Nothing makes our petty human problems seem less important than contemplating the enormity and endless wonders of the universe. This is certainly the case with me this week with the recent news that another planet has been discovered outside our solar system by astronomers working at Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton. This new planet is similar in size, composition and appearance to Saturn and is the fifth planet discovered to be orbiting around the star 55 Cancri, 41 light years away from us.
We who live here in San Jose see the observatory sticking up from the top of the eastern mountains every day. Most of us don’t really think about it except to occasionally wonder what it is that they do up there all the time. You might be amazed to know that the Lick Observatory, founded in 1880, is one of the world’s foremost astronomical institutions and several of the 221 extra-solar planets now known to us were discovered there.
However, it’s not like they can just point the telescopes up into the sky and see a planet dozens or hundreds of light years away. In fact, they can’t actually see any of these planets at all with the instruments currently available, but calculate their presence, size, orbit and composition from years of observations of subtle “wobbles” of a particular star. These wobbles are the result of gravitational interactions between stars and their orbiting planets, and by applying good old Newtonian physics, astronomers can give a detailed description of these faraway planetary systems. (Don’t forget that our solar system’s outer planets were calculated in this way before they were actually physically observed).
We are so lucky to have this incredible world-class scientific institution in our own back yard. I highly recommend a visit. The observatory is run by the University of California and is easily accessible. The short drive is very scenic, and the view from the observatory on a clear day is amazing in all directions. The Lick is like a state park and welcomes visitors seven days a week during their regular daytime hours and has guided tours every half-hour and a gift shop. The tour is great because you get to see everything from the original telescopes from the nineteenth century to the newer instruments that are used to make discoveries like the one announced last week. Several nights during the summer, you can reserve a time to go up and look through the instruments with the astronomers. It’s an amazing, eye-opening experience, and one that will give you a new perspective on the human comedy.
There are people who do not see the worth in spending money and effort on unlocking the secrets of the universe. This is an extremely short-sighted view. The contemplation of the workings of our solar system by observational scientists like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton brought us from the dark ages to the age of reason. The drive to reach the moon directly resulted in much of our modern technology, from dehydrated orange juice to the digital revolution. Just think what wonders our efforts to reach further into the universe might bring. The astronomers who look through the telescopes on Mt. Hamilton may be looking back in time for thousands, millions and billions of years, but they are also seeing the future of humanity. Aren’t we fortunate that this is taking place right here in our terrestrial neighborhood?