Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
 
I can't say enough good things about the Lick. (Scotto)

Saturday I was lucky enough to ride someone's coat-tails into the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton (inland from San Jose). Every summer they open up the telescopes to the public for six evenings -- and you have to win the lottery to get a ticket. If you time it right, you'll show up when we did: the pre-sunset golden hour. Mt. Hamilton is the highest thing around for quite a ways, and the views are something else. Of course, that means an hour of winding roads [1] as the initially tiny white domes tease you from the hilltop.

The star of the Observatory is the 36-inch scope. Now, 36 inches can't hold a candle to, say, Keck. [2] But I say Keck, shmeck, because that's a lot of fun to say. Also because it's not about the lens; it's about the history. The people at Lick went to Australia in 1922 to prove general relativity. Another eclipse expedition, to Flint Island in 1908, produced records detailed enough to stop destructive development 90 years later. And they built the world's biggest scope, once upon a time.

The 36-incher is a thing of beauty, and I recommend getting in to look at it before the sun goes down. The whole room sang to me, with magnificent wood paneling and metal framework housing the machine itself, which reminded me strongly of my grandfather. As an engineer when computers filled rooms [3], he had the most gorgeous instruments; craftwork sliderules and sextants and even ledgers that made me want an excuse to need them. Staring at this telescope, I realized I'd misheard the guide, because it sounded like he said it was 125 years old, and it was clearly fifties technology. That's probably equal parts my ignorance and great accomplishment, because the thing really was built in the 1880s. At the time, not only the world's largest telescope, but the first one with the blinding insight of being on top of a tall hill.

James Lick died in 1876 as the richest man in California. I mean, the man owned enormous tracts all over the place, including half of Lake Tahoe and all of Santa Catalina Island. He made his fortune carving pianos in South America (obviously) and came back with a literal treasure chest as soon as he heard they made a state out of this place. 17 days later he found gold, and he ended up buying half of downtown San Francisco. When he died, he planned to erect a pyramid for himself larger than Giza, in the heart of SF. Talked out of this tasteful plan by Men of Science, he instead donated money pretty much everything good you could find anywhere in California, and a huge pile of it to build the observatory. It took a decade or so to pull off, but once they put the scope up they exhumed his body and re-interred it underneath the telescope. Yeah, they tell you this in the middle of the talk after you've gotten all nice and comfy sitting on him.

Some people might remember Lick for being so #*$%@ rich. Others might praise OR damn him for bringing the Eucalyptus tree up from Australia. Those in the know are grateful that he brought Domingo Ghirardelli up from Lima, Peru to make his chocolate here. But I'm just happy he made such a beautiful monument. Better than a pyramid.


[1]365 turns.
[2]Actually, if you looked at a candle with Keck I imagine you would go blind.
[3]But ahead of his time! He gave us our first computer when I was a kid, starting me on this road to cyber iniquity.
 


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Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com

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