Bad Astronomy

Touching Hubble’s history

Note to my readers: This is also cross-posted on The SkepticBlog, the blog of The Skeptologists.

I want to indulge myself for a moment and follow up on what Ryan wrote about our shoot at Mt. Wilson.

When we shot The Skeptologists, I had never been to Mt. Wilson before. I’ve been to a few observatories, including some small ones affiliated with Universities, Mt. Stromlo in Australia, and the IAC facilities on La Palma in the Canary Islands.

These are all fantastic places to visit, but they’re relatively new. Mt. Wilson has been around for a long, long time, and even better, we filmed in the dome of the Hooker 100” telescope. When I found that out, I was ecstatic! This was the very telescope used by Edwin Hubble when he was investigating the nature of what they used to call simply “nebulae”, what we now call galaxies.

When we got there, I was not disappointed. The ‘scope is magnificent! I love the brute force steelworks of it, the criss-crossing braces, the sky-blue paint. The control board was very retro (duh), and had an almost steampunk feel to it.

But the best part was when we went down into the pit, the bottom of the dome where we could stand under the magnificent ‘scope. I was peering around, and when I was underneath it I happened to look up. My eyes caught a flash of green, and I realized I was seeing the 100” mirror itself. It was supported by a maze of steel, but gaps in the bracing and random bits of machinery and metal left a clear view of the glass.

I had an odd moment, thinking of the photons that hit that glass a century ago. They had traveled millions of light years through space before being reflected by that mirror. The galaxies observed by Hubble had emitted countless fleets of them, more photons than there are stars in the sky. The vast majority flew off into open space, and still ply their way between galaxies. But a tiny fraction of those made it to Earth. Some were absorbed by our atmosphere, and some few of those were aimed right down the telescope’s gullet. A fraction of those were absorbed by the mirror itself as well as the other mirrors used by the telescope to focus the light.

Out of the countless octillions of photons that started their journey, only a few made it into Hubble’s detectors. And from those scant particles of light, he and his fellow astronomer (Slipher, Hale, and others) discovered the Universe itself is expanding.

I stood there thinking of all that, and I couldn’t help it. I reached up and touched the back of the mirror. I laughed at myself a little; a skeptic connecting with a chunk of glass. I didn’t feel any vibrations, no sense of Hubble’s energy, no rapport with the history.

And yet… we’re still apes, we humans. We can see something, hear it, taste it; but it’s our fingers that relay so much of the sense of what’s around us. Nothing New Agey or superstitious, just a simian need to fulfill the part of the brain that desires the tactile sensation of connection.

But still. Touching that glass put me there. That part of my brain firing up gave me the extra dimension of sense, the understanding, the knowing, and (yes) the feeling the history of the place. And there is history at Mt. Wilson; our grand explorations of the cosmos took a major leap there. When I reached out my hand, that’s what I was experiencing, if only vicariously.

I remember it better now than I would have otherwise. I can still picture it all, can remember how it felt, and my sense of awe remains unabated.

It was, simply, cool.

And even a skeptic responds to that.