Monday, September 28, 2015

Mt. Wilson Observatory Hideout IV: Farewell for Now

Update 10/2/15: I heard from Ken Evans, Mt. Wilson volunteer (thank you, Ken!). He's always got great info:
"Hi Petrea -  I was looking at your web page and saw your photo of the big bucket outside the Monastery kitchen at Mt. Wilson.  It was used to haul concrete up to the second floor of the Monastery during construction. I have seen photos on the Huntington Library digital images page that show the Monastery under construction. It shows a wood tower with pulleys and cable system to haul the bucket up. The power for the lift was a Model T Ford truck with ballast on the back to give traction.  The truck would drive forward and the bucket would go up. I think the concrete was then poured into wheel barrows and moved where needed."

Thanks, Ken!

Original post:

Last night's blood moon brought crowds to the Mt. Wilson Observatory. The parking lot is always open and it's a good spot for viewing the night skies. The Observatory itself closes to the public at 5pm but last night the staff left the gate open and people wandered, enjoying the grounds. Despite all the light from the city below it's still very dark up here, and fun to snoop. Everyone had a good time even though throughout most of the evening the moon demurely hid its heavenly body behind a tantalizing veil of clouds.

One does not get a good photo of a moon, even a giant blood moon, with an iPhone. You will find all the gorgeous shots you could possibly want elsewhere on the web. So for my last post from the mountain, I thought I'd show you things you won't find elsewhere. Above, that's a giant old bucket thing (technical term) behind the Monastery kitchen. Something from an old well? Chili cooker? The rim of the bucket came up to my waist.

Here's a view from a second floor window in the Monastery. I don't know what it is. You tell me. I like it in black and white. (Ken says these are "...old fashioned heat vents. Some times used on water heaters, or stove flues. I would have to look in the building to see if they are still in use. My guess is no.")

A better view of that drain we saw the other day.

Science moves on, always looking for the newest discovery. That's what science must do. Funding follows the biggest telescope, the latest thing. For the first half of the 20th century and beyond, Mt. Wilson Observatory was the cutting edge of astronomical research, but larger telescopes are now the norm. Important work is still done here (the Solar Telescopes, the CHARA Array, etc.), but the Observatory is in transition. What will it become? A museum of astronomical history? An Observatory? An educational facility? All three? What do you envision?

I'm not sure what's in Mt. Wilson's future, but I know what's in its past: major scientific discoveries that changed the world's understanding of itself and its place in the cosmos. Like Hubble's glass plate proving the expansion of the universe (a discovery he made here, using the 100-inch Hooker Telescope), it's impossible to place a monetary value on that.

I have been more than fortunate to experience this magical place in a private way. There's a lot here to do, see and think about. My endless thanks to those who made it possible.

Come visit, then let's talk some more.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mt. Wilson Observatory Hideout III: the Monastery

This was my first view of the Monastery at Mt. Wilson Observatory. Compare it to this photo

Here's how to orient yourself to it:
I took this from near the front door, looking between the main building and the cottage. The pooch in the linked photo was standing beside that chimney, behind the van.

No. They're pine cones.

Originally they called this a monastery because the only astronomers here in the early 20th century were men. That's not true anymore, but the name stuck.

I had always wanted to get a glimpse of the place but it's in one of the private areas of the mountaintop where astronomical researchers live while they're working here.

The monastery is only steps from my cabin. I took this picture from my front porch this morning while the sun rose. I'm not normally an early riser but I'm going circadian here.

Here's a better look at the Monastery Cabin. Someone is living in the front part now. The back houses a kitchen and dining room that was once staffed to provide meals for the astronomers. I was able to peek through a gauze curtain and see a dining table that might have seated 12 or more people. It looks like there's a clean, white tablecloth on it. There are also a couple of bells, the kind with handles on them that you ring to let folks know the chow is on. Couldn't get a good picture through the gauze.

The "day side" of the Monastery. Scientists studying the sun stay on this side. Those working at night stay down the hall behind me. There's also a second floor above the night side.

The night side hallway is plain and carpeted. At the end is this:
I don't know what it is, but keep in mind that it's outside Room 4.

This summer the Monastery housed students in the CUREA program. I hope they do it again next year. The professor in charge lived in my cabin. She had a dog. I know because of the pupkiss on the windows above the couch. It makes me feel at home.

