30 August 2009

Mt. Wilson Observatory threatned by fire

The Mount Wilson Observatory is home to the 100-inch (2.5m) Hooker telescope, one of the most historical telescopes in the era of modern astronomy. Following on the heels of the Harvard College Observatory Computers'1 work on classifying stars, the Henry Norris Russell used the Hooker telescope, and in conjunction with Ejnar Hertzsprung developed the diagram now known as the Hertzsprung-Russell (or HR) diagram, a diagram of as much importance to astronomy as the periodic table is to chemistry. More famously, Edwin Hubble used the Hooker when he discovered the expansion of the universe, disproving the leading steady state hypothesis (even espoused by Albert Einstein). It is probably even more important that Hubble first proved that all those fuzzy "spiral nebulae" were actually entirely separate galaxies, but we take that for granted today, while cosmologists are still working on the details of the universe's expansion.

So with this background about the Mt. Wilson Observatory under your belt, perhaps you will understand some of the fear I feel when I read that as of 5:42 PDT (8:42 EDT) the LA Times was estimating that the current wildfires outside LA would probably raze the observatory within hours. As of this writing (8:57 PDT / 11:57 EDT) the fires have not yet reached the observatory (though they are visible from the observatory webcam, link is to a screenshot of the webcam since the webcam server itself is overloaded). The director of the observatory reports that firefighters will be remaining in place on Mt. Wilson overnight, implying that it is safe enough to do so, and hopefully they will be able to keep fighting and save the historic observatory.

If you the most more up-to-date information that I have been able to find, follow Mike Brown's twitter feed @plutokiller (yes, THAT Mike Brown). If the observatory does burn down overnight, I'd appreciate it if someone txted me.

1 Also referred to as "Pickering's Harem,"2 after the fact that Harvard College Observatory Director, Edward Pickering, famously stated that his male graduate students were so inept that his maid could do a better. Following on the statement, Pickering did hire his maid (Williamina Fleming) and then a string of other women, hence the unflattering name for the group. Despite the name, these human "computers" did amazing work, revolutionizing the field of stellar classification.

2 The incidence of referring to both harems and hookers in the same post is purely coincidental.

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