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

September 1, 2009 | 10:07 am

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.

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