Nov. 10, 2008 at 9:12 PM ET
Caltech / Palomar Observatory
Stars whirl over the 200-inch Hale Telescope's dome in a time-exposure photo.
Astronomer George Ellery Hale's decades-long drive to build bigger and bigger telescopes is the stuff that operas are made of. The epic brought him in contact with the richest and smartest people of a century ago ... forced him to struggle against petty jealousies and personal demons ... and led him to grand achievements that some thought were impossible.
"The Journey to Palomar," a PBS documentary premiering tonight, touches upon all those operatic elements while keeping its focus squarely on the quest's deeper meaning: In the first half of the 20th century, telescope-building was the biggest science around.
"This was the equivalent of a moonshot in that time period," historian Kevin Starr explains during the 90-minute documentary.
Today, it's hard to imagine throngs of people turning out to watch a train bearing a boxed-up mirror pass by. But that's what happened when a 200-inch-wide, 20-ton glass mirror blank made its way from New York's Corning Glass Works to the California Institute of Technology in 1936 for grinding and polishing.
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|Dignitaries attend the 1948 dedication of the |
Hale Telescope at the Palomar Observatory.
It would be another 11 years before the finished mirror was set into the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar - in part because World War II got in the way.
Hale himself never got the chance to look through the consummate cosmic window he helped create. He died in 1938, a decade before the telescope was finished. That may sound like a tragic ending fit for an opera - but Hale's life was no tragedy. He lived long enough to witness a revolution in astronomy that he helped create.
"The Journey to Palomar," the result of five years of work by Los Angeles filmmakers Todd and Robin Mason, touches on the high points and the low points of Hale's life. The documentary also looks beyond Palomar to tomorrow's mega-telescopes. Here are just a few of the high points and low points from the show:
The Hale Telescope on Palomar continues to contribute to astronomy, under management at Caltech. It's no longer the world's biggest optical telescope: That title passed to the Keck I Telescope in Hawaii in 1993. And the astronomical spotlight shines more often nowadays upon the great observatories in orbit, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope and most recently the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
There are still more great telescopes to come - wonders that Hale could only dream of, ranging from super-sized, high-tech eyes on Earth to the James Webb Space Telescope in deep space. "The Journey to Palomar" shows how Hale set the stage for 21st-century explorations that could someday show us alien Earths and the very edge of the observable universe.
To learn more about Hale, the Palomar Observatory and "The Journey to Palomar," check out Jason Socrates Bardi's TV review for Inside Science News Service, Caltech's Palomar Web page and the Mount Wilson Observatory Web page. If you have your 3-D glasses at the ready (and who doesn't?), dig into these 3-D views and 360-degree views of Hale's telescopes.