Palomar Observatory sits at the top of Palomar Mountain in San Diego County, California. It saw first light in 1936, and from 1948 to 1993 it was home to the largest telescope in the world, the Hale 200-inch.
In 1950, Tom, while an astronomy student at Leiden University in Holland, hitchhiked from New York to Palomar, a distance of approximately 2750 miles, to see 200-inch telescope (pictured). At that time the observatory was completely closed to the public; even to visiting astronomers. George van Biesbroeck, who now has a prize named after him by the American Astronomical Society, reportedly tapped on the glass of the visitor’s chamber at the 200-inch for hours, but was still denied entry.
Tom made this journey with a backpack containing a change of clothes and a sleeping bag, and everywhere he went he carried a sign reading “Holland to….”, changing the destination depending on where he’d been dropped off by the last ride. The final lift he took on that journey was with a woman from the Pala Native American tribe, who dropped him at the bottom of the mountain and pointed up. He started walking the rest of the way, up and up for hours.
Fatefully, another car passed about halfway up the climb. It was the rancher Hap Mendenhall, a friend of the observatory, who picked Tom up and dropped him at the door of the fierce superintendent, Byron Hill. During Tom’s stay with Hill, they became friends, and Tom was able to access the telescope he had waited years to see. Twenty-two years later, Tom wrote a letter to Hap, in which he said:
“This detour of yours, which must have cost you an hour or so….made a great difference to my life…without your initiative, late at night in the car, my life would have turned out very differently because I certainly had until that time no inkling let alone plans to emigrate to the United States…I finished my studies with a PhD in astronomy…and have had since that time a job as a professional astronomer….I occasionally work at Palomar as a visiting astronomer and must on these occasions think much of you with great delight. With this letter I want to thank you for what you did.”
Today, I made that same journey, from a ranch that sits about ninety minutes’ drive from the observatory. There were four main differences: one, I have my own car; two, the observatory is now open to the public; three, I have a suitcase full of clothes; and finally, I have always been free.
I left for the observatory early, with the dawn chill still in the air, and I have the highway mostly to myself. To Americans, the hike up the mountain is a mere hop, but to us Europeans all the distances feel like an odyssey. The road rises and rises, hairpin bends and swooping curves giving way to sheer drops and crumbling cliffs. I keep my eyes peeled for a sight of the domes, but they are elusive- each time the land before you opens up, it is swallowed again by another chunk of rock. I don’t even really know exactly what peak I’m looking for- there’s so many of them around here, each seemingly taller than the last. Eventually, road signs begin to appear for the “Highway to the Stars”.
There is a strange feeling at an astronomical observatory. They are built so high up so as to benefit from the stable, cool air- if the air is too warm, it causes turbulent currents which blurs the images they are able to take from the telescope. When you step out of the car at the top of the mountain, it is silent, and motionless.
From the outside, Palomar looks like it hasn’t been updated since the 60s, but inside the telescopes, the technology is evolving all the time. In astronomy, there is little money to be spent on frivolities like public amenities and signage- all the funding must be spent on the common goal of turning starlight into knowledge.
Inside, I read the biographies of names I have seen again and again, and the connecting lines between them come into focus. Astronomy used to be a very tight-knit circle, where everyone knew or knew of everybody else.
A woman approaches me and talks to me about predictions from the Bible coming true. I wonder what Tom, an aggressive Atheist, would have had to say to her. I nod and smile politely, and say something about the ancient Greeks.
The 200-inch dome is almost like a temple. Bright white, pointing to the sky, with a flight of white stairs leading up to it. Inside is a bronze bust of George Ellery Hale, the deity of this place, founder of this and several other cutting-edge observatories. The electrical hum of the telescope is soothing, it lends itself to focus and precision, almost meditative.
Tom wrote that the first time he stepped inside the 200-inch, it seemed
“the greatest structure I had ever seen, more impressive than even the skyscrapers of New York…to look around almost as free of obstacles as from a parachute, such that one feels the urge to spread out the arms wide in jubilation of freedom and power….”
The scale of it is incredible, nothing you could capture with photographs. I would so love to be there to see the dome split open at dusk, to see the ‘Big Eye’ blinking up into the heavens, searching for something.
Sitting on the steps outside, I felt like I had reached the end of a journey. At the top of the mountain, at the end of the state road, there is nowhere left to go, except to look up. To think that a dusty book in a cardboard box had brought me to this place was enough to feel the force of gravity pulling you back down the mountain.