Politics, Personality, and Progress

The early-to-mid 20th century was a time of great advancement in astronomy, no doubt with the aid of technology.  Behind the scenes struggles stimulated innovative design and technology. Upstairs, the movers and shakers had meltdowns and out-of-body experiences, mostly due to personality and politics.  Oh, and a lot of money!

George Ellery Hale was the primary mover and shaker.  He had an early interest in astronomy and benefited from living in a very wealthy family.  His interest in astronomical research would however take a back seat to his interest in building the biggest telescopes ever.  Hale threw his energies into fundraising, organization, and directing construction of the Yerkes, Mount Wilson, and Mount Palomar observatories.  The biggest refractor, the biggest reflector, then the even bigger biggest reflector telescopes in the world. That took the persuasiveness of a giant, and Hale, even with his nearly continuous medical issues, did it.

Behind the scenes were an army of artists, artisans, opticians, engineers, astronomers, astrophysicists, inventors, mathematicians, draftsmen, craftsmen, computers (mostly women mathematicians), construction workers…

Most of the workers were not overtly affected emotionally, however, one of note was George McCauley of the Corning Glassworks.  McCauley was in charge of pouring the largest glass mirror blank in history, twice that of the Mouth Wilson 100”. That plate glass blank came from France.  The French couldn’t do a 200”, much less one made of low expansion borosilicate.  General Electric tried to make a fused quartz mirror but failed at 60”.  Corning was it and McCauley was given the order to make it so.  A perfectionist, he fussed, fretted, worked, and reworked the PYREX glass formula, melt, and anneal conditions.  Their first try failed.  McCauley did not sleep well but the second blank was successful, 2 years after starting the project.

The sad political story is of George Willis Ritchey. Ritchey was a brilliant optician…he figured the Mount Wilson telescopes. He and French collaborator Henri Chrétien created a new telescope design, the Ritchey-Chrétien (R-C), promising to produce a much wider field of sharp focus than conventional designs.  But Ritchey was not diplomatic.  He made enemies of the Mount Wilson directors (George Hale and Walter Adams) and they effectively got him banned from American astronomy.  Hale and Adams defamed the R-C design, so it was not even considered for decades. Ritchey also had more reach than grasp and no business sense, so he floundered for years.  Finally, nearly 70 years old, he managed to get a contract with the U.S. Naval Observatory for a 40” Ritchey-Chrétien.  It was perfect, but the Washington DC light and air pollution made it just about useless.  Years after Ritchey’s death the telescope was moved to Flagstaff, AZ and became the model for large reflecting telescopes built since (notable are Hubble and Keck).

Politics and personality can enhance or inhibit progress.

What’s in the Sky?

Check out the Winter Hexagon, an asterism formed by Sirius, Procyon, Castor, Capella, Aldebaran, and Rigel