Monday, August 4, 2008

Lick Observatory

The problem with having lots of adventures is then you have to catch up on them. Let's see how far I get...

My program takes little "field trips" on occasion to Interesting and Important places in the area, and a little while back there was an organized outing to visit Lick Observatory for a day trip. Lick happens to be the first astronomical observatory built on a mountaintop, Mount Hamilton, which happens to be visible from most of Silicon Valley, so it was cool to get up there. The fact that Frank Drake was taking us and the nerd bragging rights associated with saying Frank Drake took you to see Lick Observatory never hurt either.
Anyway, this is the view from the top of Mount Hamilton. See that road curving down the mountainside? That's the one we drove up on. I'm told there are 365 turns on it, as back in the day you couldn't have too steep a grade for mules and buggies. It's a fun drive.
This is the first building of Lick Observatory, constructed between 1876 and 1877. It and the ten telescopes on the mountain today are owned by the University of California system, but the money originally came from James Lick who made most of his fortune buying real estate during the California gold rush and essentially built the observatory as a memorial to himself. He's buried under the telescope...
And this, my friends, is the telescope James Lick is buried under, also known as the 36" refracting telescope which was the largest in the world at the time. (We've come a long way!) Upon first looking at this telescope I confess I felt like it was incredibly familiar to me- the mounting, the labeling for the RA and Dec wheels, the way I instinctively wanted to shout to the tour guide pushing the telescope around "you need to move it in RA in order to get over the pedestal..."

Then I saw a plaque on the base of the telescope which read "Warner & Swasey Co., Cleveland OH." But of course. It's the very same company that built the 9.5" refracting telescope built over a hundred years ago and presently used by the students of Case Western Reserve University, meaning the telescope I've had the most experience with is just a small-scale version of the Lick Observatory telescope. There are even ship's wheels incorporated into the steering design, as Warner & Swasey is the only telescope-building company I am aware of that realized just how satisfying it is to steer telescopes via ship's wheel.
This is obviously a bit more modern a telescope- it's the 3m reflector! Now the reason this one is exciting, boys and girls, is because it is the very same instrument used by the world's best extrasolar planet-finding team, led by Geoffrey Marcy at UC-Berkeley. Forty-nine of the fifty first extrasolar planets were discovered here (which is a fancy way of saying Marcy's team didn't find the first- they didn't have enough computing power unfortunately to be the very first), and over 200 of the extrasolar planets. Truly a powerhouse...

It's also worth noting that in order to deal with the light pollution from Silicon Valley the telescope operates primarily towards the infrared part of the spectrum. Infrared parts of the spectrum are determined not by optical pollution but rather by your latitude- the closer you are to the equator the brighter the atmosphere is in infrared- and since Lick Observatory is relatively high in latitude for an astronomical observatory they have an advantage.
As a final thing, this has nothing to do with astronomy whatsoever but I still thought it was exciting. You know how California is known for earthquakes? Well I've always rather been fascinated by them- I confess my first reaction upon hearing of a big shake is "cool!" rather than "oh, those poor people"- and while I have yet to live out the goal of being in one I always thought I could settle temporarily for seeing a seismometer needle twitch as I was watching.

So this is the seismometer on top of Mount Hamilton, which obviously sees a lot more then one in Cleveland or Pittsburgh (where nothing happens, of course, but you're rather waiting to see a really big tremble from somewhere far away). And see that little bump in the picture recently created by the needle? I saw that happen!!!

I am such a geek. I know. It's awesome.