Jan/Feb 2004 Miscellaneous

The Telescope Builder

by Steve Silkin

I was in trouble again in junior high, sitting in the office waiting for my counselor. It was after school, so no one was on duty at the counter. On a wall to my right was a portrait of the telescope builder, George Ellery Hale. The school was named for him. It was the first time George and I were alone together.

Hale gazed out at me from the canvas. He looked so serious. He was a serious guy when in 1890, at 22 and completing his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he invented the spectroheliograph, a device that photographs the sun in a narrow range of light wavelengths. The spectroheliograph showed solar astronomers that sunspots had magnetic fields. And they saw vortices on the sun, too, enormous masses of turbulent superheated solar energy, twirling and twisting in spectacular bursts.

After the spectroheliograph, Hale built an observatory at an isolated outpost in Wisconsin, recruiting the leading astronomers of his day. Then came the project that made him famous: a telescope on top of Mount Wilson above Los Angeles. The 100-inch telescope that would see to the edge of the known universe was the most ambitious science project of its day. It took 13 years to complete.

The problem was creating the telescope's mirror—the largest pieces of glass ever poured. The first mirror was flawed. The second and third cracked as they cooled. Finally the errors in the first mirror were corrected by grinding. The grinding took four years. Keeping the money coming in through all of this was tough, too.

The stress of the project got to Hale. He suffered from what he called "terribly hard dreams." One acquaintance said, "Sometimes he would get up in the night and in his tormented half sleep would try to climb the picture frames on the wall."

Taking a break to relax, Hale traveled. On his way to Egypt, he stopped at Mentone on the Riviera. One night there, when he was sitting in his room, a little man suddenly appeared to him. They began a conversation. The elflike creature was soon advising Hale on technical matters, fund-raising and the general conduct of his life. The elf appeared to Hale often during the construction of the Mount Wilson telescope.

I didn't know all that as I looked into Hale's eyes on the painting in the counseling office that day. All I knew was that he was a telescope builder and our campus was named for him. Our school song incorporated astronomical imagery, along with the school colors, red and white:

As a star beams its light
Clear and bright in the night
We all will strive to do the same
And by our code we will seek the highest in life

To shine the light of truth on darkness and strife
And when our youth we have shed and we thrust out ahead
We won't forget the red and white
We love you Hale! Hale!

Your light will never fail
Until the end of time.

Hale finished the Mount Wilson telescope in 1917. Astronomers huddled in parkas to protect themselves from the freezing temperatures of the mountain nights. They stared awestruck into the eyepiece, alone with the light that traveled across the vast expanse of time and space to reach the Earth. Hale and the astronomers looking through his telescope were the first humans to see those distant heavens up there on the mountain, alone with the stars, alone with the universe, alone with God, they said.

In 1923, the astronomer Edwin Hubble was at the telescope studying what was thought to be a cloud of gas called the Andromeda Nebula. He saw what he thought was a nova. He looked again and saw it wasn't a nova at all; it was a Cepheid, a pulsating star, also known as a variable star. He labeled an image of it VAR, for variable. It was a spectacular moment in the history of science. Hubble calculated the distance of the variable star, and realized the universe was nothing like anyone had ever dreamed, not by a long shot. Until that night, scientists believed our galaxy was all there was. But Hubble discovered that Andromeda was not a cloud of gas a mere 300,000 light years away from Earth. It was, in fact, actually another galaxy all its own, a million light years from us. Our galaxy was not the be-all and end-all of space as had been believed, but just another galaxy in a universe full of galaxies, tens of billions of them, stretching beyond the boundaries of known measurements, beyond the boundaries of human comprehension.

Hubble also realized everything was rushing away from the center of the universe, and that the distance of stars was proportional to their velocity. This introduced the idea of the expanding universe. And if the universe was expanding, that implied a beginning—now known as the Big Bang. Astronomers may be mathematicians, but they're poets, too, so they instantly knew what poets know: a beginning implies an end.

We love you Hale! Hale! Your light will never fail
Until the end of time.

The afternoon I was alone with Hale's portrait, I'd been summoned to the counseling office because I was failing an art class. And it wasn't even a regular art class. I had volunteered to be a Teacher's Assistant. All I had to do was show up and cover the classroom tables with newspaper, set out red, blue, yellow and white bottles of tempera paint for the kids, and collect their work at the end of class. But those last few weeks of the semester, I just couldn't face an extra period of school, so I started going home early. School policy called for the counselor to alert me and my parents to my failing grade. I was waiting for the counselor to give me the note to take home.

I was looking at a picture of a man who built a telescope that allowed mankind to take the measure of the unimaginable vastness of the universe and comprehend its motion of galaxies as they rushed apart from each other. And I was getting an "F" as a teacher's assistant in an art class.

It was only later that I learned Hale had climbed the walls at night, tortured by nightmares until an imaginary elf helped him in his hour of need. And then it all made sense.

George Ellery Hale had been driven to madness by his determination to build his telescope. According to Hale's biographer, Helen Wright, Hales friend James Breasted once wrote a letter telling the telescope builder the two of them shared a disease: an obsession to accomplish the impossible immediately, with their enthusiasms carrying them beyond their physical and mental strengths, driving them to fixate on problems until their brains hurt and bodies failed. Hale called it "Americanitis."

So I've put it all together. And now I understand. Our lives are full of grandeur and despair, and so much, everywhere, all the time. Hale accomplished the greatest feats possible of a human mind. And he was also a nut case.

Almost thirty years after I spent part of that afternoon with the telescope builder, my friend Dan got fired from his job as an animator of movie special effects. Id met Dan at Hale, and wed stayed in touch over the years. One afternoon we climbed to the top of a hill near my house and smoked some potent weed Dan had bought from a young colleague before he got the ax.

Later, I got in my car and drove west to Hale Junior High. The pot was making my consciousness unspool like an audiotape with its pick-up reel stuck. I remembered walking to school one morning when I was 15, fearing I'd be drafted in a couple of years and killed in the Vietnam War. I wondered if the kids at Hale at the end of 2001 were dreading the possibility of dying in the mountains of Afghanistan.

I parked on the street, under a beautiful green Monterey pine tree and a blue sky dotted by white puffy clouds. I got out of my car and walked up to the entrance of George Ellery Hale Junior High, the school named after the telescope builder.

The gate was open, but I couldn't go in.


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