Friday, August 14, 1998

Salt Lick

The afternoon of Friday, August 14, 1998 was starting to look promising for my last volunteer evening at Lick Observatory, atop Mt. Hamilton, and my excitement began to grow. The earlier hours of the day had been cloudy, humid and warm. I was bringing my wife, Pat, along this evening to help me (I was still recovering from a summer cold), and to enjoy the program of the Music of the Spheres concert series, and hopefully the summer Milky Way overhead.

It is always a treat to be able to participate as a volunteer, either at the concert series or the Summer Visitor's Program. The public program at Lick was begun as a bequest of James Lick. The famous observatory, sitting 4,000 feet above what was then known as "The Valley Heart's Delight" (now called Santa Clara Valley, Silicon Valley, or to locals just the "south bay"), completed in 1888, was to be used 6 days per week for scientific persuits, and on the seventh day open to the public. For an amateur astronomer, it is a complete thrill to be able to be part of that history, continuing the 110 year old tradition.

Pat and I exited the freeway near the eastern foothills of San Jose, and headed up Alum Rock Blvd. After a few minutes, we turned onto Mount Hamilton Road. The road was built by the city of San Jose in 1876 for the purpose of transporting materials up the mountain for the construction of the observatory. The views of the bay area from along this road are spectacular. One can see the entire "south bay", up the peninsula to (presumably, on a clear day) San Francisco, out over the coastal range mountains to the Pacific Ocean, and south along the San Andreas earthquake rift to Morgan Hill, Gilroy and the mountains south of San Juan Bautista where our regular ovbserving site is atop Fremont Peak. I reminded Pat of how, in the early days during Lick's construction, this road was travelled by stagecoach, and other than that, the only method to get to the top was horseback or a very long hike. It was not until years later, when then director of the observatory W. W. Campbell injured his back in San Diego preparing a telescope for an eclipse trip to South America, did anyone on the mountain own or drive a vehicle up there. It was Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the rich widow of Senator George Randolph Hearst, who gave Campbell the car, making his journey up the tortuous road much easier (especially in light of his serious back injury). So, there we were, Pat and I, riding up that same road, toward the Eye In The Sky. What a feeling of excitement and anticipation I would get, history, science, a place that I feel helped the modern Renaissance in which we live find its beginning, riding up that two lane twisted path to both the past and future.

The road has something like 370 turns in its last 11 miles. But, after about a half hour, we found the complex of buildings, turned right and soon were passing just below the dome of the great Clark & Sons 36" refractor. A brief orientation (which volunteers are required to go through no matter how often they participate) by current director Remington Stone, and we were all at our positions. I began to set up the 14.5" f/5.6 Dobsonian reflector I had brought for the public to view through. Along with us was Richard Navarrete, bringing the most portable scope for its aperture and ease of use, his 10.1" Coulter.

As we prepared, the shadow of the earth began to rise in the east. A hundred or so guests were inside the hallways of the observatory, seated and listing in the wonderful acoustics to Markahuasi "Music From The Highlands Of South America." I must say, the haunting sounds of the pipes, and the rythym of the music, along with the fine performance of the band and the view of the San Antonio Valley and California's Central Valley to our east, changing color in the fading twilight, provided a magical backdrop for the evening.

Soon it was dark. There was some wind, making even the 36" bounce a bit and requiring the wind shade to be raised in the dome. But, things were manageable. Some late arriving guests would stop by our telescopes and enjoy that which amateur's dream of, transparent skies and pinpoint images. At intermission a number of guests lined up at the telescopes waiting for the concert to resume. It was not until after the concert did the lines really form and keep us busy.

We had a constant stream of observers at our telescopes, as the arrangement to view through the 36" was that groups of 10 at a time (maximum) could enter the dome. This meant between 17 and 20 groups. In the meantime, those waiting were lined up at the amateur telescopes.

We showed them M11, explaining how young clusters, open clusters, of stars are born in cocoons called nebulae, and how their stellar winds would blow away the cocoons, revealing the youthful stars. Much like adolescents, they would begin to wander off in their own directions, and later, really spread out, as happens in middle age (this got an unintended chuckle from the crowd). I moved my scope to M17, the Swan, as an example of a nebula. Putting on the UHC filter, this object was in full glory, generating gasps from many who viewed it. I also showed them Alberio, describing the pair as topaz and sapphire, sitting 410 light years distant, how luminous they must be to appear so bright in such a humble little telescope, and how, amazingliy, the distance between the two components was 400 billion miles. It is a mind trip for people. It makes them think and evaluate the place in which they live, who they are, and what is and is not significant. I moved the scope to M13 and M15, telling how the globular clusters are ancient, and how, as figures for the age of the universe change with the Hubble Constant, these groups of stars can be, as unthinkable as it sounds, older than the age of the universe. The brightest among the visitors realized that what I was really saying was, science has a problem, that the stars really can't be older than the universe (or can they?).

