Who’s the most important astronomer of the 20th century? Many astronomy aficionados would quickly reply with the name Edwin Hubble, who proved the existence of external galaxies and later discovered the expansion of the universe. These two profound discoveries — among the greatest in the history of science — led to our modern conception of cosmology. But I would submit the name of the astronomer who built the telescopes that made those discoveries possible: George Ellery Hale.
Film producers Todd and Robin Mason recount Hale’s remarkable life story, including his struggle with mental illness, in an extraordinary television documentary, The Journey to Palomar, which will air on public television beginning November 10th. (Check your local listings for the precise dates and times.) They also tell part of the story in the December 2008 issue of Sky & Telescope. Click below for:
Hale is hardly a household name today. But in the early 1900s he and his telescopes made newspaper headlines around the world. Hale holds the singular distinction of overseeing the construction of the largest operational telescope four times! His talent for extracting large sums of money from captains of industry provided the resources and impetus to build the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin (still the world’s largest refractor), and later the 60- and 100-inch reflectors at Mount Wilson in California.
Unfortunately, Hale did not live long enough to see the commissioning of his greatest achievement: the 200-inch reflector on Palomar Mountain in California, which saw first light in 1948, and which bears his name. But Hale’s dedication and incredible persistence ushered in the modern era of astronomy. Without Hale and his construction of the world’s first truly large telescopes, astronomy might be decades behind where it is today.