Finding Lick

Imad Pasha

Lick Observatory, in the mountains east of San Jose. Laurie Hatch/Courtesy

Mt. Hamilton Road is forty five minutes of sharp hairpin turns and precipitous drops, and for the old second hand Volkswagen Beetle, it was too much. Oil temperature light flashing, it sputtered to a halt at a turn-out just shy of the summit, steam pouring from the hood. Across the ravine, the mountaintop was visible, sunlight gleaming off the whitewashed domes of Lick Observatory. The road was built in 1875, in preparation for the construction of the observatory, but its shallow six-and-a-half percent grade (to accommodate horse drawn carriages) wasn’t enough to save the beleaguered Bug. After nursing it the final few miles, we arrived in the observatory parking lot with no oil and no coolant. But we’d made it.

The main building at Lick is a long, vaulted, marble hallway, attached at one end to the dome of the one-meter Nickel telescope, and at the other to the massive dome for the 36 inch refractor. Dozens of flat-screen TVs hang equally spaced along the hallway walls, each presenting a slideshow or animation about the construction of the observatory or the cutting edge research being conducted there. As we enter, around forty people are milling about, reading off the screens and visiting the gift shop. Both Cee and I are surprised by the numbers; as astrophysics students at Berkeley we had visited Lick several times, but always on private tours after closing hours.

Our car troubles had cost us thirty minutes, so we joined the visitors exploring the main building, checking out the gift shop and screens while waiting for Paul Lynam, staff astronomer, to finish his public talk in the 36 inch refractor dome; we already knew the story. When it was built, it was the largest telescope in the world, with lenses poured by one of the Clark sons (of the renowned Alvin Clark & Son’s lensmakers). It first saw light in January of 1888, and was initially horribly out of focus. One of the astronomers did a few calculations and measurements, grabbed a hacksaw, and cut off several inches from the end of the telescope, fixing the problem and ushering in the use of the world’s first-ever mountaintop observatory. The building itself is a contradiction of temporality — at one end of the hallway a telescope from 1888, and at the other a research telescope utilized both remotely and on site every night to conduct scientific observations.

The Great 36" Refractor at Lick. The Tube of the telescope is 57 feet long and weighs over 25,000 pounds.

A few minutes after four, a stream of people file out of the 36 inch dome, followed by Paul. The observatory employs two staff astronomers — experts in the use of massive telescopes who ensure that the many systems on the mountain are running and ready for each night’s observing. He opens an almost secret doorway in the wall, and leads us into a small conference room which used to serve as the director’s office.

It’s a setting more in line with the Palace of Versailles than an observatory. The walls are paneled from floor to ceiling in dark, rich wood, and the desk which separates us from Paul seems to be at least a hundred years old. Built into one wall is a door-sized safe, complete with massive crank. In any other scenario it would be nothing more than a historical artifact, but here, several microphones snake across the antique table to the polycom, a television/camera setup that allows for video conferencing with people off-mountain.

“I’ve wanted to be an astronomer since I was six years old,” he began. “I always aspired to be able to use a big telescope, because I could never afford one like this myself.” He laughs, and it’s a friendly and welcoming laugh, charming in its distinct Irishness. Paul bagged groceries during his college summers to pay his way through college in the U.K., and was so unconfident in his final exams as an undergraduate that he didn’t apply for graduate school, continuing to work at the grocery store. When his results came out he discovered he made the proper grades, and jumped at the opportunity to do a masters and PhD in astronomy.

In particular, his PhD required the building of an all-sky survey. “Because I had to survey hundreds of galaxies from all over the sky, I had to go to South Africa and Chile, and come to America, and go to Greece and Hawaii and the Canary Islands. I was traveling around and having experience at all of these different observatories. I accumulated a lot of skill and I knew that I liked working with telescopes. ”

After working stints at the European Observatory and spending six and a half years in Chile (most of the major southern hemisphere telescopes are located in Chile’s Atacama Desert), Paul came to work at Lick. “This place was in the textbooks when I was a kid growing up,” he explained. “That has resonance for me. When I was falling in love with astronomy when I was a kid, I was looking at the pictures of the galaxies and the nebulae in all the books, most of those pictures were from here, Palomar, and the Anglo-Australian Telescope. I grew up in Europe, and I still knew the name ‘Lick.’”

