The Day We Found the Universe - Marcia Bartusiak (2009)


Chapter 7. Empire Builder

In 1914 the world was plunged into turmoil as the Allied and Central powers rapidly faced off in the War to End All Wars, the four-year conflict that demolished old empires and reshaped the modern world. And yet, in this time of devastating upheaval, astronomy experienced some of its greatest discoveries. Vesto Slipher was measuring the fleeing spirals, Heber Curtis was ferreting out new ones, and Harlow Shapley was gearing up to move our Sun from its hallowed position at the center of the known universe. While the landscape of global politics was being redesigned, so too was our cosmos.

The Milky Way had long been pictured as relatively small, at most around 20,000 to 30,000 light-years wide (estimates at this time varied), but in 1918 Shapley radically increased our galaxy's girth to some 300,000 light-years. Moreover, he declared that our solar system was situated a good 65,000 light-years from the galaxy's heart. Barely recovered from its Copernican shift from the center of the solar system, Earth was demoted once again. The Milky Way's overall width was later amended, adjusted downward to some 100,000 light-years when better calibrations were undertaken, but even then it was far vaster than anyone had previously imagined.

Shapley would never have had this opportunity were it not for the astounding foresight and boundless fortitude of George Ellery Hale. A noted solar astronomer, Hale discovered that there were magnetic fields in sunspots, a sensational finding in its day, for it was the first magnetic field detected beyond Earth. He also cofounded the Astrophysical Journal (along with James Keeler) and helped transform the Throop College of Technology into the California Institute of Technology. But Hale made his most valuable contributions to astronomy as an administrator. It was largely through his focused efforts over several decades that America wrenched the baton from Europe in astronomical leadership. Hale nearly single-handedly orchestrated the construction of four great telescopes in the United States, each larger and more advanced than the one before. In carrying out this colossal endeavor, he allowed Shapley to revamp the Milky Way and the astronomers who followed to reveal the true vastness of the universe and the amazing diversity of its celestial inhabitants. Astronomer Allan Sandage of the Carnegie Observatories is convinced that astronomers “owe all to Hale and his dreams and positive actions to put those dreams into glass and steel. Where would world astronomy be today if Hale had not been an ‘empire builder’?”

Hale took unique advantage of the magnificent productivity of his era. It was once jokingly noted that American astronomy became preeminent at this time because of two discoveries: Pickering discovered women and Hale discovered money. American industrialists were amassing great fortunes, capital that was just waiting to be tapped for philanthropic undertakings in an era before the federal income tax was permanently established. Of all the sciences in the Gilded Age, astronomy was the most popular destiny for private support in the United States. One reason is that astronomy held out the promise of a shiny white dome on a mountain, for all to look up and admire. Hale, too, commented that the public regards “astronomical research with a feeling of awe which is not accorded to other branches of science [because of] its power of searching out mysterious phenomena in the infinite regions of space.”

Hale himself was the very personification of this union of money with science at the turn of the twentieth century. Hale's father, William, had secured sizable riches as the manufacturer of hydraulic elevators, produced for the many skyscrapers that began to dot the Chicago urban landscape after the Great Fire of 1871. His company also supplied them for Paris's Eiffel Tower. Some of the capital from these enterprising ventures offered Hale as a teenager sufficient funds to construct his own spectroscopic observatory in the attic of the family mansion in the Hyde Park section of Chicago, where he avidly studied the Sun's spectrum, alongside his books, laboratory equipment, and fossil collection. He was a precocious boy with a formidable power of concentration—always curious and always devising new ways to study the natural world. He chose the Sun as his target of interest because, as the closest star, he hoped it might better reveal the secrets of stellar evolution. Shortly after his twentieth birthday in 1888, he confirmed that the element carbon resided in the Sun, a matter then in great debate. Before Hale even graduated from college, he developed a new instrument—the spectroheliograph—that enabled astronomers to photograph the surface of the Sun and its fiery prominences as never before. It imaged the Sun in one chosen wavelength of light, a spectral band being emitted by a specific chemical element of interest. Science was still reeling in the late 1800s from the magnificent discoveries in geology and biology that so beautifully demonstrated the gradual changes that occurred over Earth's history: new species evolving and landscapes continually sculpted by natural forces. Hale was seeking evidence of a similar dynamic within the universe itself.

Upon graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, class of 1890, Hale married his childhood sweetheart, Evelina Conklin, and took an extended honeymoon trip to Niagara Falls, Colorado, San Francisco, and Yosemite. But he was most excited, while out in California, to get a personal tour of Lick Observatory. There, he had the opportunity to work one night with James Keeler, as the Lick astronomer was observing planetary nebulae. Hale was mightily impressed and never forgot his first glimpse of the 36-inch refracting telescope, then the world's largest, its long tube “reaching up toward the heavens in the great dome,” he later recalled. Hale primarily studied the Sun, Keeler the stars and nebulae, but both were fervent advocates of spectroscopy. They became fast friends.

