A Tradition of Cosmic Discovery at Mount Wilson Observatory

For many decades, Mount Wilson Observatory hosted a community of skilled astronomers and scientists with the world’s most powerful telescopes.

The Angeles Crest Highway twists and turns its way up to the peace and serenity of Mount Wilson, far above and a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Life may seem like it’s standing still, but scientific work hasn’t stopped since George Ellery Hale created Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO) more than a century ago.

Tour guide Dan Kohne spent most of a beautiful Sunday afternoon showing me around the observatory, highlighting its history and sharing stories from its 100-plus year history. This of course, included various telescopes, from the very first Snow Solar Telescope to the Hooker Telescope. A side street led to the bungalow where Albert Einstein, Harlow Shapley, and Albert Michelson spent time discussing astronomy and the cosmos. In a serendipitous surprise, talented cellists Eric Byers and Cecilia Tsan performed pieces ranging from Bach to modern movie and TV scores amidst the excellent acoustics at the foot of the 100-inch Hooker Telescope.

Walking around Mount Wilson is like stepping back in time. One can imagine Hale spearheading the first scientific enterprise built on an industrial model, and bringing tools and instruments to build laboratories and telescopes on the narrow road up the mountain. Hale founded MWO in 1904 to pursue his passion for research on the sun and the stars.

“By establishing both MWO as a research center and The Astrophysical Journal as a means of communication, Hale single-handedly created the community of astrophysicists that exists today,” says Tim Thompson, retired from JPL Science Division and president of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. “Hale forced the people around him to do things that nobody had ever done before, and he knew how to recognize talent in others.”

One of those individuals was an astronomer named Edwin Hubble, who arrived in Southern California a century ago as a specialist in the study of spiral nebulae and their imaging. After completing his dissertation, “Photographic Investigations of Faint Nebulae,” and receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1917, Hubble made his way to Los Angeles in 1919 to continue his research. He used the 100-inch telescope to solve the mysteries of individual stars and discover the true nature of spiral nebulae, which today are referred to as spiral galaxies. At the time, no one knew other galaxies existed.

Hubble concluded that the galaxies were further apart than previously thought. He created a program that took long-exposure photos of nebulae, resulting in the identification of a Cepheid variable star in an area we now call the Andromeda Galaxy.

“The fact that he resolved an individual star in the nebula was enough to prove that ‘extremely distant star cloud’ was the correct description of the spiral nebulae, but the fact that it was identifiable as a Cepheid by the time period of its brightness variations allowed him to derive a distance,” says Thompson. “This was the beginning of his observing campaign throughout the 1920s that led to his discovery of the true nature of the galaxies, and also the first observational evidence supporting the expanding universe which we now call the Big Bang.”

Hubble’s discovery of the true nature of the universe and evidence of its continuing expansion has resulted in a modified galaxy classification that continues to be used to this day. He is a principle reason why astronomers from around the world flocked to Mount Wilson to work with “influencers” like Hubble and the world’s largest telescopes.

For many decades, MWO was the dominant astronomical observatory, hosting a community of skilled astronomers and scientists with the world’s most powerful telescopes. “In all the history of astronomy, for thousands of years, up to and including right this minute, no observatory ever built can compete with MWO for the breadth, depth, and profundity of its contributions to astronomy, astrophysics, cosmology, and the subjective human understanding of the universe around us, and that includes any space telescope you can think of,” says Thompson.

It isn’t the only tradition that has continued for more than 100 years atop Mount Wilson. During my visit I met Steve Padilla, who has been sketching sunspots for more than 40 years. Even after funding ran out and his position was eliminated, he decided to continue on as a volunteer with the benefit of being allowed to live in company housing at the Observatory.

“I like being part of the effort to keep things going,” says Padilla. Since 1917, someone has been drawing sunspots on a piece of paper, the longest consistent record of solar activity, which is kept in an archive at the Space Weather Prediction Center in Boulder, Colorado.

“In my area of expertise and experience, the effort needs to continue the goals of MWO,” says Padilla. Every day, he aligns a couple of mirrors in an old telescope that sends a reflection of the sun to a lens. Padilla sees these hand-drawn drawings as “little works of art” that offer a visual record of the activities on the sun, some 93 million miles away.

“The interesting thing is that all these drawings have been done basically with the same telescope in the same way for over a century,” says Padilla. “And I’m proud, in my own little way, to continue that tradition and keep a record of what is happening to our sun.”

Padilla says he was attracted to MWO “first, by the stories of the early MWO astronomers, and later, by the people I worked with or around and trained with.” That has been a big part of MWO’s history, its ability to attract some of the best “influencers” in the world of astronomy such as Edwin Hubble; George Ritchey, who became one of the famous telescope makers and designers; Margaret Harwood, the first woman to join MWO; as well as today’s young astronomers, who continue a long tradition of discoveries and achievements high atop Mount Wilson.

Mount Wilson Observatory is open daily between March 30 and Dec. 1, and offers limited hours in the off-season depending on the weather. There are public tours on the weekends, or you can take your time and enjoy a quiet walk around the observatory and trails in the area.

Images: courtesy of the Observatory of the Carnegie Institution for Science Collection at The Huntington Library, Art Museum And Botanical Gardens.


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