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Wonderful story on the Hale telescope

November 11, 2008

Last night we watched two engaging PBS specials, great reminders of what television can be when it isn’t constrained by purely commercial limitations.

The first of the two PBS programs I saw was a historical documentary that overlapped Hale’s life… American Experience: The Crash Of 1929.  But that is the subject of another post, which I’ll write tonight – if you want to watch it online in the meantime.

The second was Journey To Palomar; America’s first journey into space, the story of George Edmund Hale and three telescopes that he built.  Hale was fascinated by the sun, and by questions about the universe for which we had no answers.  Our understanding of the cosmos is literally pre-Wilson/Palomar and post-Wilson/Palomar.  It was a break-point in human history.

As a child I was fascinated by the 200-inch reflecting telescope at Mt. Palomar, but this excellent documentary laid out a much deeper back story, including the technological and cultural spinoffs from the Mt. Wilson observatory.  It is available on video, and will surely be broadcast again. I think you can watch it online as well, though I don’t have the right codecs in my Linux machine. (Should be fine on a Mac or PC.) There’s also an excellent downloadable .pdf teacher’s guide. 

I had known little of Hale himself, or the fact that despite his extraordinary achievements he struggled with mental illness all his life.  His greatest creation was interrupted by World War II and he never lived to see its completion.  The ‘perfect machine’ was described as a ‘500-ton Swiss watch’ and literally remade the human conception of the cosmos – and our place in it.

The Mt. Wilson and Hale telescopes pushed human knowledge forward in other ways too, because entirely new technologies had to be invented for them.  There is a progression, and no shortcuts.  You can’t have Hale without Mt. Wilson – intractable problems had to be solved for each one.  You can’t have Keck without Hale, plus the invention of lasers, fiber optics, satellites, and the Internet.  I guess we never know where the next step will take us…

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  1. Still Me
    November 12, 2008 at 21:00 | #1

    I looked at the website for the Crash of 1929 program, and I was really surprised to see how the description of each chapter eerily reflects what’s happened to the current stock market in the past couple months.  Made me not want to watch it, for it hits so close to home! (I’ll leave you to convince me otherwise.)

  2. Still Me
    November 12, 2008 at 21:08 | #2

    Oh, and I agree what comes out of PBS is very often truly remarkable.  I recently watched a Nature program, in which they talk about raptors of all sorts, put tiny cameras on some of them, and compare them to various high-performance military planes.  They talk about the adaptations of the birds to high-speed flight.  I am a bit familiar with falconry and yet I learned an awful lot and enjoyed it immensely. One of the things that has always struck me was how dedicated and enthusiastic the falconers are. It’s a labor of love. (As is, I’d imagine, the film-making process that produced it.)

  3. November 12, 2008 at 22:29 | #3

    Made me not want to watch it, for it hits so close to home! (I’ll leave you to convince me otherwise.)

    Can’t do that – I had the same uneasy feeling watching the show.  It was really unnerving. Notice I have not written about it yet.

    Was it Eagles?  I wonder if NetFlix has Nature episodes.  I’ve been thinking about getting an account.

  4. Still Me
    November 12, 2008 at 22:42 | #4

    The episode was Raptor Force

    It just so happens to be photographed, partly, in my area.  The opening shots regarding peregrines and the shots involving bald eagles are right up here in my neck of the woods, so be sure to pay attention to the gorgeous Upper Mississippi River bluff scenery.  Also, the guy who owns the Harpy eagle is a world-class wildlife filmmaker whom I can honestly say I have had the chance to meet (briefly).

    The Nature episode called White Falcon, White Wolf is also excellent; the images of the arctic, with their spartan plant life, stark terrain, and muted colors, are so gorgeous to a very visual person such as me (myself? I?).

  5. November 12, 2008 at 22:51 | #5

    All right, dammit, that does it.  I just found out NetFlix has pages and pages full of Nature, Nova, and American Experience.  I’m going to start looking at plans.

    It must be amazing to watch someone interact with an eagle.  I have read that birds are a lot smarter than we’ve always thought, parrots, raptors, and especially corvids.

    Here’s a picture I took last year of a turkey vulture – not a bird of prey, but still magnificent and MrsDoF and I stood and watched it soaring over the Mississippi at Hannibal for the longest time…

  6. Still Me
    November 12, 2008 at 22:58 | #6

    I think they are considered birds of prey, albeit dead prey.

    You might try to get over to Turkey Run State Park in Indiana (S. of Crawfordsville) next summer if you are in that area.  You’ll see lots of TVs.  They have gone south for the winter already.

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