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Lonely--but With Atmosphere

In an era when scientists needn't look into an eyepiece to stargaze, Mt. Wilson Observatory still draws astronomers who do their work the old-fashioned way.

October 08, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To gather starlight--the very point of living and working on this mountaintop--Theo ten Brummelaar and the other scientists must first get the mirrors right. After three years at historic Mt. Wilson Observatory, this is the last bit of work for the team from Georgia State University, building one of the most powerful telescope systems in the world. Now the team is racing to get the first two telescopes up and running in time for their official dedication, which is one week away. But there's a glitch with the mirrors.

"Welcome to my nightmare," deadpans Ten Brummelaar, a 38-year-old stellar astrophysicist.

Sometimes, he doesn't leave this forest for days, immersed in a half-beloved, half-cursed astronomy subculture that is beginning to wane. Not many outsiders will notice or care about the slow shift in the way astronomy is practiced nowadays, often in warm offices via high-speed computer lines. But researchers who do travel to Mt. Wilson and other lonely observatories liken their journeys to time with a muse.

On this mountain--their home and office for long stretches--researchers say their work comes alive, even if they're too busy on some nights to notice the stars mocking in midnight splendor. Far from city lights, in the San Gabriel Mountains northeast of Los Angeles, they work amid live oaks and topless, lightning-zapped Jeffrey pines. The mountain is majestic with possibility and history. Albert Einstein visited once, refining his theory of relativity. Here, Edwin Hubble found that the Milky Way is not alone in the cosmos, forever displacing our galaxy from the center of the universe. In the last few years, Nobel laureate Charles H. Townes, 85, has made regular trips here, bunking down in quarters known as the Mt. Wilson Monastery.

These days, though, older observatories like 95-year-old Mt. Wilson don't have the same mystical pull. Some astronomers, in fact, worry that the new generation of scientists won't pine for peaks like the 5,800-foot Mt. Wilson. After all, no one really needs to touch a telescope or squint through an eyepiece at the sky anymore. Not when you can order up data from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope at no charge. Or sit in an office and control a telescope by remote. Or log on to a computer for real-time views of the stars.

"It takes away some of the romance of going to the mountaintop," grumbles Ten Brummelaar. He knows graduate students in astronomy who do all their work by computer and can't even point to the objects they're studying in the sky.

On this evening, along with several other researchers on Mt. Wilson, the Georgia State team waits for darkness to shutter the mountain. Its members use flashlights on the concrete walkways, sometimes encountering a warmth-seeking rattlensake.

The forest glows red from special bulbs used to enhance night vision at the team's white observatory domes, which dot the hillside like oversized R2D2s. From dusk until after midnight, Ten Brummelaar trudges in hiking boots between two of the 45-foot-high domes and the vast laboratory, where he dons surgical-type booties to work in a "clean" room the size of a football field. The team has an observatory for each of its six telescopes, which work together as one "array" run by Georgia State's Center for High Angular Resolution Astronomy, or CHARA. If the new mirrors are not aligned properly, the telescopes bounce starlight back to the laboratory--the first step in a complex process that makes the system work, notes CHARA director Hal McAlister, who dreamed up the project 20 years ago and has been living here with his wife for the past six months. Ten Brummelaar can't figure out why the mirrors won't stay still.

"This is disturbing," he says at 10 p.m., eyes red after his third post-midnight shift in a row. "Things are moving around so much."

Cutbacks, Time Pressures Keep Astronomers Put

In the old days, seasoned astronomers could tell you the best cowboy bar around Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, Ariz., or where to find a drink around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in a dry Wisconsin county, laments Stephen Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society. But the tradition of hitting the road is not much of a priority anymore, in part because of budget cutbacks and time pressures, says Maran, who's also director of space science at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

In New Mexico, at Apache Point Observatory, a major telescope run by the Astrophysical Research Consortium was the first to be designed and built specifically for remote use. That telescope, built in 1994, has been used by scientists from the South Pole and on aircraft. The consortium's U.S. members save a total of more than $100,000 in travel costs by operating the telescope via computer commands over the Internet, says Gretchen Van Doren, an Apache Point spokeswoman.

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