From Mule Driver to Astronomer – Milton Humason

I happened upon a great program last night on PBS. It dealt with the building of a succession of larger and larger telescopes in the early twentieth century – primarily with George Ellery Hale’s efforts related to those at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, and later the 100-inch Hooker telescope on Mt. Wilson near Pasadena and the 200-inch one at the Palomar Observatory, which enjoyed a 40+ year reign as the most powerful telescope in the world.

The Palomar Observatory:

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So, what does all this have to do with books, you ask? Isn’t that what this blog is supposed to be about? Well, I’m getting to that… Several years ago, I read a fascinating biography of Edwin Hubble, Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Gale Christianson. You may have heard of the space telescope named after him. I just randomly found that book in a local bookstore, and I was going through my “Astronomy Reading Phase” at the time, AND it was written by a professor at Indiana State University, just over an hour down the road from here. I had to buy it.

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I liked the book for several reasons. First of all, it dealt with one of the momentous scientific discoveries in history. With what we know today, it’s easy to forget that up until Hubble’s time, astronomers thought that the Milky Way galaxy was “pretty much it” as far as the universe was concerned. Sure, there were these troubling, fuzzy nebulae that could be found pretty much anywhere you looked, but those were just pockets of gas, right? Wrong. Hubble discovered that they were other galaxies, just very far away (hmm… that phrase sounds familiar). The size of the known universe, in one giant leap (now there’s another familiar phrase) forward grew beyond comprehension. Add to that another, just as momentous discovery that these distant galaxies were racing away from us, and that the further away they were, the FASTER they were racing away – meaning we live in an expanding universe – and, well, that’s a lot of work for one man’s resume. But it wasn’t just Hubble…

What I primarily enjoyed about the book was that it introduced me (or rather re-introduced me, as I discovered while preparing this post that he was featured in an episode of Carl Sagan’s epic “Cosmos” television series) to Milton Humason. These days, the type of person who kind of drifts through college or early life without a “major” or career choice has become rather cliche, but here’s a guy who worked as a mule driver(!) during the early days of the construction of the observatory on Mt. Wilson – at the time a remote and somewhat primitive, rugged landscape – then later, developing an interest in the science being done there, took a job as a janitor at the observatory, which in turn led him to volunteer to be a night assistant, taking many turns at the telescope.

Humason, it turns out, had a great talent for observation, and became Hubble’s partner in many of his discoveries and work. Hubble usually got the credit, but Humason was an integral part and became a respected astronomer in his own right. Perhaps I was also drawn to Humason because, frankly, I didn’t find Hubble to be a very likable person. An anglophile with an affected British accent who was not shy about inventing bits of personal history designed to heighten his reputation, I knew that if I had known this man in person, I wouldn’t have liked him.

So, a tip of the cap this morning to Milton Humason and to those out there like him. Not everyone finds the career or life path they want early on, and sometimes the career finds you…

Milton Humason:

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