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MARGINALIA

In Search of Better Skies: Harvard in Peru I

J. Donald Fernie

Trouble in Paradise

Pickering wasn't keen on a big refractor; photography was becoming the dominant tool of observational astronomy, and it was better served by reflecting telescopes. However, it was agreed that Harvard would send an expedition to test the Wilson's Peak site and share the test results with the public group. The tests showed this peak to be "an astronomer's paradise," as one observer put it, and it seemed that with good will and cooperation, both groups could establish themselves there. But in what seems to have been an absolutely farcical mistake, a Harvard lawyer drew up papers inadvertently referring to Harvard's cooperation with the University of California instead of the University of Southern California, and this reached the Pasadena group before Pickering caught the error. The group was outraged: Harvard was selling them out to their northern rivals! There had been some friction before this, and now the pot boiled over.

Figure 1. Mount Harvard, PeruClick to Enlarge Image

One might think it would have been simple enough to correct this error, but as it turned out the two sides were never reconciled, and in the end, Harvard abandoned its Californian ambitions. There remained an irony or two, however. The Pasadena group proceeded with its 40-inch refractor plans and found enough funding to have such a lens actually cast before the funding collapsed and those plans were also abandoned. Later, a Harvard-trained astronomer, George Ellery Hale, persuaded wealthy businessman Charles Yerkes to buy the unused lens for a new observatory established in Yerkes's name and directed by Hale for the University of Chicago.

Subsequently, Hale, under the aegis of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, established an observatory on Wilson's Peak, now known as Mt. Wilson, which after 1918 included a 100-inch telescope with which the likes of Edwin Hubble and Walter Baade would revolutionize modern astronomy. And later, a Mt. Wilson astronomer, Harlow Shapley, became director of the Harvard College Observatory. So in the end, the Southern Californians got the world's largest telescope, while Harvard found satisfaction in its indirect contributions and connections thereto.




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