Thursday, January 8, 2009

My Visit to the Lick Observatory

In December I visited the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton (just outside San Jose, California). It was quite an adventure. Earlier in the week it snowed and park rangers closed the road. Luckily I used my credentials as an astronomer and was granted permission to drive to the top. It was a curvy and icy drive but I finally made it to the top.

There I met staff astronomer Thomas Lowe who showed me around and even let me "drive" the huge 36" refractor or. The telescope was made in 1888, is 57 feet long, and weighs over 25,000 pounds. But I could still move it with one hand! One of the best parts of the visit was the floor of the big dome room. With the flip of a switch, the entire floor raised up to the level of the telescope. No need for ladders or stairs, just move the floor up and down.

I also saw the more modern telescopes - a lot of research is still being done there today. In fact many astronomers live up on the mountain (which is about a 45 minute drive to anywhere). Around 1906 one of the Cincinnati Observatory's former directors worked at the Lick Observatory and I tried to imagine his journey. How did he get there? How long did it take? In the 1900s they also had a school on the mountain for the sons and daughters of the astronomers. What an interesting place to grow up - and what a view!