October 08, 2003
Peace and Quietness One Mile Up

aerial view of mt. wilson observatory

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-inch telescope at mt. wilson

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.

'telescope action shot

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.

ring nebula

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:

Dear Gentlemen,

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

Having taken two solid semesters' worth of astronomy, usage of the ol' local observatory (http://www.ucalgary.ca/~milone/rao.html) and all, I can tell you one* thing: astronomers sure do know how to party.

They've got cool gadgets too. One thing you forgot to mention in the list of observatory death traps (but I must applaud your reference to drowning in a vat of poisonous mercury) is the liquid nitrogen tubes they use to cool the CCDs.

Really big modern telescopes are even cooler - the 2m monster at the aforementioned observatory looks like something out of a Japanese manga, with all the hanging wires and tubing. But they certainly aren't as cool (no mercury death baths), and they don't even have eyepieces (and most of them are infrared anyway). Usually, the astronomers won't even let you get close. It's really cool (and quite unusual for an active research observatory) that they let a whole group of you (ab)use a telescope for the night.

In all my future travel plans, I try to include at least one not-so-out-of-the-way observatory. They're rather nice places to visit (and usually located in quite scenic spots). Looks like Mt. Wilson is a must-do destination.

* I think we may have learned other crap about gaseous nebulae and pulsating stars, but with all the partying we did it's hard to tell.

Posted by: Vladimir S. on October 8, 2003 09:52 PM

John, be sure to visit Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton, and its 36" refractor. XIX century refractors have a fascinating, Verne-ish, old fashioned science fiction look.

Posted by: Paolo Amoroso on October 9, 2003 11:23 AM

I almost hate to sully this with a non-astronomical comment, John, but those are damned fine sideburns.

Posted by: Joey deVilla on October 11, 2003 07:12 AM

Thanks. But you should see est's...

Posted by: John Wiseman on October 11, 2003 07:42 AM

James Lick is buried in a crypt beneath the 36-inch refractor atop Mt. Hamilton. They used to have concerts in the old dome, too.

Posted by: Allan Heim on October 30, 2003 01:08 PM
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