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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reading List: The Glass Giant of Palomar

Woodbury, David O. The Glass Giant of Palomar. New York: Dodd, Mead, [1939, 1948] 1953. LCCN 53000393.
I originally read this book when I was in junior high school—it was one of the few astronomy titles in the school's library. It's one of the grains of sand dropping on the pile which eventually provoked the avalanche that persuaded me I was living in the golden age of engineering and that I'd best spend my life making the most of it.

Seventy years after it was originally published (the 1948 and 1953 updates added only minor information on the final commissioning of the telescope and a collection of photos taken through it), this book still inspires respect for those who created the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar, and the engineering challenges they faced and overcame in achieving that milestone in astronomical instrumentation. The book is as much a biography of George Ellery Hale as it is a story of the giant telescope he brought into being. Hale was a world class scientist: he invented the spectroheliograph, discovered the magnetic fields of sunspots, founded the Astrophysical Journal and to a large extent the field of astrophysics itself, but he also excelled as a promoter and fund-raiser for grand-scale scientific instrumentation. The Yerkes, Mount Wilson, and Palomar observatories would, in all likelihood, not have existed were it not for Hale's indefatigable salesmanship. And this was an age when persuasiveness was all. With the exception of the road to the top of Palomar, all of the observatories and their equipment promoted by Hale were funded without a single penny of taxpayer money. For the Palomar 200 inch, he raised US$6 million in gold-backed 1930 dollars, which in present-day paper funny-money amounts to US$78 million.

It was a very different America which built the Palomar telescope. Not only was it never even thought of that money coercively taken from taxpayers would be diverted to pure science, anybody who wanted to contribute to the project, regardless of their academic credentials, was judged solely on their merits and given a position based upon their achievements. The chief optician who ground, polished, and figured the main mirror of the Palomar telescope (so perfectly that its potential would not be realised until recently thanks to adaptive optics) had a sixth grade education and was first employed at Mount Wilson as a truck driver. You can make of yourself what you have within yourself in America, so they say—so it was for Marcus Brown (p. 279). Milton Humason who, with Edwin Hubble, discovered the expansion of the universe, dropped out of school at the age of 14 and began his astronomical career driving supplies up Mount Wilson on mule trains. You can make of yourself what you have within yourself in America, or at least you could then. Now we go elsewhere.

Is there anything Russell W. Porter didn't do? Arctic explorer, founder of the hobby of amateur telescope making, engineer, architect…his footprints and brushstrokes are all over technological creativity in the first half of the twentieth century. And he is much in evidence here: recruited in 1927, he did the conceptual design for most of the buildings of the observatory, and his cutaway drawings of the mechanisms of the telescope demonstrate to those endowed with contemporary computer graphics tools that the eye of the artist is far more important than the technology of the moment.

This book has been out of print for decades, but used copies (often, sadly, de-accessioned by public libraries) are generally available at prices (unless you're worried about cosmetics and collectability) comparable to present-day hardbacks. It's as good a read today as it was in 1962.

Posted at October 15, 2009 00:05