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Mt. Wilson's eye on the universe -- through the smoke

mt wilsonmt wilson observatoryopinion l.a.opinion lapatt morrisonpatt morrisonstation fire

Observatory I headed off to bed on Monday night hoping that the smoke I was breathing and the ash that was accumulating on my car's windshield did not come from any smoldering ruins of the Mt. Wilson Observatory.

Much is being made of the radio and TV towers there -- important, certainly -- but the observatory is irreplaceable, a shrine of science past and science yet to come. It is more than 100 years old, its telescopes marvels of astronomy in their times. Its scientists recorded first upon first -- that the Milky Way is not the only galaxy, and that we are not even at the center of it. The first measurement of a star's diameter -- Betelgeuse, as it turned out -- and other firsts beyond my understanding but not beyond my appreciation.

There is an old cane chair at the observatory; Edwin Hubble used it on those cold, cold nights when he sat peering through the eyepiece of a telescope. In 1931, Albert Einstein visited and sat in the same chair. And a few years ago, when I was reporting from the observatory, the staff kindly let me park my rear end on the same hallowed chair. The connection with vital and significant human history -- even via my fundament -- was profound.

I wondered, as the reports of fire on Mt. Wilson became more fearsome -- and where, as a fire official told The Times, ''the fire is boss'' -- what had become of the chair. Had it been evacuated early Monday morning, along with the personnel? The superintendent, Dave Jurasevich, told me on KPCC radio that the chair had been sealed away tight in a special stay-and-defend vault at the observatory, and should survive whatever the landscape chooses to throw at the place.

Which, as of late Monday night, was an awful lot for a centenarian observatory to handle.  

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: The Mt. Wilson Observatory in 2002. Credit: Kevin Casey / Los Angeles Times.


Comments () | Archives (6)

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Hi Pat, as a fellow Oxy Alumni, we children of the 50's and 60's really had a deep appreciation and awe for the inspiring black and white photographs taken from the Mt Wilson telescope, and taking field trips up there was a highlight of our childhood. That was of course a time when there were not as many technological distractions and when airplanes were still a novelty, when cars were one to a family and seat belts didn't exist in cars, so the ride up the Mt. Wilson road was pure excitement. Also, little mentioned, but Camp Hi Hill was a childhood escape for Junior High and Highschoolers, getting often their first breath of pure mountain air and the possibility of an evening under the stars with classmates and potential girl and boy-friends, all. Some real sweetness was and still remains in our experiences and memories of the mysteries of such a good, close neighbor, Mount Wilson.


I've seen news footage in the last hour showing fire encroaching on the observatory complex. The solar tower cam also shows a dense blanket of smoke, with the just the tips of the communication antennas peeking through. Very worrisome. Hoping the firefighters can save this historic landmark.



Thanks for the little bit of Americana and reminder of Mt. Wilson's significant contributions to science and history.

Bob Davey

What a historical treasure,...I would certainly hope that the observatory would take priority over the transmission towers if it comes down to that choice.

Janet Downing

I pray that this important structure is saved from the advancing flames. The usefullness of Mt. Wilson Observatory is needed to view the Western sky of our continent.

Virginia Hoge

The latest word is that there are 150 firefighters on Mount Wilson prepared to battle for and defend this historic Observatory from whatever fires are to come.

I'm with you, Patt Morrison, 110%!!

Mount Wilson Observatory is an irreplaceable Treasure we are lucky to have,

and now we can (hopefully) keep.



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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

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