The Truth about Hale’s Visions

It’s been said—and debunked—that the great astronomer George Ellery Hale took guidance from an elf. But he definitely had visions.

After spending the winter of 1903 in a ranching and resort town in Southern California, the Chicago native began to imagine that a city would rise there. He coaxed locals to construct a magnificent civic center and city hall, and Pasadena coalesced around it. He suggested to resident Henry Huntington that he transform his estate into a center for humanities research; as such, it gained world renown.

In an even more improbable feat, Hale convinced leading scientists and philanthropists to put their lives and their life savings behind his idea to transform a Pasadena trade college, Throop Polytechnic Institute, into a great scientific university. Hence Caltech—known ever since for making radical advances in science and engineering— was born.

Hale loved Pasadena especially for one asset: its proximity to Mt. Wilson, a 5,712-foot peak in a range that even wilderness aficionado John Muir found “ruggedly, thornily savage.” Hale climbed Mt. Wilson in 1903 with two fellow astronomers.

There, he saw not a minor mountain, but a portal to the universe.

Hale’s most cherished vision had to do with studying the physical properties of the sun and the stars through a new approach called astrophysics. He wanted to build a great telescope for astrophysics and convinced the Carnegie Foundation of Washington to help him build the world’s largest telescope on the summit of Mt. Wilson. Braces of donkeys and mules carried the telescope up the rocky, nine-mile trail in 150- to 200-pound loads, with no part exceeding eight feet.

Using several instruments that Hale’s team eventually completed on the mountain, astronomers would launch crucial tools for astrophysics, discover the existence of other galaxies, determine the age of the universe, and stun even Einstein with evidence that the cosmos is expanding.

Late in his career, Hale did it again. This time backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, in 1928 he launched the 20-year construction of what would be the world’s largest effective telescope for nearly five decades.

Hale died in 1938. He never had a chance to use the new instrument, the Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory. Owned and operated by Caltech, it has been essential to the work of thousands of astrophysicists who followed Hale, from its first light in 1948 until today. It became an icon, leading discovery until Caltech and the W. M. Keck Foundation built the W. M. Keck Observatory on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea.

To many, Hale’s ideas must have seemed grand or far-fetched. To a crucial few, they were visionary. To this day, Caltech seeks out people who dream, and those who believe in them.

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