I showed NGC7789 in Cygnus, The Veil Nebula, M51, M57, M27, NGC7731, the Saturn Nebula and many others that no longer require charts to find. Late in the evening I moved to M31. Lines of up to 20 people were now waiting, and I opened a copy of Burnhams, turning to a full photo of the great galaxy and showing M32 and M110. I could get M31 and one of either satellites in the field of view of the 27 Panoptics at the same time. The photo made it much easier for the public to appreciate the view through the telescope. And the photo was taken at, Lick Observatory. Fitting. :-)

As the crowds drove down the mountain, Jupiter climed up over it in the east. And what a view. Steady and transparent seeing. The moon Io had just egressed and appeared as a little bump on the side of the giant planet. We watched it move further away from the planet, marvelling at the detail in the 27 mm and 19 mm eyepieces.

About then we learned that the volunteers were being asked to come in to the dome o of the 36". Sadly, we had to turn some of the public away, put away our eyepieces and other gear, and leave them. Inside the dome, we learned that the consensus opinion (which several of us were not part of, so it was a consensus of some other's opinions) was to view that awe inspiring object, the Blinking Planetary.

I almost fell over. The Blinking Planetary? How many times have I seen that? A thousand or more? Others in my group agreed, we can see that anytime, and that perhaps a more esoteric or more difficult to see object would be interesting. Beside that, the Blinking Planetary does NOT blink at high mag, and you'd need a 90 or 120 mm eyepiece to get to low enough power in the 36 to enjoy the effect. I won't even look at it in the 30" Challenger at Fremont Peak for the same reason. It was the wrong object, and made me feel like coming to Lick and participating in history is like the finest "dessert" an amateur could have, and now someone was putting a salted "rotten cherry" on top. I took a cursory glance at the planetary nebula, and sure enough, no blink. Just a pinpoint star, and yes, a nice pinpoint, and a gray disc with no other detail. The Saturn Nebula a month earlier was spectacular. This choice was like looking at the old test patterns the you'd see on TV in the old days when the broadcasting day was over. Just boring.

The funniest part though, was hearing the professional astronomer look at it. This is the same woman who, a month ago, when someone on staff used a white flashlight to read by the eyepiece, replied to my offer of a red flashlgiht by saying "well, you know what they say... real astronomers use white lights, amateurs use red ones." How snooty! So, this woman looked in the eyepiece at the Blinking Planetary and said "if I move my eye around, it seems to subtley change shape.... maybe that's what "Blinking" means...." Well, I suddenly realized she might as well use a white flashlight, as it seems she must only look at objects on a computer screen. I don't ever want to become a professional astronomer! FWIW.... last time out, another professional astronomer, looking in the eyepiece of the 36" at M15 said "hello old friend" and proceeded to state he'd studied the object for 2 years. I asked if he could show me the planetary nebula in it, since we had such a large instrument at our disposal, and he replied "what planetary." Ego is a killer, isn't it? ;-)

While I thoroughly enjoy the music and treat of being at Lick, in the historic dome, I need to reevaluate whether I want to continue as a volunteer. It is an opportunity that has historic importance. However, until the volunteer amateurs are not "looked down the nose" at by some of the staff (and just some, as others are extremely friendly,open and considerate), and until the volunteers are given an "unsalted cherry" for their very willing efforts, which they do without recompense or any "need' for a thank you, I will have to ask myself, is "appreciation" of our time, energy and effort just lip-service? I hope not. I hope in the future the volunteers, who really love and know the sky, will be given the opportunity to look at more than just a single, uninteresting object. Perhaps volunteers could fill out a 3 X 5 card upon arrival, listing three objects they'd most like to see in the 36", and the staff thereby satisfy the majority of volunteers. Just a thought.

Pat and I loaded up the 14.5", and headed down the mountain. Just below Grant Ranch a few deer jumped onto the road into my headlights. One did not know where to go, and just ran down the road a way, looking left and right, out of it's element. I thought of those astronomers who never look at the night sky.

Here's to the amateurs. Long may they live.

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