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Triumph of the telescope

Caltech / Palomar Observatory
Stars whirl over the 200-inch Hale Telescope's dome in a time-exposure photo.

Astronomer George Ellery Hale's decades-long drive to build bigger and bigger telescopes is the stuff that operas are made of. The epic brought him in contact with the richest and smartest people of a century ago ... forced him to struggle against petty jealousies and personal demons ... and led him to grand achievements that some thought were impossible.

"The Journey to Palomar," a PBS documentary premiering tonight, touches upon all those operatic elements while keeping its focus squarely on the quest's deeper meaning: In the first half of the 20th century, telescope-building was the biggest science around.

"This was the equivalent of a moonshot in that time period," historian Kevin Starr explains during the 90-minute documentary.

Today, it's hard to imagine throngs of people turning out to watch a train bearing a boxed-up mirror pass by. But that's what happened when a 200-inch-wide, 20-ton glass mirror blank made its way from New York's Corning Glass Works to the California Institute of Technology in 1936 for grinding and polishing.

Huntington Library, Art Collections & Botanical Gardens
Dignitaries attend the 1948 dedication of the
Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory.

It would be another 11 years before the finished mirror was set into the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar - in part because World War II got in the way.

Hale himself never got the chance to look through the consummate cosmic window he helped create. He died in 1938, a decade before the telescope was finished. That may sound like a tragic ending fit for an opera - but Hale's life was no tragedy. He lived long enough to witness a revolution in astronomy that he helped create.

"The Journey to Palomar," the result of five years of work by Los Angeles filmmakers Todd and Robin Mason, touches on the high points and the low points of Hale's life. The documentary also looks beyond Palomar to tomorrow's mega-telescopes. Here are just a few of the high points and low points from the show:

  • Hale began his telescope quest in Chicago by persuading one of the shadier tycoons of the 19th century, streetcar developer Charles Yerkes, to back the construction of a 40-inch telescope and observatory that would bear his name. The telescope was the world's largest when the Yerkes Observatory opened in Wisconsin in 1897, getting Yerkes the good press he was hoping for. But "the Goliath of Graft" soon became distracted by business controversies, and Hale moved westward to continue the quest.
  • California was the scene of Hale's greatest triumphs. He was the motive force behind the telescopes on Mount Wilson, near Los Angeles. Hale himself used Mount Wilson's 60-foot solar telescope to discover the sun's magnetic field. The 60-inch reflector telescope helped astronomer Harlow Shapley figure out where our solar system was located in the Milky Way galaxy. And Edwin Hubble used observations from Mount Wilson's 100-incher to reveal that galaxies were actually rushing away from us in an ever-expanding universe.
  • Hale didn't move easily from triumph to triumph. He struggled at every turn to find the money for his grand projects, but ultimately enlisted Andrew Carnegie's help for Mount Wilson, as well as John D. Rockefeller's help for Mount Palomar. One of Hale's benefactors, hardware millionaire John Hooker, cut off his support when he became jealous of the astronomer's friendship with his wife.
  • The problems with Hooker (and the Hooker Telescope) contributed to Hale's nervous breakdown in 1910, and for years afterward, Hale struggled with his inner demons. By some accounts, he saw an actual demon or "elf" who spoke with him, although other historians say the demon was merely a metaphor used by Hale rather than a hallucination.

The Hale Telescope on Palomar continues to contribute to astronomy, under management at Caltech. It's no longer the world's biggest optical telescope: That title passed to the Keck I Telescope in Hawaii in 1993. And the astronomical spotlight shines more often nowadays upon the great observatories in orbit, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope and most recently the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

There are still more great telescopes to come - wonders that Hale could only dream of, ranging from super-sized, high-tech eyes on Earth to the James Webb Space Telescope in deep space. "The Journey to Palomar" shows how Hale set the stage for 21st-century explorations that could someday show us alien Earths and the very edge of the observable universe.

To learn more about Hale, the Palomar Observatory and "The Journey to Palomar," check out Jason Socrates Bardi's TV review for Inside Science News Service, Caltech's Palomar Web page and the Mount Wilson Observatory Web page. If you have your 3-D glasses at the ready (and who doesn't?), dig into these 3-D views and 360-degree views of Hale's telescopes.