The Ghost of James Lick

Lick Observatory 1997 June 27

[I also sent a copy of this to our Lick staff contact, with a request that she pass it on to the other volunteers who are on the net.]

I counted 358 curves -- some 20 per mile -- between the start of Mount Hamilton Road, in San Jose, California, and the west terrace of Lick Observatory. I took most of them too fast. Commute traffic is always worse than I anticipate, and I had lost time on the freeways. I did not want to be late for my evening as a volunteer docent at one of Lick's public viewing programs.

Lick had not had public nights for years, but in 1997 they went at it again with a vengeance. One local astronomy club worked with the observatory to provide extra help for taking tickets, guiding people up and down dark stairs, and so on. That organization did not have enough members to cover all the nights completely, so the call went out for more warm bodies. I was one of the lucky ones.

Police officers were on duty to direct traffic, and between them and one of the real Lick staff members, I got to where I was supposed to park. ("There? Down *that* road?!") Lick vehicle traffic is subject to uncommon hazards from low shoulders: If my Geo had gone off the unbarricaded edge, it would have tumbled a thousand feet down the hillside. Then I found my way to the volunteer meeting area, claimed my box lunch, and listened to a briefing on what we were supposed to do. It was short: Nobody knew for sure.

Lick has had some new construction and maintenance lately. The volunteers gathered in a nice, formally landscaped patio and garden court, on east side of the main building. I can remember when that area was a pile of dirt. I believe the improvement was made possible by a donation from a descendent of the Reverend Hamilton for whom the mountain is named: A bronze bust of him sits in a dome-topped alcove off the courtyard. The area was pleasant, but chilly -- "cold" on a mountaintop does not mean as insignificant a thing as "cold" in San Jose, particularly when the wind comes up. Fortunately, I had brought warm clothes.

There was time for a brief tour of facilities before the public started arriving. The area of the 36-inch refractor had also received recent maintenance -- the roof no longer leaks, and the elegant light-toned wooden floor positively gleamed. I'll bet they put basketball hoops up on the walls when the public isn't around. Or maybe they do roller-blading. It's that kind of a floor. But the stairs up and down were narrow and steep, and the safety stanchions were low and flimsy, hence the need for flashlight-equipped guides. We discussed who was to do what, and put up signs as reminders. I was pleased to note that the hand-made "exit only" sign was placed to cover the more permanent one that read "not an exit".

The dome at the other end of the building used to house an elegant 12-inch Clark refractor. That instrument is in storage, and will probably never again see the light of stars. Its place is now occupied by a 40-inch f/17 Cassegrain reflector in a yoke mounting. The new, versatile, telescope is well-equipped with modern controls and instrumentation, and is designed to share many instrument packages with the 120-inch. Thus it is a powerful and highly productive research tool, which the old Clark, for all its brass and elegance, was not. The dome was open, the telescope was cooling, and would we like to look through the eyepiece? Sure. Hey, modern eyepieces! This one is a type well-known to amateur astronomers, a 35 mm Tele Vue Panoptic. How long have they had these? "Since Wednesday." What? Lick has budget for eyepieces? I'm telling the Regents! The joke used to be that Lick could never do public programs because no one could remember who had the eyepiece. But what are we looking at? It's still an hour to sunset! I stepped up for the view -- an odd sensation to be using a 35 mm Panoptic at 500x, it is so well-known as a low-magnification eyepiece on the somewhat smaller telescopes that most amateurs use. And there was Spica, blazing brilliant white against the blue sky of afternoon. Even in daylight, the stars are still there. Already I was glad I had come.

The volunteer program was well-planned in one sense: there were more volunteers than necessary, which is much better than the other way around, as we found later, when some of us had to leave early. I ended up having not much to do for the first hour. The person tending the food and beverage table needed help with the huge coffee urn, so I donned a useful alternate personality ("Thud strong! Thud know A, C, B! Thud can count -- on good days in order!) and carried the vessel off to be filled. Then I spent a while guarding the food -- very difficult because it sure looked good. Presently we rotated jobs, though, and I spent a session shepherding visitors into and out of the 40-inch area.

