The Heroes of Palomar

At the end of the special showing of "The Journey to Palomar" at Cal-Tech Friday, the applause was long and loud. The auditorium was mostly comprised of men and women who looked to be in their 60s, 70s and 80s. My family was there because the documentary film was the labor of love of two of my best friends, Todd and Robin Mason.

Hale.jpgIt was the first public showing of a completed version of the film — a film whose progress my wife and I have tracked for about five years. The subject is George Ellery Hale, a solar astronomer who was also an impresario of astronomical science, the man without whom the giant telescopes at Mt. Wilson and Palomar would never have been built.

As told by the Masons, Hale's story has elements of P.T. Barnum, Albert Einstein and "A Beautiful Mind." Hale was the son of a Chicago industrialist, and he brought to his scientific endeavors an entrepreneurial zeal one generally does not associate with astrophysicists.

Among Hale's patrons were Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, President Woodrow Wilson. Hale was not afraid to shake down these powerhouses of politics and captains of industry for the money needed for his projects — for the development of Cal Tech itself, and for the telescopes that would eventually validate the idea of an expanding universe, measure the immensity of the universe and the distance between galaxies, and discover such faraway phenomena as quasars, the unimaginably bright objects hundreds of millions of light years away that devour suns by the thousands.

Palomar-1.jpgThe centerpiece of the story is the Palomar Observatory, for decades the largest telescope on earth with its legendary 200-inch diameter mirror. The final decades of Hale's life were dedicated to the creation of this great tool of discovery, beginning with his success in persuading an offshoot of the Rockefeller foundation to fund a telescope of this size in 1928.

The observatory was not completed until 1948, ten years after Hale's death.

Particularly fascinating is the story of its enormous mirror, which was made from Pyrex by Corning Glass Works in a process that gives a whole new definition to the word "arduous." There's a little PR story in all this. The nation got very excited about this mirror, and followed its saga from the New York-based factory's giant ladles full of superheated molten glass, to its cross-country trainride to Pasadena for polishing, to its climb up Mt. Palomar to be placed in the telescope structure where it is still used today.

Imagine it: People lined up alongside the train tracks to watch this huge mirror packaged for travel go rolling by. Platforms were built at Corning to allow VIPs to see the glass being poured. It was a publicity bonanza for Corning, although, as the film shows, they finally had to remove the audience to allow the workmen to concentrate on the mirror.

Hale put everything on the line to make the Palomar Observatory a reality — including his sanity. To use terminology of the times, Hale suffered from neurasthenia, which probably referred to a combination of extreme stress and chronic fatigue syndrome. Hale is presented in the documentary as a man of great charm, energy and persuasive power, but the effort to maintain that luminous personality caused several nervous breakdowns, frightening hallucinations, and periods during which Hale retreated from the whirlwind of activity he himself had created.

I knew the film was going to be great, having had pieces of it screened in my living room or on my computer over the past few years. But seeing it whole, with a gray-haired audience at Cal Tech, was unexpectedly moving. To most Americans, Hale is a forgotten man — hence the need for "Journey to Palomar." To the 300 500 people in the audience Friday, I imagine Hale is a kind of saint, an icon of the religion of science.

Hale is one of that small group of men — along with Einstein, Lemaitre, Hubble, Gamow, Friedemann, to drop a few names — who gave us our understanding of the universe and, in doing so, answered (for some of us) the fundamental questions that religion tries to address: Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?

Some of these great scientists answered these questions theoretically, using mathematical equations. Others found answers through observations of the sky that penetrated the veils of time — all the time that has ever existed. For many years, Hale's telescope at Palomar was the essential tool for making those observations, and discovering the answers to those ancient questions. It was a great scientific achievement, but also a colossal, exhausting feat of schmoozing and cajoling to make it happen.

caltech.jpgHence, the long, loud applause by the Cal Tech alums. In their youth, I imagine some of them spent cold nights at Palomar, a mountain in San Diego County just a little west of the Anza-Borrego desert. Or they helped with research, performed critical calculations, or analyzed spectroscopic data for red-shift.

Today's astrophysicists stand on the shoulders of giants, but the ladies and gentlemen at I met Friday at Cal-Tech stood by their sides, and lifted these giants skyward. I felt very grateful that Todd and Robin had done so much to honor what they had accomplished in their paean to George E. Hale.

P.S.: The story of 20th Century astronomy is very much a California story, in particular a Pasadena story. California ought to have a holiday to honor our state's proud heritage as a center of scientific understanding. I don't mean another day off for ski weekends — I mean a day when everyone, especially students, would be encouraged to learn about California's legacy of scientific achievement, and pay homage to the men and women who worked, mostly in obscurity, to bring them about. It would be great if each year's celebration included a showing of "Journey to Palomar" on public television.


18 thoughts on “The Heroes of Palomar

  1. Great story John. I hope I get the opportunity to see the film soon. I also love anything connected to Pasadena, since most of my roots are from that area.

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