You can see why the place is thought of as monastic. It's simple and clean. This room is luxurious; others I saw had bunk beds. Each has a sink. There's a communal bathroom and a laundry room (bring quarters).

Nice views from every room.

The Monastery is at the end of a promontory below the Observatory. Behind it this stairway leads down the steep hillside to buildings that are part of another entity. The warning works for me.

Heading uphill in the other direction on your way to the telescopes, you'll pass my cottage. Mine at least for another 24 hours.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Mt. Wilson Observatory Hideout II

I kept getting up from my dinner last night to photograph the sunset. I finally had to stop because I was hungry. My kitchen window at my Mt. Wilson hideout looks out over Pasadena and Altadena, to the west of where I sit.

I'm fortunate to have a weekend getaway in a cabin at Mt. Wilson Observatory, high above Pasadena in the San Gabriel Mountains. Mt. Wilson was founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale. Einstein visited here. Here, at the 100-inch telescope, Edwin Hubble discovered and proved the expansion of the universe.

While I thought of the great scientists, the moon rose almost full to shine over the places they'd walked. The valley to the west and south twinkled. The Observatory still houses scientists and experiments, but larger telescopes in Chile and Hawaii are used for the Hubble-type discoveries these days. We have too much light pollution here now.

Night critters began to make their moves. The windows and doors have screens and a breeze flows through, so I've got air conditioning without bugs. Depending on what time of year you come up, you might want a bug net that goes over your hat. I'm told the nets are $4 at Big 5. I'll have to get one for next time. The (seasonal) gnats adore me and escort my face wherever I go. Except in my cabin. They haven't figured that out yet. It's a good strategy for staying inside and writing.

It's been a long time since I've watched the sun rise. Today is the first time I've ever watched it from up on the mountain. After I had my coffee I took a walk to get some exercise, snoop and take pictures. I will never run out of Mt. Wilson pictures to post.

This walkway between an office and the machine room had some lovely light, so I photographed it without noticing the thing on the floor. Probably a drain. But of course I must go back and make sure.

This building houses the Snow Solar Telescope, which was the first telescope on the mountain. Hale brought it here in 1904. I've never seen it. Maybe that's because it's in use even now.

People live here. At least four cabins are occupied, as far as I know. I haven't snooped everywhere, but I can ask. I'm fascinated by the idea and I feel privileged and grateful to be here for my writing weekend.

I keep saying "my." I'm feeling ownership. I was sitting here typing when a family of tourists walked by, having ignored the "do not enter" signs and marched on into the private areas. I was immediately outraged. Then I understood their curiosity. I'm pretty sure they heeded the "DANGER: DO NOT ENTER!" signs beyond the monastery because if they hadn't they might not have come back.

I want you to have a proprietary feeling about the Mt. Wilson, too. As the Observatory ages it becomes more of a museum, and this amazing place will need you more and more, to be its protectors, visitors and benefactors.

Come on up. It's open 10am-5pm, 7 days a week, as long as the roads are open. And it'll take you longer to drive from Pasadena to Santa Monica than it'll take you to get here from just about anywhere.

I promised pictures of the monastery. I haven't forgotten.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Mt. Wilson Observatory Hideout I

If you don't know how much I love the Mt. Wilson Observatory then you're new here. Welcome!

Mt. Wilson is a muse for me. I've visited many times. I find endless subjects for photos. I love the history. The views are breathtaking. And the Cosmic Cafe serves a fine hot dog. Unfortunately for me, there will be no hot dogs this weekend. So if you're making the hike up the mountain, I suggest you bring lunch. The Cafe will have something for you to drink.

We see these blinking towers and other Observatory lights from our back porch at night. The towers are not actually part of the Observatory, though I associate them in my mind and they loom over the Observatory parking lot. These towers service radio and television stations all over the Los Angeles basin.

But that's not what I'm bursting to tell you.

This. This is what I'm so excited about.

This private cabin is mine for a long weekend. I've got special permission to stay on the mountain in an area that's off-limits to tourists. I haven't seen anyone else for hours. I do see pine trees out of my windows. I feel cool air coming through the screen. A clock on the wall is ticking; I'll probably unplug it. A little road winds along in front of the cabin downhill to the adjacent, fabled monastery (pictures in my next post).

This weekend I'm here to write, write, write, and also to tell you more about this place. Mt. Wilson Observatory is a Pasadena and San Gabriel Valley classic. Its value is immeasurable. There is no other place in the world quite like it.