Within two years of his return to Chicago, Hale became an associate professor at the newly reorganized University of Chicago. With the university's promise of future funding for a larger telescope, he allowed the university to use his personal observatory, grandly christened the “Kenwood Physical Observatory.” The complex was built right next door to the Hale family mansion and housed both a 12-inch refractor, paid for by his father, and his revolutionary spectroheliograph. “I would not consider [joining the faculty] for a moment were it not for the prospect of some day getting the use of a big telescope to carry out some of my pet schemes,” he told an acquaintance.

That prospect arrived sooner rather than later, due solely to Hale's resourcefulness. After attending the latest meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Rochester, New York, in the summer of 1892, he went out to cool off on his hotel's veranda and overheard a conversation about two 40-inch telescope lenses that had unexpectedly become available. The glass disks had been made for a planned observatory in southern California that was aimed at surpassing Lick in telescopic power. A real estate boom had brought sudden wealth to the Los Angeles area, and for the sake of regional pride developers were eager to erect their own grand astronomical monument—until the promoters went broke when the land bubble burst. For Hale, so eager to acquire a large telescope for his solar investigations, ready access to such lenses was a stroke of luck. A lens forty inches wide had nearly 25 percent more surface area than the Lick's 36-inch lens and so would gather 25 percent more light, a huge and treasured gain for any astronomer. Given the brush-off by a bevy of Chicago's wealthiest businessmen to sponsor the purchase of the lenses, Hale at last convinced Chicago's streetcar magnate, Charles Tyson Yerkes, to fund construction of the giant instrument. Hale's work as an astronomer provided the scientific arguments for this bold step; his family's wealth and position gave him the self-confidence, even though he was only twenty-four years old, to win over Yerkes in financing such a grand scheme.

George Ellery Hale at his spectrograph
(Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology)

The university had been pursuing Yerkes for months to pledge a gift and offering to have his name attached to the world's largest telescope was powerful enticement (as it had been with James Lick years earlier). Hale was not shy in playing up that angle. “The donor could have no more enduring monument,” he wrote Yerkes. “It is certain that Mr. Lick's name would not have been nearly so widely known today were it not for the famous observatory established as a result of his munificence.” Yerkes snapped at the bait: “Build the observatory,” he told Hale at a meeting. “Let it be the largest and best in the world and send the bill to me.”

Yerkes was a curious target for Hale's entreaties, as he had a shadier pedigree than other robber barons of his time. A suave and colorful character, Yerkes had made a fortune dealing in Philadelphia's municipal securities, until some questionable dealings led to his serving a prison term for misappropriation of public funds. It earned him the reputation as “the embodiment and representative of corruption in municipal affairs.” Having lost his wealth in the City of Brotherly Love, he quickly made the money back once he moved to Chicago and bribed the appropriate politicians to gain control of the city's streetcar system. Right before this move west, Yerkes had also divorced his wife, who had borne him six children, and married a much younger woman, Mary Adelaide Moore, renowned for her beauty. So memorable was Yerkes' life that author Theodore Dreiser immortalized it in his fictional works The Financier and The Titan. Dreiser described this era in his autobiography as the moment in American history when “giants were plotting, fighting, dreaming on every hand.”

Yerkes clearly savored having his name attached to a big telescope. It gave him class (not to mention an improved credit rating with local bankers, which may have been his aim all along). The newspaper Chicago Daily Inter Ocean reported that “Mr. Yerkes, when he took the matter in hand, simply stipulated that the observatory and its telescope should beat everything of its kind in the world.” The Chicago Tribune chimed in as well, smugly writing that “the Lick Telescope will shortly be licked.”

With great pomp and circumstance, the Yerkes Observatory officially opened in 1897. Hale, at the age of twenty-nine, was appointed its director. Seventy miles from Chicago, the observatory was situated in the resort town of Williams Bay, Wisconsin, a tiny hamlet next to Lake Geneva, where several University of Chicago trustees just happened to have summer homes. The shift to the “new astronomy” was highly evident at the new establishment, a fact noted at its dedication. Keeler, the keynote speaker, told the distinguished audience that “there may be some who view with disfavor the array of chemical, physical and electric appliances crowded around the modern telescope, and who look back to the observatory of the past as to a classic temple whose severe beauty has not yet been marred by modern trappings.” The Yerkes Observatory was forging a new pathway for studying the heavens. Hale, a committed astrophysicist, made sure that there were photographic darkrooms, spectroscopic labs, and instrument shops specifically devoted to the astrophysicist's concerns. Hale was changing how an observatory worked.

