat!
There is something profoundly different about seeing these objects through a big telescope compared to in a photograph, knowing that between your eyeball and the star/nebula/whatever there are only a couple big mirrors and millions of light years. Fucking awesome.
While I'm in New York for the lisp conference I hope I get to see the Museum of Jurassic Technology's exhibit “No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again”, which is a collection of letters that cranks and crackpots have written to the Mt. Wilson astronomers over the years, outlining their theories of the universe.
A selection from one letter:
Some weeks ago I wrote you a letter. Not yet having heard from you I was wondering if you received my letter I wrote you from Homai. Since, I have shifted from Homai, to Auckland. So I thought I would send you my new address. I want to tell you I am not after money & I am not a fraud. I believe I have some knowledge which you gentlemen should have. If I die my knowledge may die with me, & no one may ever have the same knowledge again. Because if people hear talking they want stick, they go & do away with their selves. I have gone through frightful things still I go through it & I am beginning to get knowledge. I would write down & tell you what I no. But I would sooner wait till I hear from you. Because you are both strangers to me & my letter may go astray. When one writes one needs peace & quietness
I hope I have a chance to go back to the observatory soon.
P.S. While poking around in the lower level of the dome, I found a set of old wooden lockers. One had a metal nameplate that read “Hubble”.Posted by jjwiseman at October 08, 2003 08:05 PM