THAT OTHER GUY
(originally run: August 19, 2005)
Last month this author celebrated the ten-year anniversary of his discovery of Comet Hale-Bopp. With that discovery he became the beneficiary of an astronomical tradition that extends back some 250 years, i.e., that of comets being named in honor of their discoverers.
In addition to the comet, this author also has his name on an asteroid within the main asteroid belt. The asteroid Alanhale was discovered by astronomers Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker in 1985, and orbits around the sun every 5.6 years. Toward the end of this year it might become visible in the very largest backyard telescopes.
This author is not the only ³Hale² who has achieved some semblance of recognition within the field of astronomy. In particular, a century ago one of the leading astronomical figures in the world was the scientist George Ellery Hale. Not only did Hale make some important astronomical discoveries of his own, he also made numerous other contributions to the field that continue to affect it even now.
George Ellery Hale was born in Chicago in 1868, and was raised there in a moderately well-to-do family. He first became interested in astronomy during his teens, and in particular became fascinated by the study of the sun. During his early 20s, when he was a student at MIT, he achieved substantial recognition by his invention of a device known as a ³spectroheliograph² an instrument that allows its users to take photographs of the sun's prominences (large loops of gas that are sometimes visible along the sun's ³edge² during solar eclipses) during normal daytime conditions.
In 1892 Hale was awarded a professorship at the newly-established University of Chicago, being given the title ³Professor of Astrophysics² the first time that term had been used. Later that decade he became Director of the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin an institution he played an enormous role in creating. He remained at Yerkes through 1904, but at the end of that year moved to Mount Wilson Observatory north of Los Angeles, California another institution in which he had a substantial hand in developing. He remained at Mount Wilson for the rest of his career, and passed away in 1938.
Among Hale's notable discoveries was the role he played in determining that helium, an element that was initially discovered in the sun's spectrum, also existed on Earth. He also discovered that sunspots are associated with intense magnetic fields, and concluded that sunspots are produced where the sun's magnetic field lines poke through the sun's ³surface.² His study of sunspots also led him to conclude that the ³true² sunspot cycle is actually 22 years, since the magnetic polarity of sunspots reverses after each 11-year ³cycle.²
Hale's other contributions to astronomy include his co-founding, during the mid-1890s, of The Astrophysical Journal, one of the premier astronomical research publications in the world today. Perhaps his strongest contributions, however, stemmed from his desire for ever-larger telescopes, and this, combined with an unusual knack for obtaining funding for such instruments from various private sources, led to the development of several of the largest telescopes in the world during his time.
His first major success in this endeavor came during his Chicago years, when he convinced wealthy Chicago entrepreneur Charles Yerkes to fund construction of what would be the world's largest refracting telescope a telescope that uses a lens as its light-gathering device. The Yerkes refractor, which has a lens 40 inches in diameter, was inaugurated in 1897, and immediately became one of the top research telescopes in the world. Because of weight and support considerations, larger refracting telescopes are impractical to build and operate, and thus the Yerkes telescope remains the largest such instrument in the world today.
Any practical larger telescope must be of the reflecting kind, i.e., employing a mirror as its light-gathering device. With financial help from his family as well as from the Carnegie Foundation, Hale was able to secure funding to develop a 60-inch telescope, which went into operation atop Mount Wilson in 1908. Meanwhile, Hale had already convinced another wealthy entrepreneur, John Hooker in Los Angeles, to fund an even larger telescope, and the 100-inch Hooker telescope went into operation on Mount Wilson in 1917. This instrument, by far the largest in the world at that time, contributed toward many of the fascinating astronomical discoveries of the early 20th Century, including the realization that our galaxy is just one of many in an ever-expanding universe.
Within a few years, however, Hale began to advocate for an even larger telescope. He managed to convince the Rockefeller Foundation to support building a 200-inch telescope, but he passed away ten years before it could be completed. This instrument was eventually built on top of Palomar Mountain in southern California, and was inaugurated in 1948. For the next two decades it reigned as the undisputed largest telescope in the world, and although it is now dwarfed by some of the telescopes that have become operational within the past couple of decades, it continues to perform high-class research. Rather fittingly, it was christened the Hale Telescope in Hale's honor.
In addition to the Palomar telescope, George Ellery Hale has been honored by his own main-belt asteroid, a 25-mile-wide object discovered at Yerkes in 1923 that orbits the sun every 4.8 years; it can currently be detected with large backyard telescopes in the southern sky southeast of Sagittarius during the midnight hours. He also has been honored with his name on a moon crater, an object some 50 miles across near the moon's south pole; and by a crater on Mars, near the northern rim of the Argyre basin in Mars' southern hemisphere. While George Ellery Hale may never have discovered a comet, he did much to ensure that the name ³Hale² is a worthy one to live up to as his namesake, among others, continues the quest to understand our universe.
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