As we emerged from the director’s office, the last of the day’s crowd were making their way toward the exit of the building. Most had come out of general curiosity; one man said he had always wanted to visit since he saw the observatory from a plane when landing in Oakland. Another had visited seventeen years ago, and took time out of a business trip from Munich to San Jose in order to come back and take photographs around the observatory. “I give the pictures to the observatory,” he said. “They can use them however they want… except Facebook.”

In the lobby there is a group of people with name tags. One of the group, Lisa, introduces them as members of a Museum association. They are in San Jose for a conference, but are stopping by Lick to help the staff organize and preserve antique glass plate negatives, the first form of picture taken with telescopes.

We meet back up with Paul and start the ten minute walk to the three-meter Shane telescope, the largest telescope on the mountain. The mirror was a test pour for the slightly larger 5.1 meter Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory; at the time no one knew if a mirror that large could be poured, spun, and ground successfully. The University of California found it in Palomar’s basement and bought it to install at Lick.

Paul Lynam, staff astronomer (right) and Cee Gould, fellow astrophysics major at Berkeley (left).

Paul walks this route in many guises throughout the day and night: sometimes he is a tour guide for a school group or for potential donors, sometimes he is a tech support running from building to building ensuring the telescopes are all working. Sometimes he is chasing down trespassers and hooligans who wander the grounds, a role he has had to take on since their on site police officer was lost to budget cuts. And sometimes he is simply walking home — he is one of the twenty five individuals who lives permanently at the observatory.

That number has fluctuated wildly over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, before the advent of remote observing, the observatory was home to about a hundred and fifty people at any given time, a mix of astronomers (staying temporarily in the dorms during their observing runs), permanent technical staff and their families, tour guides, cooks, a teacher, and gift shop workers. Mt. Hamilton has its own zip code and post office, and until 2006 had a one room schoolhouse and until 2011 a fully staffed diner. Continual budget cuts, paired with the loss of on-site astronomers who increasingly began to utilize new remote observing systems, brought the numbers down to the low twenties. In the darkest hour, when the university was threatening to cut off funding for the observatory, there were as few as fifteen people on the mountain.

The Shane three meter telescope, even for someone who has seen it many times, is a sight to behold. Due to the long focal length of the mirror, a huge yellow lattice of metal tubing extends across the interior of the dome, holding up the secondary mirror. The design is known as a Cassegrain: incoming light from stars and galaxies hits the 3 meter primary, reflecting up to the secondary and then back down through a hole in the center of the primary to the instruments attached there.

Shane is the primary workhorse of the observatory, and it’s also where a lot of the groundbreaking advancements have been made. Systems like adaptive optics, which allow astronomers to “filter out” the distortions of our turbulent atmosphere, were developed and tested on this telescope. Without them, the construction of huge telescopes like the twin Keck telescopes or the Thirty Meter Telescope would be useless (without atmospheric correction, there is a finite limit beyond which larger telescopes yield no better resolution). Such systems could never be developed and debugged on large telescopes like Keck, where every night is fought over for observing from astronomers around the world. Lick provides the setting where instrumentation development and long term projects can thrive.

The Shane 3 Meter Telescope.

Paul gives us hard hats to protect from the possibility of falling debris, and discusses some of the instruments currently mounted on the bottom of the telescope until the day tech Donnie arrives. Calling him a day tech is disingenuous; today he is serving as the day tech, responsible for performing preventative maintenance on the telescopes and fixing anything that was hastily patched the night before. In other shifts, he is the night tech. Sometimes he’s a fireman. His wife is a nurse and serves as the de-facto medical expert on the mountain. When twenty odd people are tasked with running a facility that is a research institution every night and a public outreach and educational institution during the day, everyone has to contribute beyond their job descriptions.

Paul points out the current instrument set on the Shane telescope.

