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Monday, July 04, 2005 | Never ask astronomers to estimate the public’s interest in astronomy, because they will never get it right.

On June 25, Mike and I went to the first-ever open house at the Hale Observatory on Mount Palomar, which included guided tours around the telescope.

Like most folks, Mike and I share a strong interest in astronomy. In fact, we met during an informal astronomy quiz game at a party in San Diego. Between us, we were able to answer every question on the quiz. Versions still vary as to which of us provided the majority of the correct answers. As to myself, I know which of us it was. [“So do I,” says Mike.]

The advance press release about the Palomar open house said they expected about 300 visitors. We suspected that their estimate was way off when we left Highway 76 and turned onto the steep and curvy S-6, the “Highway to the Stars.” We found that we were in a line of cars, all going in the same direction. How many other attractions can there be on top of a mountain that features only a cattle range and a really big telescope?

Of course, the main guest parking lot was completely full. But being fearless when it comes to parallel parking, I squeezed our car into a small space along the road.

We trekked up the rest of the hill and past “cow crossing” signs. We didn’t cross any cows, but we sure encountered a lot of people. And far more were walking toward the telescope than were coming back down the hill. When we saw the long line, we realized that we should have gotten an earlier start on this. We waited for about an hour and a half in line. You can be sure that neither of us would ever do that for anything except astronomy.

While in line, with no other entertainment available, I took an interest in the conversations going on around us.

A father was explaining to his kids about the difference between a planet and a moon: “You’ve got your general contractor, that’s the Earth. Then you’ve got your sub-contractor, that’s the moon.” Obviously, the guy still had his mind on his day job.

A young boy from Anaheim, who looked to be about 10 years old, knew all about the Cassini mission and the doings of the Huygens probe on Titan. He wants to be an astronaut someday. I think he probably will.

An elderly man talked about how he had been a student at Cal Tech when the Palomar telescope’s mirror was being polished for weeks. He would go into the shop and watch the process. He said that the surface accuracy of the mirror is less than the wavelength of visible light.

Our guide for the tour was Hal Petrie, an engineer. He first commented that the telescope was built in the 1930s “using battleship technology,” and it even has the same shade of battleship haze-gray paint. Maybe they were trying to hide it in the mountain mists?

Hal said that the moving part of the telescope weighs 540 tons. It moves on a bearing that is so frictionless, and its balance is so exact, that if you tied a quart of milk to one side of it, the massive thing would begin to turn due to that tiny imbalance.

Mike asked Hal if the integration of cutting-edge technology such as digital infra-red imaging, and adaptive optics are allowing the telescope to keep up with the increasing light pollution of the sky. Hal sadly said, “No, that’s a battle that we’re slowly losing.” Each of us can help by turning off outside lights at night. Every stray photon that we can eliminate helps.

Hal gave us a lot of other fascinating information, which you can find out more about at http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/. But when I asked him how many people had visited the telescope so far that day, Hal didn’t have the slightest idea, except that it was “a lot.” Is “a lot” a new astronomical unit?

Having finished our tour, we bought a few things in the gift shop. We struck up a conversation with the “Friends of Palomar Observatory,” a club that sponsors special events at the observatory. They also have a newsletter called “The Big Eye.” You can check out their Web site at http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomarnew/friends/. Mike and I are joining it.

According to the observatory staff the next day, there were over 3,000 visitors at Palomar’s open house.

I have a suggestion: Next time Palomar Observatory has an open house and needs to know the number of visitors to expect, they should take their house astronomer’s estimate and multiply it by a factor of 10. That should be about right.

Mike and Ramona Byron are writing a regular column about people, issues and events in North County. Voice welcomes all perspectives from different parts of the region.

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