Palomar Observatory: Hale (Part 10)

George Ellery Hale
George Ellery Hale

There’s an oft-quoted adage, It’s better to be lucky than smart. The suggestion seems to be that a roll of the dice is a better plan for success than having a better plan than everyone else. In her biography of astronomer George Ellery Hale, Explorer of the Universe, Helen Wright says, “Certainly Will Hale had been right when he called his brother [George] the greatest gambler in the world.” Wright invokes Will Hale’s assessment of his older brother as she discusses George Hale’s choice to start work on a 100-inch telescope before he has completed the 60-inch reflecting telescope atop Mount Wilson.

This was an extraordinarily challenging period in George Hale’s life. In early 1910, industrialist and science philanthropist Andrew Carnegie arrived at the Mount Wilson observatory for a visit. While Carnegie was mightily impressed with the observatory and Hale’s work, he was also—rightly—concerned about the state of Hale’s health. In her book, Wright quotes Carnegie as referring to Hale himself as the observatory’s “most precious instrument…the one most difficult to replace.”

In our post on Hale that immediately precedes this one, we mentioned that the first 100-inch mirror blank had arrived in Pasadena in less than pristine condition. Filled with air pockets, the so-called “most valuable piece of merchandise ever to cross the Atlantic” had been set aside in the observatory’s Pasadena shop. Hale immediately asked the French glass foundry of Saint-Gobain to pour a second 100-inch mirror. In addition to the stress on Hale’s health caused by this setback, complicated personal dynamics were taking their toll on Hale.

Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory )
Distant Planets (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory)

Hale’s master optician, George W. Ritchey, had refused to begin grinding the 100-inch mirror blank to make it into a usable lens. Ritchey’s motives in this instance were intertwined with his own ambitions: he had his own design for a telescope, one that relied on radically different mirror layout. Ritchey use the mirror setback to lobby both Hale—and Hale’s financial benefactor, J. D. Hooker—to build his telescope design. Hale was having separate problems with Hooker as well. Hooker had been withholding the final payment of $10,000 on his $45,000 gift. Hooker was variously infuriated by the issues associated with the first mirror and with his wife’s developing fondness for Hale.

The stress in Hale’s life reached its pinnacle during an academic conference held at Mount Wilson. In January 1910, 100 of the world’s leading astronomers from 37 countries met for the International Union for Cooperation in Solar Research. Hale and his observatory were the primary reason for the meeting. Unfortunately, his shattered nerves made it nearly impossible for him to participate. In the end, he hovered around the margins of the conference, making appearances at a party, a dinner, and a single technical meeting. Even as the congregation of stargazers tromped off for a night of viewing in Hale’s then masterpiece, the 60-inch telescope, Hale went to bed.

The first 100-inch mirror wasn’t workable, the second attempt in France to produce a mirror had failed when it cracked during cooling, and personality conflicts and Hale’s anxiety increased. After the conference concluded, Hale and his family decamped for a European vacation. While in Europe, Hale’s neurasthenia demonstrated a new and troubling manifestation, a visitation described as a “little elf.” Other researchers have pointed out numerous flaws with Wright’s characterization of the visitation, but this “little elf” view of Hale’s experience is the dominant one. It even made it into an episode of The X-Files, “Little Green Men,” in which Mulder both travels abroad under the pseudonym George Ellery Hale and recounts to a contact how Hale was inspired to build Palomar Observatory after being visited by a “little elf” while playing billiards. In The X-Files, the clear implication, of course, is that Hale had been visited by a little green man, an alien.

Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome
Model of Hale Telescope inside the Dome at Palomar Observatory

Hale overcame this particular bout of mental instability in the same way that he did throughout his life. Though his troubles never entirely went away, he combatted his internal instability by returning to his work. Some of his tangible problems went away: Hooker died; Andrew Carnegie came to his financial rescue; and the original 100-inch mirror blank, the one Ritchey decried as useless, turned out to be suitably useful. By 1917, the blank had been ground into a mirror and installed in its telescope mounting on top of Mount Wilson. On Thursday, November 1, 1917, Hale, Ritchey, the British poet Alfred Noyes, and others gathered on top of Mount Wilson the for the first viewing using the 100-inch telescope. In his first attempt of the evening, Hale peered through the telescope’s eyepiece and was horrified to see a multitude of images of Jupiter. The assembled team agreed to come back later in the evening for another viewing.

At 2:30am on November 2, an auspicious day, Hale and his colleagues returned and aimed the telescope at Vega. This time, the image was perfect. First Light had been attained. In hindsight, the temperature differential between the mirror and its surroundings had been the issue. For Hale to see the outstanding images, the mirror erely needed to cool and to settle into its appropriate shape. As for the voids and bubbles that Hale and Ritchey saw in the glass when it first arrived, it’s been speculated that, over the unfolding years, these imperfections actually have helped the mirror keep its shape. Indeed, engineered voids in large mirrors have been used frequently since then, and this type of structural spacing would play a prominent role in the 200-inch glass mirror of Palomar Observatory.

The 100-inch Hooker Telescope on top of Mount Wilson would go on to play a dramatic role in some of the astronomical discoveries of the twentieth century. Among the most important of those discoveries would be Edwin Hubble’s work on the expansion of the universe and the establishment of the cosmic distance scale.

The British poet Alfred Noyes—who, as we mentioned above, was present when the 100-inch telescope collected its First Light—nodded to the high stakes and risk associated with Hale’s efforts in his poem about “The Observatory”:

Before they made those solid tons of glass,
Their hundred-inch reflector, the clear pool,
The polished flawless pool that it must be
To hold the perfect image of a star.
And, even now, some secret flaw—none knew
Until to-morrow’s test—might waste it all.
Where was the gambler that would stake so much,—
Time, patience, treasure, on a single throw?

Here at Lofty Ambitions, we’re more inclined to align ourselves with the following Pasteur quote: “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.” In English, In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.If ever there were a prepared mind, it was George Hale’s.

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