Pilgrimage: [noun]

1 : a journey of a pilgrim; especially : one to a shrine or a sacred place
2 : the course of life on earth

It’s been a long time since I’ve been up to the top of Mount Hamilton, just East of San Jose, CA. I’m not sure when the last time was, but I don’t think that I’ve been there since I graduated from High School in 1979, and probably not since I was a Sophomore, so we’ll call it about 30 years. I grew up in San Jose, and I haven’t moved far. I lived for a while in other cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, but never beyond that. Now, I’m living and working in Gilroy, which is just South of San Jose.

On top of Mount Hamilton sits James Lick Observatory. Lick was built between 1880 and 1888 as a result of a bequest by James Lick, a wealthy but somewhat eccentric millionaire. Nearing death, Lick had planned on building a pyramid bigger than the pyramid of Cheops as his tomb in the middle of the city of San Francisco. However, he was talked out of the idea, and instead gave a large sum of money to build a telescope “superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made.” It was not until 1888, 12 years after his death, that his dream became a reality. Read this link for a more complete history of the background and construction of the observatory.

Lick Observatory was the first permanently occupied observatory to be built on a mountain top… something that is taken for granted today. Before Lick, observatories were built where the astronomers were… at universities which were invariably in cities. However, the Board of Trust which was charged with carrying out his wishes did its homework. The board sent emissaries around the world to talk to the leading astronomers of the day, asking them what they would do if they could build a telescope any way that they wanted. The resulting information was used by the board to plan and build Lick Observatory. The result is that Lick was the largest refractor for 9 years, and even after it was overtaken in size by the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes, because it was built on a mountaintop, it was able to produce better images.

There were (and continue to be) many discoveries made at Lick. Some of them are:

  • Several moons of Jupiter
    • Amalthea
    • Ananke
    • Elara
    • Himalia
    • Lysithea
    • Sinope (disputed)
  • Several extrasolar planets
    • Triple planet systems
      • Upsilon Andromedae (with Whipple Observatory)
      • 55 Cancri
    • Double planet systems
      • HD38529 (with Keck Observatory)
      • HD12661 (with Keck)
      • GJ876 (with Keck)
      • 47 Ursae Majoris
  • Near-Earth asteroid (29075) 1950 DA

So, by now you should have gotten the point: Lick observatory is A) historic and B) close. Since it is in fact a university observatory, there is not a lot of opportunity for the general public to go and look through its telescopes. Three or four weekends per year, the observatory hosts it’s “Summer Visitors Program” where the general public is invited up the long, winding road to hear a talk on the history of Lick (both the observatory and the man) as well as a brief peek through two of their telescopes: The 36-inch Great Refractor, and the Anna Nickel 1-meter reflector.

Tickets are offered through a lottery program, so it’s not first-come first-served. I managed to get tickets for the 7/20 program. If you don’t recognize that date, it was the 38th anniversary of Apollo 11’s moon landing. So the astronomy talk was all about the moon, the manned mission there, and the experiment in which a laser (fired from Lick!) was bounced off of the retro-reflectors placed on the moon, and then received again in the Shane 3-meter telescope. For the first time, the distance between the moon and and the earth was precisely measured by laser. In the process, they also measured the precise distance between the moon and the parking lot, but that’s a story for another time.

There were also a large contingent of amateurs with telescopes set up behind the observatory, and I recognized a few of them, and it appeared that they were doing a brisk business. With 200 people in line and only two telescopes, the wait to get in and look through the big scopes was long.

By far the most profound moment came when we were exiting the observing platform of the 36-inch. We were directed to look off to the right, and we saw…

James Lick’s body lies buried at the base of the pillar of the 36-inch mount.

[Image Credit: Rochester Astronomy Club]

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