Los Angeles may be home to Hollywood stars but for an out-of-this-world experience drive up to the Mt. Wilson Observatory where you can find even more beautiful stars to gaze at, any time of the day or night.
The Mt. Wilson Observatory, located north of Pasadena, is renowned as one of the most famous astronomical observatories in the world and groundbreaking work continues there to this day.
George Ellery Hale, the driving force behind the observatory’s creation, persuaded steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to fund critical elements of the observatory. As at Mt. Wilson, Carnegie, in his later life, became one of America’s great philanthropists, building a university, a research institute and thousands of libraries across the country.
Hales’ persuasive vision and Carnegie’s vast wealth resulted in the building of the observatory’s 60 and 100-inch reflecting telescopes. The 100-inch, known as the Hooker telescope, was the instrument that enabled Edwin Hubble to determine in 1929 that the universe was expanding, based on his now-famous “red shift” theory.
For 31 years the Hooker telescope was the world’s largest, until being eclipsed by the 200-inch telescope Palomar Hale telescope in 1948, near San Diego, CA. Of course, larger telescopes are now being used and built around the world, at sizes of 25 meters (984 inches) and 39 meters (1,535 inches).
Even Albert Einstein was interested in the work at Mt. Wilson and he once toured the facility. Vintage newsreel footage and photographs show him at both the 150-foot solar observatory and the 100-inch telescope. Einstein believed that gravity bends light and wanted to know if Hale could help prove the theory. And, Hubble’s discoveries about the expanding nature of the universe, was also of great interest to Einstein.
Hale was a solar astronomer and one of the leading forces of his time in the development of astronomy in the United States. Among his many scientific accomplishments was the discovery of magnetic fields in sunspots.
Solar and astronomical work continues at Mt. Wilson, with a number of universities and institutions conducting research. Today’s modern astronomy incorporates new technologies that go beyond solar observatories, and reflecting and refracting telescopes. Two examples, LIGO, or the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, is working to directly observe gravitational waves and the CHARA array, or The Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy, is another important interferometer project, being carried out at Mt. Wilson.
Casual observers visiting Mt. Wilson don’t have to worry about deciphering confusing scientific jargon and theories because tour docents, many of whom worked at the observatory, are happy to simplify the highly technical aspects of astronomy that even children can understand.
And while a trip to the Mt. Wilson Observatory is a lesson in science and the nature of the universe, it also helps people understand what astronomy means in our daily lives. Weekend day trips let visitors tour the 150-foot solar observatory as well as the 100-inch Hooker telescope.
But for an even closer look at the stars, Mt. Wilson offers nighttime star parties where groups can rent the 60-inch telescope for a half-night or a full evening of stargazing. The rental includes an astronomer who will gladly direct the telescope at whatever celestial bodies observers hope want to see.
Earth is a small part of a vast cosmos that for millennia has confounded human beings. The work that has been, and continues to be done at Mt. Wilson, advances our understanding of the mysteries of the universe. And it is quite likely that careful scientific examination of the stars beyond our world will lead to important advances here on our home planet.
And who knows, one day Mt. Wilson just might be the place to answer the burning question, “Is anybody else out there?”
(For more information, check out some of the links below.)