Los Angeles has plenty of landmarks: the Capitol Records building, Graumann's Chinese Theater, and of course, the famous Hollywood sign. But as a wildfire raged through the national forest over the last few days, the flames threatened a lesser known bit of local history: the Mount Wilson Observatory.
For those who aren't familiar with Mount Wilson, this is the place where astronomer Edwin Hubble made his momentous discovery that the universe was expanding, using the 100-inch "Hooker telescope." That observation, combined with Einstein's theory of general relativity, changed the way we view our universe, from static and unchanging to dynamic and constantly evolving.
There are personal stories associated with the observatory as well. Hubble was assisted in collecting the spectrograph images of galaxies he used to make his conclusion by one Milton Humason -- a former janitor who married the boss's daughter and eventually found himself promoted to staff scientist, earning a small footnote in astronomy history books. (You can read more about him here.) That's the stuff movies are made of.
"You'd think the place and instrument that so fundamentally altered our notions about ourselves and our relation to the cosmos would be a place of pilgrimage. But for some reason we don't really turn the sites of our great intellectual realizations... into shrines the way we do with other historical venues.... Perhaps it's simply the nature of science and those who pursue it to keep their eyes fixed on the forward horizon...."
Sometimes a landmark becomes so familiar that we start to take it for granted -- until that landmark is threatened with destruction. People all over the world tuned in to the observatory's live Webcam feed, giving it record-breaking traffic for the first time in years. The feed went down sometime yesterday morning due to technical difficulties, but as of this writing, firefighters have beaten back the flames. Mount Wilson is safe. For now.
The Station Fire, as it has come be known, is already one for the record books, eclipsing the devastation wrought on the national forest the last time it burned so thoroughly, in 1897. But at least it reminded us of the value of a piece of science history.