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Hubble's other telescope


Isra's throat was raw. Loss and frustration raged inside her like a sandstorm, eroding her from within. She clasped her hands together so she couldn't punch the telescope out of balance. Not that her knuckles stood a chance; the colossus weighed nearly sixty tons. A good part of that weight went to the main mirror with a diameter of 2.2 metres, set in an open tube with a length of 17 metres. That wasn't large; that was insane. Only her father had been convinced that a telescope of this size was possible. He had been ridiculed for it, had been called an idiot. Now the insane feat of human ingenuity bore his name. Fatin was a giant with a frame of steel and a heart of glass. To stand in his shadow made every person feel insignificant.


But even giants could not protect the stars.



WE HAVE STARTED EDITING STERRENDUISTER/STARDARK! I received feedback on my first chapter from my editor and have just incorporated her comments. And it's not too bad, I think. I haven't thrown out or rewritten entire paragraphs yet, and Isra's jargon and number-spitting miraculously survived, too.


Hence the quote above. Isra's telescope, called Fatin, gets its moment to shine in the first chapter. I would normally never cram that many numbers into a single paragraph, but it does fit the character's "voice" very well. But those numbers must make some sense, and I don't know anything about telescopes. What do you do, then? Right, you just look at what the real world has to offer, and steal all the info you can find.


Isra's telescope is a slightly smaller version of an existing telescope: the 100-inch Hooker Telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California. This telescope was built about a century ago, and was for a long time the largest in the world. The knowledge level of Isra's world is also about 100 years lagging behind. Things I learned in high school were state of the art in the scientific world at the time. That really makes doing research a lot easier, haha! The 100-inch telescope is therefore perfect inspiration for the story.


The 100-inch in the name of the telescope refers to the diameter of the mirror: about 2.5 meters. That was quite a challenge to make. The glass of the mirror was full of air bubbles and it was uncertain if the thing would work. Even today, it is still the largest mirror made from a solid piece of glass. Moreover, the telescope is located on a lonely mountaintop near Los Angeles. There is an asphalt road now, but in the early days, you had a dirt path and some help from a mule at most. The longer you think about it, the more incredible the construction of this viewer becomes.


On November 1, 1917 the time had come; construction of the telescope had come to an end. They aimed the thing at Jupiter and... saw a blurry image. Fortunately, the problem was easily solved. Someone had left a hatch open during the day. This allowed warm air to enter, heat up the mirror, and warp its shape. But once the mirror had cooled down again (which takes a while with such a large one) the viewer worked perfectly.


Now comes a name into play you probably know from astronomy. It is easy to forget it is also a person: Hubble. People used to think that the universe pretty much ended at the edges of the Milky Way, but Edwin Hubble discovered with the 100-inch telescope that certain nebulae are actually other galaxies that lie far beyond the borders of the Milky Way. So the universe was much bigger. In addition, Hubble devised a classification system for galaxies and his observations were used as evidence for the expansion of the universe. This man has done enough to deserve a Nobel Prize, but alas, there was no category for astronomy. That's no longer the case today; this branch of science now falls under physics - something Hubble has fought hard for. This changed just after Hubble died, and since the prize is not awarded posthumously, he couldn't be nominated. So a certain space telescope was named after him instead.


Photo: Margaret Bourke-White (time.com)


This is a picture of Edwin Hubble using the 100-inch telescope. There is one detail that stuck with me so much that I put it in my book: the chair. There is this amazingly advanced device right in front of you, but your butt has to do with that simple thing. An ergonomic working environment was clearly not a priority...


In Hubble's time, taking pictures with a telescope - a form of astrophotography - was already well established. The photos were taken on a glass plate and studied later. They showed stars that were invisible to the human eye (even if that eye is looking through a telescope). Isra's world is somewhat lagging behind in that regard, as astrophotography is still in its infancy there. Even so, it's already crucial for the plot... But I'm not going to share that spoiler.


When you think of astronomy you might picture an astronomer who sits alone all night behind a telescope, but there is secretly a whole team behind observations. That was also the case in Hubble's time. Photos and other observations were given to so-called 'computers'. No, those are not PCs; they are people doing calculations. This work was often done by women, as people used to think that the profession was too repetitive and boring for men. The ladies did this for a pittance compared to the men's salaries and were often not even mentioned in the scientific article in which their work was published. Pretty unfair, eh?


Isra's university also uses human computers - and again, it's mostly women, but for a completely different reason. In Isra's homeland, it is believed that women are more suitable for mental work and men for physical work. The scientific community in her country is therefore quite female-dominated. There are always exceptions, of course, like Isra's father. Don't ask me where this whole idea came from. Perhaps I needed to vent some frustration about the unfair treatment of scientific women in our past. Or I've read too much of Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive, where there's a similar difference between gender roles, haha! Anyway, I think the ladies of the Mount Wilson Observatory deserve a mention here. If you want to know more: the website of the observatory has an article dedicated to them. https://www.mtwilson.edu/news/women-scientists-at-mount-wilson-observatory-during-the-early-years-part-one/


The staff - including the human computers - of the Mount Wilson Observatory, which houses the 100-inch Hooker telescope. Source: www.mtwilson.edu


Unfortunately, the 100-inch telescope is very close to Los Angeles. That wasn't much of a problem when that humongous thing was built, but that city has grown considerably in the following years. LA now radiates so much light that the night sky is no longer dark. This is called light pollution. I'm sure I'll write a blog about this, since it has formed Sterrenduister/Stardark. Because of all that light, it is no longer possible to make scientific observations with the 100-inch telescope. Besides, there are now way larger telescopes in use (the largest ones having a diameter of roughly 10 metres). That does mean, however, that the telescope is available to the public! Man, I wish I had known this before I made a trip to LA. I would have loved to see the telescope up close. Maybe I will see it someday in the future...

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