Kicking it Old School

By Julianne Dalcanton | November 19, 2008 1:49 pm

Google is now serving up more than a hundred years of photographs from Life Magazine. The pictures of the early days of astronomy are just spectacular. The archives contain images of many astronomers who were critical figures in the development of the field, but who have yet to have telescopes named after them. A large fraction of them also seemed to smoke pipes.

A huge hero of mine is Walter Baade. Baade was the guy who essentially took over observations at Mt Wilson during the blackouts of WWII. With the lights of Los Angeles snuffed out, and unable to serve in the military himself, he pushed the telescopes on Mt Wilson to their limits, and established the study of stellar populations in nearby galaxies.


There are some terrific pictures of Walter Adams working at Mt Wilson. In the picture below, he’s holding the telescope controls used for guiding. During an astronomical observation, you have to move the telescope to compensate for the earth’s rotation. Nowadays, your computer can take care of it by adjusting the position to keep a bright star at a fixed position on a CCD camera. Back then, you looked through a little spotting scope, and manually adjusted the telescope position to keep it pointed at the right part of the sky. If you let it drift, your image would be blurry. No pee breaks for you, Dr. Adams!


The guy kneeling in the figure below is Gerard Kuiper, working on a telescope at McDonald Observatory. He was a planetary astronomer, and the guy for whom the “Kuiper Belt” in the outer solar system was named, although Edgeworth probably deserved more credit for it. (Kuiper actually does have an airborne observatory named after him).


And you have to love this picture of Frank Drake, working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Greenbank West Virginia. You really can never have enough toggle switches. FYI, Drake is the guy behind the “Drake Equation”, used to estimate the likelihood of contact with extraterrestrial civilizations.


And finally, a wonderful overhead shot of the 100″ telescope at Mt. Wilson

Mt Wilson overhead

The pictures above are a tiny fraction of the available pictures of working scientists. Cancel your afternoon appointments and dive in.


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