My friends Todd and Robin Mason have completed their epic scientific history documentary, “The Journey to Palomar,” and its first public screening will take place next week at the Temecula Valley International Film & Music Festival. It will be shown twice: September 13 at 8 p.m. and September 15 at 3:30 p.m.
The Palomar Observatory‘s Hale Telescope, at one time the most powerful telescope on earth, was first used by Edwin Hubble and played a crucial role in gathering evidence to support Einstein’s theories and the idea of the Big Bang as the origin of the universe. Despite its age, it is far from outmoded and keeps a busy schedule to this day.
Palomar is also a San Diego County landmark, so this screening is being treated as news by the local media. From the North County Times:
The film follows the career of George Ellery Hale —- considered the “Father of Astrophysics” —- as he wages a lifelong struggle to build the giant telescope that would turn the way humanity views the heavens on its head.
The film also tells the story of the creation of “The Giant Eye” —- the telescope’s 200-inch-diameter mirror —- and how it captured the imagination of Depression-weary America.
Considered the “moon shot of the 1930s and ’40s,” the American public hung on every word printed and every radio broadcast about Hale’s project from the time the government grant was given to begin construction until the giant mirror arrived in Escondido in 1947 and began its journey up the mountain.
The husband and wife team of Todd and Robin Mason have had a video production company in Los Angeles for more than two decades. In that time, they’ve found success —- “we’re making a living,” Todd Mason said with a laugh —- working on commercial and promotional pieces for companies such as Nissan and Bank of America.
“We decided a few years ago we wanted to do something that we wanted to do,” Todd Mason said. “I’ve always been interested in astronomy and a friend told us the story of how the Palomar Observatory came to be and it seemed really interesting.”
For more than five years, the filmmakers researched the life of the tortured genius Hale and his effort to build the world’s three biggest telescopes; the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, the Mount Wilson Observatory above Pasadena and, finally, the 200-inch telescope on Palomar Mountain.
“At first we thought the ‘gee whiz’ aspects of building the telescope would make a nice short film,” Todd Mason said. “But the more we learned about Hale, the more we realized instead of just doing a ‘gee whiz’ film, like a lot of programs you see today, we could make this into a real special program.”
The California Institute of Technology is sponsoring and hosting next month’s premiere. Caltech owns and operates Palomar Observatory and will have representatives at the screenings to answer questions along with the filmmakers.
Robin Mason said the movie isn’t just about the engineering struggle to build the Hale telescope but also about Hale’s personal struggles. The documentary includes archival footage and interviews with top scientists and historians, and it details how Hale’s observatories revolutionized human understanding of the universe.
“The more we researched it, the more we couldn’t believe the story that took place right here in our own backyard,” she said. “It’s a story that needs to be told to the American audience.”
The film will be shown on PBS next year but, like any film about something so immense, the bigger the screen the better. As I’ve mentioned here, I’ve seen this film a few times. It’s a great, multi-layered story of significant human as well as historical interest.
I have grandiose dreams about this film, which I’m allowed to have because I think of it as a precocious nephew who I’ve watched from infancy. I want this film to restore some appreciation for the “great
man person” idea of history.
Not everything of historical import is the result of anonymous historical forces that haphazardly choose individuals to be the vessels of inevitable progress. Sometimes, the courage and dedication of a single individual can alter our lives and our perceptions of everything around us. This idea might no longer be apparent in the realm of politics, but in science it is inescapable.
“Great persons” are inspiring, and there are few more inspiring stories than George Ellery Hale’s. If you can manage to see this film next week, I think you’ll leave it in awe, not just of the telescope, not just of what it has taught us about the universe, but of the man who shouldered the responsibility for creating it.