A Visit To The Mount Wilson Observatory
Feature by Willard Manus
The Mount Wilson Observatory is one of L.A.’s famed attractions, so it was time we paid it a family visit. It turned out to be a powerful and memorable experience.

A word about the Observatory. It was founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Hale brought the 60-inch Snow Solar Telescope from Yerkes Observatory in southern Wisconsin to the remote and isolated Mt. Wilson (near Pasadena), where he continued his studies of the sun. In 1919 a new and larger telescope (100 inches) was installed enabling astronomers and the public to better observe the stars and nebulae. That led directly to our current understanding of our origins, the Big Bang model.

The scientific process of astronomy begun more than a century at Mt. Wilson continues today around the world and in space with such instruments as the Hubble Space Telescope, named for one of Mt. Wilson’s outstanding astronomers.

The drive up to the top of Mt. Wilson is a long, twisting and nerve-wracking one. We traveled by Lyft, whose neophyte driver was unfamiliar with the route. The road’s lack of signposts caused him to lose his way. We drove around helplessly in the dusk for an hour or more before finally spotting a hiker. “Look for a red box,” he shouted. “It marks the road to the Observatory!”

By the time we made it to the Observatory it was 5.30pm. Helpful workers (most of whom are volunteers, we later learned) pointed us to the museum auditorium where astrophysicist and Mt. Wilson historian Dr. Eun-Joo Ahn was giving a Saturday lecture on “the forgotten women scientists in the first decade of the Observatory.” Then came the chance to line up and peer through the twin telescopes, if only briefly. You saw a star, then rotated the lens to catch a glimpse of the moon and/or other stars.
“The lecture was repetitive and boring,” said my 17-year-old grandson, Michael. “But it does blow your mind to see the stars from up here, especially if you’re interested in science and have studied astronomy in school. You feel a passion for the subject for maybe the first time.”

My daughter Lisa and her husband Iain were more positive about the lecture (“informative and interesting”). They especially liked the ‘scopes and being able to see the moon up close, plus its nearby stars and other parts of the galaxy.

“These views were magnificent,” Iain said. He was also much impressed with the erudite visitors, many of whom were either professional or amateur astronomers. Some of them stood on the grounds armed with their own telescopes. “One man took a picture of Jupiter on his phone. He also had an app that identified individual clusters of stars.”

“It was thrilling to be up there,” Lisa added. “I loved everything about it, especially the museums. The staff was dedicated and friendly, and we met lots of knowledgeable people. The only bummer was the food. The café, we discovered, had closed at 5 pm, leaving things to a single food truck. The only dish it served was a chunk of micro-waved dough pretending to be pizza–-at an exorbitant price.”

“We were not only hungry but chilled; the mountaintop gets cold and windy after dark,” Iain said. “By 10pm we were ready to leave, even though the exhibits stayed open to midnight.”

Lisa fished out her i-phone to call Lyft. “Are you kidding?” an onlooker cried. “Didn’t anybody tell you that Wi-Fi is banned on the mountaintop?”

“Why is that?”

“It interferes with the Observatory’s electronic and digital signals.”

How to get home then? Members of the staff offered to take us down to Pasadena, where Wi-Fi was readily available. But they couldn’t get off work until till midnight. Lisa began asking around for a ride. Person after person turned her down. Finally, about an hour later, she found two visitors from India who were willing to squeeze us into their small car. In Pasadena we managed to reach Lyft, only to be obliged to wait for almost an hour for a driver. He charged us a hundred bucks for the journey back to Beverly Hills.

“Our visit to the Observatory was costly,” Lisa commented. “But the money we shelled out (admission was $40 each) was well worth it. Being able to look at the universe through those telescopes was a fabulous and priceless experience.”

(Visit mtwilson.edu/lectures)