Inside Science News Service
November 7, 2008
PBS Documentary Recounts Lifelong Struggles of U.S. Astronomer George Ellery Hale
By Jason Socrates Bardi
A seemingly typical moment in PBS' fascinating new documentary, "Journey to Palomar"
comes about halfway through the film. George Ellery Hale, the American astronomer who is
the subject of the documentary, is fresh off a nervous breakdown. He is recovering in
Italy when he learns that one of the richest men in history just gave a sizable chunk of
cash to help Hale realize his latest dream -- finishing the 100-inch Hooker telescope atop
Mount Wilson near Pasadena, CA.
Hale races back to California to oversee construction amidst failing health and
increasing criticism that the large telescope could never be finished. To complicate the
matter further, the push to finish the telescope comes just at the beginning of U.S.
involvement in World War I.
This was not just any telescope. It was the biggest and most expensive ever built.
Hale knew that when it was completed, it would help make discoveries that would
revolutionize our view of the universe. And as soon as the Hooker telescope was finished,
Hale began dreaming of building another, even larger one.
"Journey" follows Hale from his boyhood home in Chicago to the culmination of his
life's work, the million-pound, 200-inch Hale telescope on Palomar. The film is less a
biopic about Hale than a narrative about how he indulged the chief obsession of his life:
building the three largest telescopes ever attempted in the late 19th and early 20th
"He was a man of extraordinary vision and considerable courage," says astrophysicist
Daniel Fabricant of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, an expert on large
telescopes who was not involved in the film. "His vision attracted superb scientists and
engineers who built and operated these observatories with enormous success."
Hale was a practical dreamer. He not only saw how his telescopes would revolutionize
his field, but he was savvy enough to get his fantastically expensive instruments built.
Hale's telescope dreams were of unprecedented cost and ambition, and his singular genius
was his ability to convince some of the richest men alive to pony up the massive amounts
of money he needed to realize them.
In turn, he found backing from the likes of Chicago streetcar baron Charles Yerkes,
Los Angeles magnate John D. Hooker, steel industry czar Andrew Carnegie, and oil tycoon
John D. Rockefeller. Through them, he managed to keep the projects going despite
occasional catastrophic design failures, two world wars, and the unforgiving economic
squeeze of the Great Depression.
Hale's telescopes had many critics, too. His plan for the Yerkes observatory in
Chicago in the 1890s was called a flagrant waste of money. His construction of the
100-inch Hooker telescope in the 1910s took so long that many questioned whether it would
work. In the 1930s, no less an authority than the U.S. Bureau of Standards declared his
designs for the 200-inch telescope atop Palomar would be "probably impossible" to achieve.
The PBS film chronicles the numerous technological challenges Hale had to overcome, as
well as the many spectacular failures along the way. For most of his adult life, Hale was
privately tortured by the constant awareness of possible failure, and he paid a grave
personal price for this. He suffered anxiety, crushing headaches, chronic exhaustion,
hallucinations, and nervous breakdowns.
The film also captures those moments in Hale's life that seemed to make it all
worthwhile. One came when he first climbed the steps of the Hooker telescope and saw
further into space that anyone had ever gazed before. All his troubles melted away, he
later wrote to his brother, saying, "It had all seemed like a dream."
What comes across especially well in "Journey" is Hale's love for astronomy. He made
many important discoveries in his lifetime. At an early age, he studied the composition of
the sun and showed that it contains carbon, one of the most abundant elements on Earth. He
later discovered that the sun has a massive magnetic field. He also took some of the most
stunning images of the sun ever captured on film.
Still, Hale's own work was far overshadowed by other people who used the telescopes he
built. Harlow Shapley measured the size of the Milky Way and discovered that the sun and
Earth were not in the center of the galaxy, as had previously been assumed. Edwin Hubble
proved that other galaxies exist outside the Milky Way. Then, in one of the most profound
discoveries in the history of science, Hubble used Hale's 100-inch telescope to show that
the universe is expanding -- shattering the notion held since ancient times that the
universe existed in a steady state.
After Palomar was finished in 1948, its 200-inch telescope was named in Hale's honor.
Fitting tribute to Hale's efforts is the fact that all of his great telescopes are still
in operation today. Perhaps his most far-reaching legacy, though, was proving that large
telescopes could be built in the first place. "He changed our perception of what was
possible in building great observatories," said Fabricant, the Smithsonian astrophysicist
in an interview.
"George Ellery Hale died in 1938," Fabricant adds. "It took more than 50 years to
prove that we could successfully build the next world's largest telescope without him."
Today larger and larger telescopes are already in operation or under construction. The
planned Giant Magellan Telescope and the planned Thirty Meter Telescope will attempt to
detect the first light in the Universe, a glow emitted by the first generation of stars
that formed after the Big Bang. They will also study the formation of planets around other
stars and search for the nearest Earth-like planets -- goals as ambitious in modern times
as those Hale dreamed of in his day.
- "Journey to Palomar" airs on PBS stations beginning at 10:00 p.m. on Monday, November
10, 2008. Check local listings for exact show times.
- A movie trailer is available for viewing at http://www.journeytopalomar.org.
- News releases, a teachers' guide, and photos of Hale and his 200-inch telescope are
available at PBS PressRoom: http://pressroom.pbs.org/programs/journey_to_palomar.
This story is provided for media use by the Inside Science News Service, which is
supported by the American Institute of Physics, a not-for-profit publisher of scientific
journals. Please credit ISNS. Contact: Jim Dawson, news editor, at jdaw...@aip.org.