I won't be on the internet a lot for the next few days except to tell you about my experience. I'll post more photos, including places the regular Mt. Wilson visitor doesn't normally see. I hope you'll check in. I welcome your comments. Ask questions, too! I'll try to get the answers while I'm here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Carnegie Observatories, III

Today we know this as the Andromeda galaxy, or M31. But it was known as the Andromeda nebula when this negative was taken. Edwin Hubble crossed out the "n" (which meant nova) and wrote "VAR!" in bright red, indicating he had found a variable star in the Andromeda nebula. "That first discovery of a variable star meant he could measure distance to Andromeda and show that it was in fact very, very far away and not part of our Milky Way at all," says Dr. Cindy Hunt, Caltech PhD and head of Social Media for the Carnegie Observatories. This unique plate shows Hubble's search for more variable stars in Andromeda, and you can even see "V4!!!" in Hubble's handwriting.

Even though we visited the one building in Pasadena (designed by Myron Hunt), The Carnegie Observatories is plural because it's several different observatories supported by private donations and endowments. For the last couple of posts we've been talking about the Carnegie Observatories' archive of glass plates: "astrophoto" negatives of space taken in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.

Halley's comet, 1910.

I love the wooden boxes. Each is unique. But Dr. Hunt knows where everything is.

Not a great photo, but I like it. The Moon in a hand-labeled filing cabinet continues the theme of "a hundred years of boggling the mind."

This developed negative of the moon is from 1919. Think of how brand new it all was then. It's been nearly a hundred years. Have you seen the latest images from Pluto?

Cindy shows me glass plates. We looked at the moon, the sun, comets, galaxies, you name it.
I think she likes her job.

Cindy showed us a lot, but there was one thing she couldn't show us.
The original plate, the one Edwin Hubble took when he knew he'd discovered the expansion of the universe, is not kept here. It's too valuable. What we saw was a fine replica.

You can see many of these glass plates, and other exciting space stuff old and new, at the Carnegie Observatories Open House on Sunday, October 18th 2-5 pm. Be sure to RSVP! It's a family-friendly event. Check out one of Pasadena's little secrets.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Carnegie Observatories, II

Dr. Cindy Hunt, Caltech PhD and head of Social Media for the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, pushes open the door to the vault. My mouth gapes wider than the door. This is just the kind of thing I love: an archive—a photo archive of a different sort.

This archive is replete with glass plates—negatives of "astrophotographs" taken from telescopes pointing into all depths and directions of space. This one of the sun, from August 17, 1935, was taken from Mount Wilson's Solar Telescope. Click to enlarge it so you can see the flares of 80 years ago.

The glass plate negatives come in all sizes. Here, Cindy's holding a glass spectra of a sun spot, made in 1919 at Mount Wilson Observatory. Cindy says, "You can easily identify the Zeeman splitting in the calcium-H and K lines in the spectrum on the top row." I'm going to take her word for it. "Part of the early discoveries about the sun at the Carnegie Observatories was using these spectra to show that sun spots are far cooler than the rest of the sun, and have strong magnetic fields," she says.

In the background are boxes and boxes of the history of the universe, depicted on glass plates.

More glass plates. Those numbers on the boxes are dates: 1920. 1916. 1917.

"George Ellery Hale had a telescope in his back yard at his childhood home in Chicago, known as the Kenwood Observatory," says Dr. Hunt. "When Hale moved to Pasadena to build the first telescope on Mount Wilson in 1904, he brought these plates with him, known as the Kenwood Plates."

Thus, the years written on the boxes are 1894. 1895. 1892. 

On and on with the glass plates. The universe is pretty big! And astronomers at Mount Wilson Observatory have been photographing it for more than 100 years.

Carnegie's history is and will always be intertwined with that of Mount Wilson and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), but they're no longer officially affiliated. The Carnegie Observatories is an international research conglomerate. The astrophysics being done here is very much of the future. But these glass plates, depicting the astronomy of the past, are immensely valuable to science and history. That is to say, they're priceless. That, and the fact that they're sensitive to heat and light, is why they're kept in a vault. That's why the public rarely sees them.

That's why you should go to the Carnegie Observatories family-friendly Open House on Sunday, October 18th, 2-5pm, when some of these plates will be on display. Be sure to RSVP!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Carnegie Observatories, I

Here's a familiar face.