The Lick facilities share a common failing of nineteenth-century science -- they are not set up for public relations. Getting parties of visitors into the telescope control room, then into the dome, then back to the main level, was an exercise in three-way musical chairs, complicated by the need to create and preserve dark adaptation while seeing to it that nobody fell down stairs. I got plenty of exercise going up and down, and had lots of use for my red flashlight in the dark. I could have used a white one, too, now and then.

Subsequently I rotated to ticket-taking at the entry to the 36-inch. Here I did not have as much bustling around to do, so I could spend time chatting with the folks in line. There were over 200 visitors, so the wait was often long. Future programs might profitably have a volunteer give short, repeated talks at each line. I knew enough history of Lick and of the 36-inch to keep visitors entertained -- I pointed out that the object they were going to see -- the quadruple star epsilon Lyra -- was entirely appropriate to the scientific career of the 36-inch, which had spent much time measuring double stars, and I elaborated on how such measurements led to fundamental astronomical knowledge about the masses of stars.

One young visitor seemed particularly impressed that the body of observatory benefactor James Lick lay entombed in the pier of the great refractor, the more so when I added that his ghost walked the halls of the building late at night, snatching up unwary astronomers to meet a terrible, unknown fate. (I placed my red flashlight beneath my chin, shining upward over my face, as I uttered these baleful words.) His eyes grew rounder and rounder as I remarked that I had let more people into the 36-inch dome than had come out, and how could that be so? But he climbed bravely up the stairs when his turn came. Of such stern stuff are astronomers made. It was ever thus, and I expect the ghost of Lick would have been right there in line for a look through the eyepiece, too. Who knows? Maybe he was.

There were some amateur instruments on-site, too, about three of them. The original setup location was on the south side of the 36-inch dome, rather challenging for the alignment of equatorially mounted units, for Polaris is out of sight there. Strong wind brought chills and jiggles, so we moved them to the court on the east side, but even so, vibration was still a problem. And it was cold, too! Warm hats and jackets were a must for outdoor observers. There was room for lots more than three telescopes, if future programs should find them desirable. I suspect there could have been a dozen. It might be particularly nice to have some small binoculars on tripods, to show guests what could be done with an astronomical instrument that many of them likely already own.

After the guests had left, we got to do a little more viewing ourselves. Epsilon Lyra was indeed fully resolved in the 36-inch, at 316x (55 mm Tele Vue Plossl eyepiece -- another Wednesday purchase), though not particularly well so, for the seeing was not nearly up to the standard required to sustain that instrument's full performance. But it sure was bright, enough so to reveal that the 36-inch has much more chromatic aberration than any other achromat I have ever used. That is not surprising, considering its enormous size. Great refractors are a little like talking dogs -- it's not that they do it well, so much as that they do it at all. We also looked at M57 through the same instrument. Its greenish color was subtly mottled, and the central star popped in and out as seeing permitted. The view was comparable to that I have had in telescopes half the size, in better seeing. Through the 40-inch, M13 was well resolved. The "propeller" dark lanes were dimly visible. Seeing affected this object oddly -- there were not as many stars visible as I have seen in smaller instruments in better conditions, but the background glow was very bright.

We had a final meeting and discussion in the gift shop. By that time, it was past midnight, and though the observatory made good on its offer to let us set up our own telescopes and observe as long as we wished, and though clouds blocking much of the light from the Bay Area made the sky dark and tempting; I declined. The late hour, the cold, and the poor seeing, were too many down checks. Yet nevertheless, the evening at Lick appeared to be an enjoyable experience for all concerned. I was very glad I went, and would be happy to go back.

Jay Reynolds Freeman; last updated: 1997 June 29