A restless and anxious man, Hale was the astronomical equivalent of an industrial entrepreneur, always on the lookout for new technologies and new methods for obtaining cutting-edge results. Before the magnificent Yerkes dome even rose above Lake Geneva, Hale had already convinced his wealthy father to buy the materials for yet another telescope, this time a large reflector. A mirror blank, sixty inches in width, was cast for him by the Saint-Gobain glassworks, a French maker of wine bottles. By the time astronomers from around the world arrived at Yerkes for its opening, telescope maker George Ritchey was busy in the observatory's optical shop grinding the mirror and designing its support system. The descendant of Irish immigrant craftsmen and a former high school teacher in woodworking, Ritchey was employed by Hale as a skilled optician, having had some training in astronomy before he dropped out of college. He was legendary for his artistry in designing and fashioning new telescopes, but his obsession to achieve technical perfection led to his reputation as a cantankerous cuss.

Tests on the Yerkes 40-inch lens had made it obvious that lenses were reaching their limit. If the lens were any larger, the glass would sag under its own weight, distorting the image. To go bigger, both Ritchey and Hale knew that they had to use a mirror rather than a lens, bringing back the reflecting telescopes pioneered by Herschel and Rosse. Hale and Keeler, who was just beginning to operate the Crossley reflector at the Lick Observatory, had many discussions on this topic. A 60-inch reflector was going to vastly increase—more than double—the amount of light gathered by the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes. It held the promise of accelerating the observatory's output: Photographic exposures could be shortened, and the spectra of faint stars, previously too feeble to image, at last acquired. New celestial vistas were certain to open up, with millions of new stars being revealed. Ritchey and Hale formed a close bond over their joint vision that reflectors were the instruments of astronomy's future.

Hale had long had his eye on the West Coast to erect his 60-inch scope. “The possibility of having you for a neighbor in California is quite too delightful,” wrote his friend Keeler, upon hearing of Hale's interest. “It seems to me that somewhere in the coast range, perhaps farther south than we are, would be the best site.” Hale agreed. He knew the air was more arid, the weather more suitable, in the southern region of the state. And within a few years, he was able to check it out for himself.

At the end of 1903, Hale temporarily moved his family to Pasadena, then still a small town with many of its roads unpaved. His daughter, ill with asthma, required a warmer and drier climate than the one found by chilly Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. California's plentiful sunshine helped Hale, too, lifting him out of the depression he occasionally experienced. Once settled in, Hale became convinced that “Wilson's Peak,” which he could see from his bedroom window on Palmetto Street, was “the place” to continue his astronomical work. He had actually been thinking about the site for quite a while, ever since Harvard briefly considered setting up a permanent telescope there in the late 1880s.

Some thirty miles from the Pacific Ocean, Mount Wilson rises abruptly from the valley floor. It is one of many peaks of the San Gabriel Mountain Range, which runs west to east and forms a barrier between the Los Angeles metropolitan area and the Mojave Desert to the north. Upon his first venture to the top of the mile-high peak burgeoning with scrubby live oak and commanding spruce, Hale felt as if he had arrived at the edge of the world, with its stunning views of the town directly below and the dark blue sea in the distance. He had certainly reached the end of his pursuit for the perfect location to carry out his observations.

With the University of Chicago unwilling to fully finance Hale's dream for a California outpost, the young astronomer sought other funding sources. Fortuitously, Andrew Carnegie had just established the Carnegie Institution of Washington, generously endowed with $10,000,000 “to encourage investigation, research and discovery in the broadest and most liberal manner.” Carnegie, who had made his fortune in steel, made an even bigger name giving his money away. For Hale, an enterprise solely founded to support scientific investigation was nirvana and “seemed almost too good to be true,” for Carnegie's gift surpassed the funds then endowed for research at all American universities combined. Hale immediately lobbied for a grant, laying out his plans with great vigor, but not surprisingly Carnegie was inundated with requests from around the country and slow to respond.

That didn't hamper Hale one bit. Even before he had any promise of money for a full-fledged observatory, Hale used funds allotted for a “University of Chicago Expedition of Solar Research” to Mount Wilson to start work on the mountain in the summer of 1904. When that grant ran out, he dipped into his own pocket to pay his men, gambling that his investment would pay off. What came to be known as the “Monastery” was built at this time on the edge of the south ridge, to serve as guest housing for the male astronomers. By the time the quarters were finished at the end of the year, complete with a huge granite fireplace built from native rock, Hale received word that the Carnegie Institution had at last agreed to sponsor his plans, which called for both a solar telescope and the 60-inch reflector atop the mountain. It was difficult to refuse a man with such energy, magnetism, and relentless dedication to a goal. His mistress, the Los Angeles socialite Alicia Mosgrove, described Hale as having “an inner excitement—a higher degree of interest—a higher degree of suffering.” Hale resigned as Yerkes director to devote his full attention to the new Mount Wilson Solar Observatory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. A deal had been arranged to lease the observatory's land for ninety-nine years, free of rent.

