17 January 2009

George Ellery Hale and the world's biggest telescopes

I never tire of sitting in a domed room experiencing something to do with the universe, and when on the road I try to check out the local planetarium if time permits. While in New York City on business this week, I gave myself a night off and took in a show at the Hayden Planetarium. I was drawn in by a special showing of the PBS documentary The Journey to Palomar with an introduction and discussion by the film's two producers, Todd Mason and Robin Mason.

Growing up in Southern California I had a keen awareness of big telescopes in the region, including the 60-inch and 100-inch reflectors at the Mount Wilson Observatory (a little more than 10 miles line of sight from my home near South Pasadena), and of course the biggest telescope in the world at that time, the 200-inch Hale Telescope at the Mount Palomar Observatory. One time I convinced a couple friends to drive out and camp at Mount Palomar. We visited the observatory during the day and saw the big telescope from the visitors gallery - an impressive sight indeed.

Watching the documentary movie, I was very moved by the story of George Ellery Hale. It is accurate to say that he can be credited with single-handedly driving the creation of the biggest scientific instruments for astronomical research in the first half of the 20th century. He was a man of passion, vision and drive who used his boundless energy to gather the funding needed to build telescopes that had never been built before. Why did he do this? He was in a quest to see more, learn more, and uncover truths about our universe. He took the time to ask hard questions and then set out to create the scientific instruments necessary to get the answers he needed. By creating such amazing places to study the universe, he set the stage for astronomers such as Edwin Hubble to use these extraordinary telescopes to discover that the Milky Way was just one of many billions of galaxies. New theories were tested and validated by the images being gathered. The entire world of astrophysics was turned on its head.

The film producers pointed out that for those of us who grew up during the space race and the moon landings, these events overshadowed the profound discoveries using Hale's big telescopes and in time his notoriety was diminished. But if you take the time to learn about his life and the drive he had to better our understanding of our universe, you will see a story that has relevance for anyone interested in science. He showed that great advances in our understanding of all things comes from inspiration and commitment to an idea. I am motivated to carry on with my work as an amateur astronomer this year, the International Year of Astronomy, so others may be moved to look up and get inspired by what they see in the sky.

1 comment:

Sidewalk Universe said...

I was 8 years old when I had my first visit to the Hayden. I will never forget that day and how it affected my life - I become a student of the sky after that visit!

I have the "Journey to Palomar" recorded on the DVR and have watched it several times over - awesome show of a awesome time period! What a great opportunity you have living so close to Mt.Wilson. I had the wonderful experience of visiting the Yerkes 40" 2 years ago. Had a behind the scenes tour of the facility, archives, library ect. Even got to view Venus thru the 40"! A dream came true that day. Being in the dome with the telescope, floor, dome moving was well, moving!