I was at an unusual and splendid event on Saturday. My friend and colleague, the writer Aimee Bender, organized a group of 25 of us to go to the top of Mount Wilson and spend the evening, mostly sitting in the dark, right up to well after midnight! What were we doing? Astronomy. We had the Mount Wilson Observatory’s 60 inch telescope entirely at our disposal!! This is not any old 60 inch telescope – it is one of the historic telescopes that’s up there, used since the early part of the 20th Century to discover things about our galaxy and beyond.
(See also a post I did about the 100 inch, and the hike you can do up the mountain to see the site. [Update: Note - For this trip, we drove up, carpooling!])
Aimee had reserved the space well in advance, and we had a guide and a telescope operator (the excellent Shelley Bonus and Arbi Karapetian, respectively), and we brought food, which was spread out on a large table alongside vats of coffee and hot water (for tea), supplied by the observatory.
This is an excellent way to spend an evening. Shelley is informative and enthusiastic, and does a great job of selecting various objects to be viewed (she also takes requests!) and giving lots of information and anecdotes about them, and much else besides. Arbi was also a gold mine of information.
The party was of 24 non-scientists (there were a lot of writers of various types, for example – poets, screenwriters, novellists, experts in poetry and literature and language…) and one physicist. As the latter, I tried to remain undercover, so as not to make the guide feel like she was being “fact-checked”, but my cover was blown by someone pretty early on (they did not know I was intending to be in hiding). But it turned out that I needn’t have worried, since Shelley was very good about it, and even invited me to chime in at any point. I did not. It was her show, not mine, and she was doing just fine without me…
We’re all pretty spoiled these days with wonderful images from space on tv and the web, and that’s a great thing that I wouldn’t change (I’ve shown you several here on the blog). But the drawback is that people are a bit jaded by the real thing, and so there’s always the worry that people will not be as impressed with some telescope images as you might hope. It’s hard to try to explain how wonderful it is to see something with your “naked eye” – in the sense that the light you’re seeing actually came directly from the object you’re looking at. I find this latter a wonderful thing, and so staring through a telescope always gives me a tingle.
Check back for a video I made of the interior, including some footage of the dome being opened, and rotated (to everyone’s delight). On the left is a still (click on it and look closely) of someone peering through the scope in the dead of night. The shy is light because there was a nearly full moon.
Any doubts (perhaps brought on by people’s reactions to an earnest but wobbly early appearance from Mars) about how the evening’s viewing would be taken were blown away by the first big marquee animal of the show: Saturn. Shelley did a clever thing by simply not telling us what was up next, and then as we lined up to have a look through the eyepiece, one by one people gasped upon looking, and then came down the ladder with a glow you could see in the half-light. Big showy Saturn, with her entourage of rings and four clearly visible satellites, turned everyone into the child that they should be for events like this: Full of awe and wonder. The rest of the evening (involving several globular clusters, a binary star, the limb of the nearly-full moon, and so forth) was magical.
I had a lot of fun, as did everyone else I’ve heard from*. Thanks Aimee!!
P.S. *Hey, instead of going to a (sort of) physics-themed bar/nightclub like this year, maybe I’ll book the telescope for my birthday party next year! Also, some have been so inspired by it, there’s an idea afoot to do a biology version of the event. Perhaps I’ll tap on the shoulder of some of my colleagues in biology here at USC…
P.P.S. You can do this too. It is wonderful that members of the general community can go up and observe. Look here for booking details.
Some Related Asymptotia Posts (not exhaustive):
- Rings Around Rhea
- First Watson, Now Holmes
- Monolith Not Spotted, Yet
- The Walk Up Mount Wilson
- Griffith Observatory: Entertainment, Education, or Both?
- JPL the new Disneyland?
- Tell-Tale Tail
- Look Up Down South
- Last Chance For Some To See McNaught
- A Different Perspective
- Keeping an Eye on Saturn
- Some Observations at Griffith Observatory
- The Lives Of The Stars
- Observing the Observatory
- Acting Up At Griffith Observatory