The shop for assembling the 60-inch telescope was set up in town on Santa Barbara Street. The stately headquarters of the Carnegie Observatories remains there today. The street is now crowded with residential dwellings, but then Pasadena was sparsely settled, with only a few farmhouses and barns nearby. At the time of Hale's first reconnaissance of Mount Wilson, two trails went up the mountain: an old Indian path and a road built by the Mount Wilson Toll Road Company, although this “road” was just a few feet in width. Mules—with names such as Jasper, Pinto, Duck, and Maude—were on hand to either carry baggage or transport the weary. Strands of their hair, finer than human hair, were sometimes used as cross wires for the guiding telescopes, a smaller, parallel scope that helps astronomers keep their celestial objects on target during an observation.

Getting the 60-inch telescope set atop Mount Wilson was a herculean effort. All in all, hundreds of tons of material were hauled up by either mules or mule-assisted electric carts to construct the building and steel dome. To do this the nine-mile trail had to be first broadened and improved by pick and ax, foot by foot. The tensest moment was the transport of the mirror itself, which had been polished over a grueling four years to a smooth, parabolic shape so fine that no imperfection extended farther than two millionths of an inch. One misplaced wheel and the entire cargo could have suddenly plummeted to the canyon floor. To everyone's relief, the mirror arrived in the summer of 1908 without a scratch and within three months was finally cradled in its mount (which miraculously survived the great 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, where it was built). Once the telescope was in operation, astronomers could see stars up to one hundred million times fainter than the brightest stars in the sky.

Transporting the 60-inch telescope up Mount Wilson
(Courtesy of the Archives, California Institute of Technology)

Hale decided he would not follow the Lick Observatory model, which involved erecting a self-contained village to house staff members and their families. For Mount Wilson only essential personnel stayed full-time on the mountain to maintain the observatory and its equipment; the astronomers now traveled up from the observatory's headquarters in town whenever scheduled to observe. “Hale was never so happy,” noticed one onlooker, “as when, like a boy on a vacation, he could pack a knapsack and start on the eight-mile climb over the old trail to the summit.” Hale also gave staff members the freedom to work on their individual research interests. In the past, observatories were often set up as data factories, conducting long-term surveys and gathering extensive libraries of plates for others to consult in solving problems. But for Hale astronomy was now experimental physics; telescopes were to be used like the instruments in a laboratory, to answer carefully chosen questions and to develop theories from the gathering facts. A firm believer in the potential of American science, Hale wanted his country's scientists to evolve beyond mere fact gathering and produce more fundamental discoveries—as he put it, to see “the woods” instead of the trees. It was a radical departure from the way astronomy had been done over the centuries, which largely applied Newtonian gravitation to the workings of the universe. Hale sought to embrace the new physics.

Some old habits from the Victorian era persisted, though. For dinner at the Monastery, linen cloths and napkins covered the table, with all astronomers required to wear coat and tie, which was a trial during hot weather, but they'd be barred from the dining room if they violated the dress code. Not until after World War II did this prim social atmosphere begin to crumble. Today, as soon as twilight beckons, T-shirt-clad astronomers on Mount Wilson dash off to their telescopes to glean every possible second of observing. But back then the dapper astronomers continued to eat dinner, even as it got dark, and got up to amble leisurely over to the scope only when the meal was finished.

Hale took nearly all the best Yerkes men with him to his new astronomical Shangri-la. He had a magnetic aura that drew in people and kept them in awe of him. His second in command at Mount Wilson, Walter Adams, once admitted that he stuck with Hale and astrophysics “partly because of the strong influence of Dr. Hale's remarkable personality…. A very slight change in circumstances might equally well have led me to follow the teaching of Greek as a profession.”

Others on Hale's charter staff did not have a formal education in astronomy but instead trained on the job, bringing with them valuable skills from such fields as photography and mechanical engineering. These included Ritchey and Ferdinand Ellerman, who was first hired to assist Hale at his private observatory in Chicago.

Hale eventually extended his search for employees beyond his Yerkes loyalists. When he heard about a PhD student from Princeton who was impressing everyone, he arranged to meet the young man in New York City. Harlow Shapley showed up fully prepped to discuss all the latest astronomical discoveries. Instead, the two men ended up talking about the operas Shapley had time to catch the day before. The conversation went on for a while, but then Hale abruptly remarked, “Well, I must be going.” Not one word on astronomy had passed between them—and no mention of a job. The Princeton grad assumed he had not passed muster, but to his surprise he soon received a letter from Hale. The message was all he had hoped for: “Please come to Mount Wilson.”