Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Mount Wilson: Science in Transition

The Mount Wilson Observatory was founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale, who encouraged the likes of Edwin Hubble and who also had a great deal to do with the way Pasadena looks today. Think the city center plaza and City Hall. Think Caltech. Thank you, Mr. Hale.

More than 100 years later, important astronomical research continues at Mount Wilson, especially the CHARA Array, operated by Georgia State University. Don't ask me what it does. I've had it explained to me twice, once by John and once by Craig Woods, and I still don't get it. But it looks cool from above.

Craig Woods, by the way, is the reason John and I got a behind-the-scenes tour. He's our friend and the superintendent at Mount Wilson, the guy with all the keys. He's up on all the experiments, the history, and the equipment at Mount Wilson. Plus he's willing to climb some precarious ladders.

I hope you'll take another look at my May 10th post about Mount Wilson. Here's a further explanation of those photos:

First, that big engine, and its rheostat, power the tool-making shed. 110 years ago, when you got up to Mount Wilson with your mule cart or your Model-T, you weren't about to run down to Flintridge if you forgot your screwdriver. If you needed a tool or a part, you made it. Many of those magnificent old things are still there. Some explain themselves, some don't. Unless you're Craig, then you know what they are.

Near the tool shed is another shed that's a treasure trove of maps, blueprints and files. There's a small library with early Scientific American magazines and other works. There's an ancient and dusty stand-up grand piano and a pool table that hasn't been used in, I would guess, 20 years.

Off the upper left of this map is the 100 inch telescope. You can see the circles indicating the 60" telescope and the smaller but taller Solar Telescope, which is still in use. The 60" has lately been used for a couple of Hollywood parties. Stars, stargazing. This is an old map so it doesn't show all the buildings you might be familiar with if you've toured Mount Wilson in recent years. Off the pathways to the right, beyond the "no entry" signs, there are some cabins that are not currently in use. Fixer-uppers.

Mount Wilson Observatory is old. Newer, larger telescopes dot the planet. The larger the telescope, the deeper into space an astronomer can study. Although Mount Wilson still has many uses, it's now in a transition phase, becoming a museum. Funding will be needed to preserve all those beautiful blueprints and plans, to maintain those telescopes and historic buildings, to keep it all available so the public can visit and learn about the early days of astronomy.

It's also a place of natural beauty, everywhere you turn, even on the steps climbing up the hillside to the tool shed.

More soon.


Bellis said...

Wonderful write-up, refreshingly different from the usual things I read about Mt. Wilson, yet accurate. You have such a gift. Oh, I also love the photos. I wish I'd gone with you to see inside the Monastery. Some of those books belonged to Hale himself.

Petrea Burchard said...

Thank you, Bellis! I hate to disappoint you but we didn't get to see inside the Monastery. I'm hoping to do that on another trip.

If you don't know: "the Monastery," as I understand it, is sort of like a dorm. 100 years ago, you needed a place to house your astronomers while they studied the stars up on the mountain.

William Kendall said...

It looks like a wonderful place to transition into museum space.

altadenahiker said...

Thank you! And I just love that blue-print photo. Those old drawers -- made to protect and preserve maps and blue-prints, and other feats of engineering are so beautiful, aren't they?

Petrea Burchard said...

It's perfect, William. I love it there on the mountain. One of my favorite things about it is I can see the blinking lights of the nearby radio towers from my house.

Karin, there are many of these old filing drawers at Mount Wilson. These serve the current purpose and I hope they'll be kept in place, even when newer technology is brought to the mountain to preserve the papers.

Ann Erdman said...

I think you got up there just in time. There's probably snow up there now, although the low clouds covering the mountain made it impossible to tell today.

Petrea Burchard said...

I hope there's snow! You'd have to like cold (or at least cool) weather to work there for long.

It does look pretty with all the mist.

Shell Sherree said...

I suspect my father would love that tool-making shed !! Lovely pics, Petrea, and here's to stargazing, with or without the gadgets.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

One of my favorite places. I get the museum angle but Mount Wilson still does valuable work -- yes/no?

Petrea Burchard said...

Shell, even I like that toolshed!

PA, there's still sun research there using the solar telescope, and if you click the link above for the CHARA array you'll find information about what that whole experiment is about. I find it complicated but apparently it's important.

Eric Baker said...

Yes, CHARA is a very relevant tool still in use in astronomical circles. It is too bad that the pool table isn't in use anymore. I like the image of astronomers debating their latest findings over a game of 9-Ball. Glad to see that they are transitioning parts of the facility to a museum. That is an era of America that I'd hate to see shut away and forgotten.

Petrea Burchard said...

I would, too, Eric. But I'm optimistic. With Caltech and JPL right here, I hope there are enough people grateful to the early astronomers of Mt. Wilson to help keep it beautiful and available.