Stuck in LA for three days because of mass flight cancellations due to Hurricane Irene while Julie is at home alone filling the bathtub with water and battening down the hatches, and what do you do? You find the coolest thing in LA and go there. The Mount Wilson Observatory is up the road past Pasadena, high up on top of Mount Wilson overlooking the city and as George Ellery Hale surmised in 1904, a really good spot to put an astronomical telescope or two.
This of course was before LA was a smog and light-polluted blight on the planet and, due to the natural inversion layer there which causes the temperature of the air to increase with height, was a doubly good spot as a side effect of the inversion is that Mount Wilson hosts some of the steadiest air in the country. I suppose the reason this is good for astronomical observations being that stars twinkle less and you can get a better look at them. The inversion also happens to be a major cause of smog, as it traps the noxious gases and helps keep them there, but whaddyagonnado.
But in 1904, the smog and the light pollution were not an issue and as a result some very important Astronomy was performed here, and I love to pay homage to historic scientific sites. As per my hit or miss luck with such things, I happened to arrive on the day when they conducted the very first ever paid tour of the Observatory, and as a result was among the first of the public ever to be conducted inside the building housing the 100-inch Hooker telescope, pictured in the first photo on top, but we'll get to that in a bit. Now this is a picture of a picture on display in the small museum there that tickled my funny bone:
If you are familiar with the Astronomical bestiary, you will know that pictured above is not in fact a nebula, spiral or otherwise, but a Galaxy as noted in the smaller print underneath. This picture was taken, printed, and on display here at Mount Wilson at a time before Astronomers knew about Galaxies! That killed me. They thought it was only 10,000 light years away, when in fact it is now known to be about 23,000,000 light years away, and 100,000 light years in diameter. We've come so far in just one century in our understanding of the size and scope of the Universe.
The above picture was taken inside of the 150 foot tower, (the one in the middle in the 2nd picture of this post) which is in fact a solar telescope that is still in use. As part of the first paying tour group we were allowed inside to meet an astronomer working on it, and to see some real time sun activity.
I couldn't set up my tripod in such tight quarters so this is not the clearest picture I could've got, but that is the sun, as reflected onto the viewing plate directly through the lens and 150 feet of tower. Now, I could be sensationalistic and say that those are actual sunspots that we got to see, but the fact is that what you can't see in the picture is that those spots are on a small piece of paper which he put down next to the actual, much smaller sunspots which we were able to see but which the brightness of the sun has washed out in the photo. He did this as an exercise in comparison; the big ones you can see are a copy of the largest spots ever observed at this telescope, and the ones not visible in the photo were the actually occurring at that moment, and were the size of the Earth. So those spots you can actually see there are in reality tens of times larger than our whole planet.
They had a couple of walls of this kind of Data in there, and I love that stuff. One other thing about sunspots; relative to the rest of the surface of the sun, they are much cooler and therefore appear to be black, shining far less brightly. In reality they still range in temperature from about 2727–4227 °C and would still burn the fuck out of your eyes if the sunspot light was isolated. One photo on the wall caught my attention as an example of what you can do with a little planning and a really really good telephoto lens, or an astronomical camera advantage.
So that's how star hunting is done in LA, for real. Messiestobjects style. And so last and best was the 100-inch Hooker telescope. Obviously it's quite large; the 100-inch refers to the size of the lens. This is the building it's housed in.
Using this telescope, this fabulous beautiful piece of machinery, Edwin Hubble discovered that those Nebulae were in actuality Galaxies. Rather than oddly shaped clouds of dust and gas, they were in fact gigantic, amazing whirling structures of stars, millions and billions of stars. Structures of a size to rival what we thought previously to be the size of the entire Universe, all there was, our own Milky Way. And once again, our own personal size and place in the cosmos was reduced, yet our understanding of it made more unimaginably awe-inspiring.
This is also where Hubble and an assistant discovered the redshift, the indication that our Universe is expanding rather than static as Einstein had hoped. More than many other such places I've visited, standing underneath this historical object really gave me a glimpse of the scientific endeavor and it's awesome sense of the joy of discovery.
At any rate, it was awesome, but I still had three more nights and two full days, stuck in that helLA hole. So I decided to get out. I went down to Palm Springs, got a nice little hotel, sat in a salt water pool and jacuzzi, and ate a bunch of good food. I took no pictures because it was a dreadfully dull place and is a good example of the occasional downside of my job.