Image Credit: Laurie Hatch
I visited the Lick observatory last week, up in the mountains near San Jose. It is a spectacular place, well worth the “366 curves” required to get there along a windy road. Pictured above is the Great Lick Refractor, which is truly a marvel of engineering. The entire wooden floor of the observatory is an elevator that rises and falls to allow observation of objects at various altitudes night sky.
James Lick, the founder of the observatory. An interesting man as evident by his unique facial hair (out of style, even at the time). He attained his riches through a variety of means, and it’s a fascinating story. He made pianos in South America, imported Ghirardelli chocolate to San Francisco, and sold land to gold prospectors. Towards the end of his life, he gained an interest in Astronomy, and thus we have the observatory which is still used for research to this day. While we were there, Dr. Alex Phillipenko at UC Berkeley was operating one of the telescopes remotely in a search for new supernovae in our galaxy.
What motivated Lick to attain so much wealth? Perhaps the fact that early in his life, the father of the girl he loved disapproved of him due to his poverty. His skill in carpentry eventually led him to manufacture pianos. And thus, we owe an unrequited love story and pianos for the discovery of supernovae thousands of light years away.