We sit down in what’s known as the “read out” room annexed to the dome — where the operators control the telescope and instruments. A bank of computer monitors stretch across the length of the wall: three for the telescope operator, two for the laser operator four for the instruments. These four are being manned tonight, but generally these screens are being controlled remotely by astronomers at various UC campuses.

Donnie’s shift as day-tech ends as the astronomers come in and begin to set up for the night. A night of observing can begin as early as 3:30 PM, depending on the amount of calibration and test exposures you have to take before sunset, along with special images of the evening sky called “flats” which help adjust the final images to be more accurate. Donnie is tall and skinny, sitting with his fingers steepled together and a small, knowing smile. He was trained as an electrical technician; he came to Lick after working for years as an electrical repairman in the midwest, fixing televisions and other consumer electronics. I asked him what drew him to the observatory. “For me, it’s about research,” he said. “It’s about being around a research environment and contributing to pioneering research.”

Paul, who was sitting in the vacant chair by the last computer, broke in and offered to take us up onto the catwalk on the outside of the dome to watch the sunset. It is a cloudy one, but beautiful nonetheless. As we looked out over the various domes dotting the peak, our talk finally turned away from all things science and technical. Paul is from Ireland, though his parents now live in England, and doesn’t get to visit either nearly enough. His wife is from Thailand, and to visit family they fly in opposite directions.

Sunset from the catwalk.

When we arrive back in the read out room, Donnie has been replaced by Erik, the night’s telescope operator, and a new hire. New hires are a fairly rare occurrence on the mountain; most staff have been working there for five, ten, even fifteen years. The observatory officially gives you six months of training before they let you loose, Donnie had said, but it takes you about five years to get comfortable with it. “And after five years, you’re pretty much invested,” he laughed.

For Erik, operating what was once the second largest telescope in the world started as a response to a craigslist ad. It’s a skill that has to be taught in house. “If they only looked for telescope operators, they’d never hire anyone” he laughed. The operators all have a distinct cheeriness and talkativeness despite, or maybe in part because of, the remoteness of their lives. Lives that can’t be separated from work; they live on the mountain, and are all collectively responsible for keeping it running. “For a while, we had no one on maintenance,” Erik mentioned as Paul nodded along solemnly.

As the staff discuss the different eras of funding and their various responsibilities, what becomes clear is that Lick isn’t actually a collection of telescopes at the top of a mountain. Much more, it is these people who dedicate enough of themselves to make them work. At an operating cost of 1.5 million dollars a year, Lick is a dot in the U.C. budget, less than the salary of a single football coach at any of the universities in the system. It seems the University of California has the mindset that what isn’t new isn’t useful; they were genuinely surprised at the backlash that erupted when they announced their decision to ramp down and terminate funding for the observatory. Bureaucracy fails to grasp the beauty in a hundred-thirty-year old telescope still doing pioneering research, in old interfacing with new.

Sitting in the read out room amongst the new monitors and ancient racked equipment, Paul mentions that per dollar spent on operation, Lick produces more research and papers than expensive new telescopes like Keck. And looking around at the staff in their many hats, it’s clear that if you simply replaced them with a new crew, that wouldn’t be true at all.

Replacement, or rather, retirement, is a real issue. The complex network of computer systems and hardware electronics on the mountain, patched together with some modern components and some outdated ones, takes years to begin to understand. The observatory lost two staff members to retirement recently, but because they couldn’t afford to hire new staff to learn from the outgoing members beforehand, a collective sixty odd years of experience was truly lost.

And suddenly, like the flip of a switch, it’s time for action. Erik answers the phone and stands up. It’s a call from the main building; the one meter telescope’s dome is spinning uncontrollably. Paul, Erik, Jerry, Cee, and I make the ten minute walk across the pitch black mountaintop between the Shane telescope and the main building, flashlight beams dancing against the pavement and trees. Above us, the moon is nearing full, and ice crystals high in the atmosphere are producing a twenty two degree rainbow halo in the sky.

We step into the dome of the 1m Nickel telescope, and Paul and Erik jump directly into troubleshooting mode, shutting down the system, checking the components one by one. Erik runs back and forth between the Nickel’s read out room and the dome while Paul works on the box of electrical connections. Cee and I step back to the other end of the dome while they work.

