August 18


Two entries resulting from my reading of Carl Sagan's splendid "Cosmos" - you can find the other on August 23 in this blog. On this date, Milton Humason (born Dodge Center, Minnesota, August 18th 1891) the mule-skinner who took the equipment up Mount Wilson and turned into Edwin Hubble's chief assistant, a story which may be about the total randomness and arbitrariness of the most important moments of history, or it may just be another tale about what some men will do for sex; I will leave you to decide that for yourself.

"During the early years of the 20th century," Sagan recounts, "the world's largest telescope, destined to discover the red shift of remote galaxies" - and to miss the discovery of Pluto by just a fraction of a millimeter, though that is the equivalent of about a billion miles in real space - "was being built on Mount Wilson, overlooking what were then the clear skies of Los Angeles. Large pieces of the telescope had to be hauled to the top of the mountain, a job for mule teams. A young mule skinner named Milton Humason helped to transport mechanical and optical equipment, scientists, engineers and dignitaries up the mountain. Humason would lead the column of mules on horseback, his white terrier standing just behind the saddle, its front paws on Humason's shoulders. He was a tobacco-chewing roustabout, a superb gambler and pool player and what was then called a ladies' man. In his formal education, he had never gone beyond the eighth grade. But he was bright and curious and naturally inquisitive about the equipment he had laboriously carted to the heights. Humason was keeping company with the daughter of one of the observatory engineers, a man who harbored reservations about his daughter seeing a young man who had no higher ambition than to be a mule skinner. So Humason took odd jobs at the observatory – electrician's assistant, janitor, swabbing the floors of the telescope he had helped to build. One evening, so the story goes, the night telescope assistant fell ill and Humason was asked if he might fill in. He displayed such skill and care with the instruments that he soon became a permanent telescope operator and observing aide.

"After World War 1, there came to Mount Wilson the soon-to-be-famous Edwin Hubble – brilliant, polished, gregarious outside the astronomical community, with an English accent acquired during a single year as Rhodes scholar at Oxford. It was Hubble who provided the final demonstration that the spiral nebulae were in fact 'island universes', distant aggregations of enormous numbers of stars, like our own Milky Way Galaxy; he had figured out the stellar standard candle required to measure the distances to the galaxies. Hubble and Humason hit it off splendidly, a perhaps unlikely pair who worked together at the telescope harmoniously. Following a lead by the astronomer V.M. Slipher at Lowell Observatory, they began measuring the spectra of distant galaxies. It soon became clear that Humason was better able to obtain high-quality spectra of distant galaxies than any professional astronomer in the world. He became a full staff member of the Mount Wilson Observatory, learned many of the scientific underpinnings of his work and died rich in the respect of the astronomical community."

Or maybe it's just one more instance of the ways in which a school education can be very useful, if you happen to be that way inclined, but by no means essential; the list of high-school dropouts who became billionaire entrepreneurs and inventors is lengthy, Einstein's personal history is illustrative, and the quality of Humason's writing, as well as his scientific understanding, despite leaving school aged fourteen, is demonstrable by his paper on "The Large Radial Velocity of N. G. C. 7619", which you can read on the NASA website by clicking here

As someone who attended school all the way to a Master's Degree and a teacher's certificate beyond that, but who never had a science lesson in his life, I do not know which of these two categories I fit into (though I do know that my English teachers would all have criticised my placement of a preposition at the end of that last sentence!). I missed out on the third element as well, the one that scientists are famous for asperging and nerding, the real point of school I suspect, and the only one left as we enter an age in which technology renders schools obsolete for any other purpose: the skills of "learning how to make friends" and "how be a gregarious social creature". Hubble was an expert in these; Humason a total failure. But my point is that, even with those years of formal education, and forty years since of trying to catch up the parts I missed, I can still tell you, without fear of contradiction, that I have read Humason's paper, twice, and I still do not understand a significant word of it, though I think this is the paper in which you will find the first "proof" of the Big Bang. 

You can watch a much fuller TV version of this section of Sagan's book, complete with footage of the telescope in operation, and a splendid actor's imitation of Humason being both brilliant and socially inept, by clicking here.

Amber pages

Max Factor Jr, born today in 1904. Son of Max Factor Sr, obviously, though really Max Factor Sr was Maksymilian Faktorowicz, which name he had when he grew up in the little town of ZduƄska Wola in Poland, just like my great-grandparents - and yes, he was family; and yes, his half-brother was Al Capone's chief money-launderer, John Factor, alias "Jake the Barber"... but this is in amber, so it will have to wait.

Roman Polanski, movie director, born today in 1933, and isn't it weirdly coincidental that "Lolita", Vladimir Nabokov's novel about a man emotionally troubled by a thirteen year old girl, should have been published, in the United States, today in 1958

Ghengis Khan, Mongol conqueror, died today in 1227

The city of Reykjavik, in Iceland, founded today in 1786

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