Op-Ed: A Pretty Slick Observatory

What sells out quicker than a ticket to a Journey Rock concert? Would you believe a tour of the Lick Observatory? I bought tickets to tour the Lick Observatory in July; soon thereafter, tickets sold out for 2018.

My wife Rosa and I felt fortunate indeed to get a chance to see up close a destination that I had only viewed from afar for over 50 years. On a late September day, as afternoon faded to evening, we drove the hour-long winding highway to the top of the highest peak in Santa Clara County to tour our famous and historic Lick Observatory. Bob Havner, our official guide, was accompanied by Dr. Elinor Gates, the Lick Observatory senior resident astronomer and director of the tours.  Both Bob and Dr. Gates had 20 plus years of experience and lent their astronomical knowledge (yes, phenomenal facts of the skies), sprinkled with grace and humor.

Sky scopes illuminate the cosmos, inspiring us with awe and wonder, as they further the science of astronomy. In the course of the evening, we toured the exterior of several telescopes and entered the sanctum of two of them. We saw the Shane 120-inch reflecting telescope that was a brontosaurus, the biggest of the telescopes at Lick Observatory. But if the 145-ton Shane were a dancer, it would capable doing a pirouette, for it is agile enough to be moved just one precise millimeter. Such minor movements of a telescope’s angle on the sky can result in viewing either an exoplanet or viewing empty space.

The century-old Clark 36-inch, 14-ton refracting telescope helped identify several moons of Jupiter. Another telescope, the 140-year-old Crossley Reflecting Telescope, showed that nebulae were in fact quite common, that nebulae have a variety of different types, and that some were areas of interstellar dust while others were actually spiral galaxies filled with billions of stars. These discoveries in the 19th century were quite extraordinary. The Automated Planet Finder (APF) telescope, the newest addition to the ten telescopes on Mount Hamilton is dedicated to discovering exoplanets, which are planets that had been previously unknown and potentially could sustain life.

This astronomical tour was also a historical journey. The telescopes of Lick Observatory are lenses to our past as well as our future. Havner, our guide, showed slides that riveted us to the story of the 19th century man from Pennsylvania, James Lick, who traveled throughout South and North America searching for wealth. Greed was not Lick’s primary motivation. Rathe, it was love. Lick was told by the father of the love of his life that he was too modest in income to qualify for his daughter’s hand. So Lick went on to become wealthy, and then returned to his Pennsylvania home to pursue the love of his life. This romantic story is one that will enchant you just as the stars of the sky delight us.

We peeked into history as we looked through the Clark Telescope. We saw double stars and globular clusters. Because light takes years to travel to earth, the light we saw as we peered through the telescope was produced over hundreds or thousands years ago.

James Lick’s dream of building an observatory remained a fantasy in his lifetime, as he died 10 years before the observatory was completed. The Lick Observatory was destined to play a large role in the development of Santa Clara Valley. Not only were scientists around the world attracted to the valley to study and to research, but tourists of the 1880s and 1890s would take a stage coach up the mountain to see the stars as a form of entertainment before Hollywood stars were yet conceived of.

From many accounts, these tours were as successful as the tours are today. Before leaving the observatory, we descended into a space that is under the Clark telescope. There is buried James Lick, the man who was destined never to marry the woman of his dreams, but whose vision has enabled us to pursue our passion for the stars, planets, and other heavenly bodies for over one hundred and forty years.

If you have never been to Lick Observatory, take the tour that will leave you reflecting on our past and inspired by what the future may bring.

Paul Boehm teaches “Santa Clara Valley History” for Campbell Adult and Community Education. New students are always welcome. For more information, email [email protected] or call 408.626.3402 ext. 2632. Tickets for public evening tours of the Lick Observatory are not yet available for 2019. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of San Jose Inside. Interested in writing an op-ed? Email pitches to [email protected].

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