Everybody knows Albert Einstein spent a good deal of time in Pasadena in the 1930's, lecturing at Caltech, visiting JPL and Mount Wilson, and generally being a science ambassador around Los Angeles.

Here's a center of astronomy that Einstein visited but many Pasadenans don't know about: the Carnegie Observatories. I don't think there are any telescopes in the building but even if there are, in the middle of a residential neighborhood on a residential street, most of the science here is being done on computers and in brains. A huge part of their work, however, comes from Carnegie Observatories' telescopes at Las Campanas in Chile.

Lovely little library, isn't it?

That's George Ellery Hale in the painted portrait. Hale was the idea man behind so much of what are now historical observatories, including Mount Wilson Observatory. He was even instrumental in the design of Pasadena's beautiful City Hall Plaza, where one of the buildings is named for him.

In the photograph you see, among others, Edwin Hubble (the tall guy, second from left). Hubble is most known for discovering and proving the expansion of the universe. He also figured out that a lot of what had been thought to be nebulae were, in fact, galaxies. Imagine how all those galaxies boggled minds when they hadn't been considered before.

I think you can pick out Professor Einstein in the picture.

J and I were invited to visit the Observatories by Dr. Cindy Hunt, a Caltech PhD and head of Carnegie's Social Media efforts. In the next couple of posts, Dr. Hunt's going to lead us to some places the public never sees.

We'll visit deep space via the deep, dark basement of the Carnegie Observatories. Stay with us.

In the mean time, mark your calendar for Sunday, October 18th from 2-5pm for the Carnegie Observatories open house. Click on the link and give them an RSVP, s'il vous plait.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Inside the Solar Telescope

Through a dark door beneath a gleaming tower, we enter the small building that houses Mount Wilson Obervatory's 150-Foot Solar Telescope.

Fluorescent lights shine on interesting photos and diagrams that line the walls. This bust of George Ellery Hale looks like the one I photographed at Caltech in 2009, but I learned that it's not the same. This one was rejected by the Hale family. The accepted bust is at Caltech somewhere, though it's likely been moved since I took its picture.

At first you think, "Oh. Well, it's an old room. With old computers in it. And...wait, what are all these dials and knobs and...?"

Then someone turns off the lights.

You know you can't look directly at the sun, but there it is before you on the table, with today's spots.

Every day the sun's spots are mapped, and the information is shared for anyone to see. This research is used worldwide.

Then more magic—I mean, science. Before our eyes, on the table, sunset.

Shadows float across the circle of light, first of the Mt. Wilson radio towers, then of the western mountain range itself.

Then the gloaming fades into night.

A room full of enchanted enthusiasts lets out a cheer. It's easy, then, to understand why our ancient kin worshipped and feared the sun.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Solset on Mount Wilson

Ken Evans, a 15-year volunteer at Mt. Wilson Observatory, wrote to share information about the Solar Tower: 
"The 'little platform' is not the bucket elevator. The platform is a service stop for the bucket elevator. There is equipment inside the tower inner column that needs service and the elevator would stop there. The elevator is stored at the bottom of the tower when not in use. The group of cables on the far right in the photos is what is used by the elevator. The bucket only holds two people easily, but could hold three if one stands in the middle.

I also enjoyed the views inside the 100" telescope. I am part of a team of three that is installing a new control system for the telescope and at times I forget the beauty of the building. I have spent many hours inside the building, on the telescope and in it doing service. I am awed by the engineering of the place having been built in 1912 to 1917. The other day, [we] were studying a problem with the shutter opening system and I had to use binoculars to see the top area. I discovered that the idler pulleys for the cables that operate the upper part have pipes and grease fittings for the pulley. They come from the pulley hub and curve around so that they can be reached from the Newtonian platform as it rides up the dome."

Thanks for the corrections, Ken! They are much appreciated.

Public access to the Mount Wilson Observatory ends at 5pm, unless you're going to a special event. So when I had the chance to be on the Observatory grounds during evening hours, you can bet I grabbed it.

Approaching the 150-foot Solar Tower at sunset...


Take a closer look. The little platform on the right is an elevator you can ride to the top IF you don't fear heights and IF you know the right people. I don't fear heights. I have to work on the people.

My next post takes place inside the building, with more magic. Or, uh, science.