The Universe Comes to Mt. Hamilton

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?

7 Comments

  1. I love this column Jack. I’m a big Astronomy buff.  You are absolutely correct; we need to keep an eye on the sky. We can learn a lot from nature.
    The reason I’ve never been to the Lick Observatory is because the few times I’ve emailed or called, I haven’t received a reply. Any suggestions for me Jack? I’d love to go visit the place, even though I hate the drive up! Fear of heights! YIKES!

    On a different topic, I just wanted to say I feel bad for Council Member Nguyen. I read the article in the online Merc today about the Vietnamese Business District name battle. I think it is very sad that Vietnamese fractions are putting their first ever Council Member in such a tough spot. Madison is trying to do her best with a no win situation. I feel so sorry for her.
    I guess I personally don’t understand the need for separatism. I love the diversity of San Jose. I think we should be proud of the fact that we openly embrace different cultures. 
    What worries me is that with new influx of immigrants, we seem to be going backward not forward in becoming a melting pot. Immigrants seem to want to stay in their own groups, churches, schools, communities, etc., and don’t seem to want to let us in. If you look at history, we only had Japan Town and others like it because it was racially motivated. I’d hate to think that this segregation would continue, given the many struggles these folks went through to come to America. I just don’t get it. I think people should cherish and retain their cultures. I’m Irish and I do. Can anyone of you explain to me why this country seems so divided into separate groups, cultures, and communities? Why come to the United States if they’re just going to bring their political baggage here with them?

  2. Why explore our universe when we could pave streets? Streets are exciting because we use them to drive our SUVs to Wal-Mart.

    I love the observatory but it’s just another unknown/unappreciated feature in this hated end of the Bay. People either don’t care or don’t want to.

  3. #3- Thank you Jack! My birthday is Sunday. I just called my guy, and guess where he’s taking me? You got it! I’m really excited about this! Thank you so much! I’ll let you know how it goes. wink

  4. The observatory can continue to operate despite the massive amount of light pollution in this area because the city has those funny colored street lights, which can be filtered out. That’s a good idea, but for the rest of us who might like to look at the night sky, there’s not much to see. The International Dark Sky Association (http://www.darksky.com) has suggestions for reducing light pollution.

    I went on the observatory tour this summer. It was very interesting. The view from there is spectacular.

  5. I saw Saturn at Lick during a night-time visit I was in awe and humbled by the planet’s beauty.  Well worth a visit for a lifetime memory of it’s golden rings and solitary presence.

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