Star Struck

Lost amid the packings and re-packings of a life was a picture that I drew in the third grade. My teacher, Mrs. Bacon (seriously), had asked us to draw ourselves as adults in the profession that we most wanted to be.

I drew myself tall and lanky, with long red hair, and glasses (2-for-4 overall, I suppose) standing in the large workplace that I foresaw myself in. Behind me was a massive telescope, tilted up and aimed at the night sky through a vertical slit in a mammoth dome.

I wanted to be an astronomer.

Well, I got the being-a-scientist part science right, but it turns out that my days are spent thinking about the interaction of molecules and not the expanses of galaxies.

So on the day after Thanksgiving, we were looking for something to do that didn’t involve going shopping and so decided to make the drive up to the Mount Palomar Observatory, which is in northern San Diego County.

It’s a pretty drive up into the rolling hills and low mountains of the Palomar range. Each successive road gets a little narrower, a little curvier and a lot steeper.

Looking west

The Observatory sits atop Mt. Palomar (duh) at ~6000 ft elevation. One thing I didn’t recognize is that Palomar is a very active observatory, still making observations on every clear night. The giant Hale telescope, which you can see (but not view through) was the largest telescope in the world until the early 1990s. It took 20 years to build, starting in 1928. Pretty cool.

Palomar Observatory

When I first saw it, I realized that it looked just like the one that I had drawn back in the third grade. That’s pretty wild. I mean, I’m sure that I’d seen it in a book from the library, but it was an odd feeling of deja vu.

It's real big. Real big.

Hale Telescope

The information center/museum has some history of the telescope and many of the important discoveries it has contributed to – including the discovery of nebula that all Golden State residents should be aware of.

Go Golden State!

All in all, it was a great visit and a good way to spend a half-day. The Observatory closes to the public around 3 pm during Standard time and I had to think of the lucky folks that get to come there and work in the night.

And it made me wonder what those astronomers drew themselves as in third grade.


23 thoughts on “Star Struck

      • Is it just me or does the southern part of that nebula seem very overcrowded and overpriced?

        I can’t remember what I wanted to be. I don’t have the luxury of a 3rd grade drawing. My memories of the 3rd grade are rather nebulous, except for one incident, which I won’t bother to go into here.

        I’ve also been to Palomar Observatory. It’s a neat place. Thanks for that trip down memory lane! When people are still making discoveries from home you can see the importance of Palomar Observatory continuing its work.

  1. I loved this post, Steve.
    Many years ago I visited the Kitt Peak Observatory in Tucson. I’ve always wanted to go back, so I loved your pix. Thanks for the memories.
    BTW, you’re observing the micro Universe, so your third grade self wasn’t that far off.

    • Thanks, SS! I had been to the Griffith Observatory in LA a few years ago, but as you can imagine, it’s not much of a high end instrument with all the light and pollution from the city. For some reason, I thought Palomar would be the same, but it’s very much a working installation.

    • Yikes, you’re right; I totally added a second sentence that you’d found it. That was weird. Wishful thinking, I guess. Good post about the moose, by the way.

  2. I’ve always wanted to visit an Observatory!

    That’s cool you knew what you wanted. I never knew what I wanted to be but as a kid, I thought everybody was a musician since everybody played music, duh.

    • Hah! My piano teacher said I should call myself a musician, but — yeah — no.

      I’d always been drawn to science as a youth, so how I ended up was no great surprise. Though I always tested higher on verbal/language skills than math. Go figure.

  3. I’d sure love to see your drawing but these photos, and your trip back, made the trip for me.
    P.S. I have Deja Vu all the time … it was disconcerting at first, now … I smile at it.
    Cheers! And Thanks for your comments on my blog post today about guesting, I’ve followed your included links, too.

  4. I visited the Observatory centuries ago when I was a child, so I barely remember what it was like. I don’t think they’d discovered the California Nebula yet, but I vaguely recall a sense of being overwhelmed. Those tubes and gears were huge!

    I wanted to be a cowboy when I was in the second grade. Then I wanted to become a writer and an artist. I had no sense of the practical back then and still don’t.

  5. Hahaha…..a Starbucks!

    I wanted to be a veterinarian. Instead I work in a lab, married a veterinarian and live in a zoo. Close enough! ;)

    Loved this post!

  6. Cool! In high school, we had a big telescope, etc, observatory in the main building, though it had been there since the building opened some time in the late 1800s, so I assume it was an antique. On certain nights they would allow us up to gaze at the galaxies. I admit that it was awfully hard to tell exactly what I was seeing. I was never destined to be an astronomer!

    • They had an old observatory like that at UNC when I was in grad school. I’m kicking myself that I never tried to get a viewing, because I even knew a couple of astronomy grad students — but when it’s right there you never think of it.

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