It’s a small dome compared to that of the Shane, but the size of the telescope is still impressive. The Nickel telescope wasn’t put in the dome until 1979; before then it housed the 12 inch Clark refractor, the first telescope installed at the observatory in the 1880s. That was the telescope used by my professor, Alex Filippenko, during his first research project as an undergraduate.

The Nickel One meter Telescope

“I would sit there all night, listening to the radio, and making sure the telescope was tracking well by having a little XY stage with micrometer screws so that you can move the stage around a little tiny bit to keep the guide star centered.” We are in Julie’s Cafe, during the lunch hour built into Alex’s always-packed days. “I listened to a lot of top forty tunes,” he continued. “I was there, hearing the news when Elvis died… forgotten how though.”

Lick was a different place in the 70s, but the multitasking nature of the job hasn’t changed. “I gave the tours of the 36 inch refractor, and I sold postcards in the giftshop. They had Friday and Saturday night observing programs for the public, and I would help with those too,” he mentioned over a bite of gyro sandwich. “It began to hone my skills at communication to the general public, and I saw that I enjoyed that sort of thing.” Alex now teaches a class of 800 students at Berkeley every year, amongst numerous public talks around the country. When the University of California announced plans to terminate funding for Lick, Alex was one of the main figures protesting the decision and eventually securing its reversal.

“I’m proud, actually, that I helped bring Lick from… well, the quick word is save, but it was never completely dead, and it isn’t completely saved right now. We’ve gone from a negative slope to a nice healthy positive slope, and we’re trying to build on that momentum.”

As Paul, Cee and I were walking to the Shane telescope early in our afternoon, we actually passed by Filippenko leading a group of potential donors around. Drumming up donors for the observatory has become somewhat of a part time job for him, and he’s been fairly successful at it. In the entrance hall of the observatory hangs a banner reading “Thank you Google!” (the tech giant recently donated one million dollars to Lick). When he saw us, he called us over to introduce us to the donors, and snapped a quick picture with his phone. As students who use Lick for research remotely, we are one of the pillars of Alex’s campaign to keep Lick funded. It’s one of the few places undergraduates can participate directly in novel research.

As it was for him. He cares about the place, about what it does. “That’s really, in a sense, where I started,” he said. “Palomar is dear to my heart as well, as I did my graduate studies there. I discovered supernova 1985F, which changed my career around completely; I discovered it there serendipitously. Los Campanas was cool, because I would go down to Chile and travel around in South America. Keck? Well, I got married at Keck, you know? Amazing place. They’re all sort of dear to me in one way or another. But Lick is where I got started. Nothing can ever quite replace that.”

It’s not long before Erik and Paul have figured out a workaround to get the dome operational again. All in all, the observers lost maybe 20 minutes of time. It will be Paul’s job the next day to ensure a more permanent fix is put in place.

Cee and I are in no rush to leave, but the length of the drive back to campus begins pushing us towards the parking lot. Erik, who has experience with working on Volkswagons, insists that we allow him to look at our engine. Soon, Paul is fetching pitchers of water for the empty water tank, and Erik has disappeared off to his house to get us oil for the engine. He returns twenty minutes later not just with oil but also a huge box of zip ties, and proceeds to secure our car battery which is, he informs us, dangerously loose. Both Cee and I stand by watching, unable to articulate our gratitude to two people who clearly have much more important things to be doing, for taking the time to not only engage us earnestly for the entire day, but also to not let us leave until they were satisfied with the soundness of our car.

It says more about Lick than a lot of the science and gadgets, and the perpetual need to spin every technological achievement in order to try to eek out more funding.

As we wound our way down the mountain in the darkness, now more concerned about the brakes than the engine, a sort of contemplative silence hung over us as we considered the place we’d always thought of primarily as a facility, a tool to be utilized. Lick at its core is defined by its community; those living on the mountain look out for it and each other, and at least for one day, the two of us as well.

22 degree halo over the main building at Lick. The right dome is the 1M Nickel, and the right is the 36" Refractor.