21 Aug 2012
There are lots of perks of being married to an astrophysicist, and one of them is that I’m always learning. This past weekend I went with Eric to Palomar Mountain in San Diego county, where he was observing on the mighty 200-inch Hale telescope. This telescope, completed in 1949, is truly a wonder, and its history reads like an endless tale of obstacles, all overcome to create what is called the perfect machine (there is a book by the same name about the telescope, and also a documentary, which we plan to watch soon. It is actually on Hulu, so you can watch it free!) It was the biggest telescope in the world for over 40 years, until Keck was built in Hawaii, and it is still seriously impressive, seriously productive, and seriously beautiful.
It rained on our way up the mountain on Friday, and it honestly felt like paradise after how hot it’s been in LA these past few months. There are redwoods everywhere, and the smell of the rain mingled with their sweet perfume was heavenly.
Once we arrived, Eric needed to work on calibrating the telescope for the night. Different observers come every night with their own specified targets, so everything has to be aligned properly. On the way up to the dome, I spotted these mountain orchids. Amazing. I have never seen them growing wild.
Since observing depends a lot on the weather, each night comes with its ups and downs. They can’t open the dome if it’s raining, or if there is ash in the air from wild fires, or if it’s too humid, and, of course, if it’s a cloudy night, the telescope won’t be able to see much. But when the conditions are right, this machine can do magical things. This is the bottom of the telescope, as seen from the viewing gallery inside the dome.
This is a model of the mirror in the telescope, which was sent by train all the way across the country in 1936, packaged just like this. After they poured it, it had to cool for over a year before they were able to pack it for shipping. Wow.
This is the visitors’ entrance to the telescope. This gives some idea of how imposing it is. When they are ready to observe, those two little doors open, and the whole dome can turn 360 degrees in order to point it in the right direction to see the targeted sources. Impressive. Although light pollution from the surrounding areas is a real concern, I have to say that I have never seen the stars the way I saw them on the mountain. There was the Milky Way, right above my head, and more stars than I’ve ever laid eyes on. Incredible.
If I’m using a lot of superlatives, it’s because it’s humbling to be so close to something so large, something that really displays the power of human ingenuity, and, at the same time, to feel so close to things that are millions of light years away, things that existed so long before I ever took my first breath. I have to say it again: wow.
Although the 200-inch is open for tours and there is even a museum as well, I feel privileged to have had a behind-the-scenes look at things and also to have visited such a beautiful place. It was a wonderful little getaway, and we had fun exploring the surrounding areas on our way back home. Eric had told me about these signs advertising 25 avocados for $5, and I was so excited! Guacamole for the rest of the summer! Avocado ice cream! I was not disappointed. We bought ours at this cute little stand.
We stopped at another produce stand, Pala Rey Produce, a bit further to stock up for the week, since we had missed our usual Saturday morning farmer’s market. This place made me so happy. Everything was so fresh and affordable, and they were playing Beach House in there, which happens to be the band of the guy who lived across the hall from me freshman year at Oberlin. Good times.
It was so wonderful to get to be part of Eric’s work and to visit a new place at the same time. The telescopes at Palomar are owned by Caltech, and Eric observes there pretty frequently, so I hope I will get to go back with him sometime in the future. I left with such happy feelings about the kindness of his colleagues, the caliber of work they are doing, and the excitement of all the visitors. One of the docents told me that he thinks of the 200-inch as a national monument, and I can’t disagree. I’m grateful I had the chance to see it and enjoy it.