University Lowbrow Astronomers

“To The Unmounted Lens” from the Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Part 1.

by Liz Calhoun
Printed in Reflections: May, 2010.

Last August we Lowbrows enjoyed an inspiring presentation by Sandra Macika of the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club on historic Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, within sight of San Jose and San Francisco, California. To be honest, I’d never really heard of Lick Observatory... in fact I would consider myself to have been pretty “observatory-ignorant” until Ms. Macika’s presentation sounded a profound note in my romantic soul. I realized that there is an untapped reservoir of serious investigation into the history of astronomical observation and research in the United States! Not just that what/when, but also the cultural implications of observatories. WHAT did people think of these monuments? Boon, or silly waste of money and time? Was there a 19th century “space race”?

My interest piqued, I resorted to that institution with which I’ve been familiar since July of 1984, the mighty University of Michigan library system. Quickly I found a venerable tome that resonated with that echoing romantic note so recently plucked: “Hand-Book of the Lick Observatory of the University of California,” by Edward S. Holden, director. Published in San Francisco and copyright the author in 1888, this humble visitors’ guide offers 125 pages of text, five of index, and several of engraved advertisements, including one for transportation to Lick Observatory care of the Southern Pacific Railroad (from “S.F.” and including Stage, $5.50 round trip), a laundry service catering to tourists, and even a proud statement of the Union Iron Works, “Builders of the great dome and elevating floor for the Lick Observatory” (and “Now building for the U.S. Navy the Cruisers “Charleston” and “San Francisco”).

But the centerpiece of the guide for me was the heroic composition in open rhyme, “The Unmounted Lens of the Great Telescope at Mount Hamilton,” by “A.V.G.” I was completely surprised by the inclusion of this magnificent seven stanza poem to a chunk of glass! But there’s the lesson for us all: that we moderns take for granted Hubble deep-field images, easy access to any number of maps of our galaxy, and affordable off-the-shelf wide-field eyepieces—not to mention iPhone apps and Go-To’s. In the Golden Age of Observatories the advent of a new telescope that could see farther and in better focus than anything preceding it had the potential of empowering its operator to be a voyeur at the keyhole of Heaven itself. These days we’ve brought the stars in closer, but maybe diminished our own stature proportionately.

As noted, the poem is seven stanzas long, of varying lines per stanza. For the next few issues of Reflections/Refractions I’ll present two stanzas, introduced with some illustrative commentary to set the context of the composition.

I wish to thank the generosity of the University of California and our colleagues in the Astronomy Department there who have allowed me to state that this poem is used with permission of the University of California Regents/Lick Observatory.

This first stanza opens with our hero sleeping until summoned forth when the final construction of the mount is completed. The imagery refers very specifically to New Testament scenes, specifically Lazarus; but the constructions are a bit jarring: “awful splendors” and “intolerable light” awaits the hero, the mighty Eye. What grand expectations lie ahead? Will its Doom be glory, or ... ?!

I.

Mysterious Eye, dim shrouded from the light,

Bound with dark bands like Lazarus in his tomb,

Shut in by muffled doors from sight and sound

Of the world’s outer life, soft speech of men,

And neigh of steed, and tramp of busy feet;

No sound about thee save the sullen wind

That moans and raves around thy mountain crypt;

No light save thine own inward radiance

That links thee with the space-embosomed stars:

Close-lidded sleep’st thou in thine inner court

Of dark and silence the while men do forge

With bolt and rivet and strong bands of steel,

The mighty orbit for thy wondrous sphere.

Know’st thou thy power? Dost feel thy destiny?

Beneath these grave-like cerements thrill’st thou not

Thro’all thy bright circumference with dim

Prophetic visionings of the Abyss

That from gray evening till the purple dawn,

From dawn until the evening gray, will smite thee

With awful splendors of uncounted suns?

O mighty Eye! Say what wilt thou reveal,

When from the tomb men Christ-like bid thee forth,

Unbind thy bands, and set thee like a star

Upon Earth’s grave and cloud-encircled brow,

Eye unto eye with heaven’s dread mystery,

Lidless against intolerable light?

[to be continued ..., for part 2, See “To The Unmounted Lens” from the Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Continued, by Liz Calhoun, July 2010.]

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This page originally appeared in Reflections of the University Lowbrow Astronomers (the club newsletter).
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