Full-spread publication essay for KNOWLEDGES at Mount Wilson Observatory, 2017.

Quasi-Spirals of Time and Space

For many Mount Wilson Observatory is a singularity, for others it is a multiplicity. 

By Christina Ondrus

Around the churning arms of a spiral galaxy image, I shall postulate Mount Wilson Observatory spins forth sites of ongoing idea [sic star] formation. The central galactic disk glows concentrated with stars, and reproduced reproductions lead us through ultra-mundane or revelatory information, which may or may not be just that.

A flat, rotating disk containing gas, dust, and a central concentration of stars known as “the bulge” comprise the spiral galaxy. Young stars populate the arms and outshine the central disc; the wobbly neon glowing legacy of Mount Wilson Observatory shines brighter than its steady incandescent core. Wordsworth’s child is father to the man. But we are not there yet.

The first encounter shall be the Big Bang as it is theorized, sending us approximately 13.8 billion years ago to a remote past or perhaps a future-present not yet fully perceived. [1] We violently eject in its inconceivable tumult that spews forth that which becomes the matter of the known universe. Massive clouds of primordial elements give way to the matter of stars, galaxies,and eventually, humans. But we are not there, yet again. The next encounter is star formations, nebulae, galaxies, even planets. The burst gradually slows over eons, to dance, float, drift, and coalesce with gravity, lost in a postcoital glow [2] on microwaves of creation, evidence of the ecstasy permeating cosmic time indelibly. 4.5 billions years and we see Earth, the “blue marble” [3]. We are finding our place now, feeling the energy. Are feelings there yet? Let’s look again. We move in three jumps to animate life forms, 3.8 billions years, premature perhaps, but worthwhile in the interest of space. Protozoa, bacteria, simple celled life forms, in huge leaps up to 200,000 years ago and we glimpse ourselves emerging for a mere 0.004% of the Earth’s history. [4] Welcome. Now we can begin.

So much has happened I can’t begin to explain; we can’t catch up without bending back in on ourselves.Theories, misunderstandings, an earth-centered universe to a heliocentric model [5], a flat earth to an orb. . .one-time seemingly sensible nonsense recedes in the quivering light of all-time evolving human consciousness. Ancient humans understood the night sky through acute observation. But we must leave it there and leap forward again, racing the sands of time worn from ancient monuments, funneled into an hourglass of earthbound days.

We are zooming in, closer now to a more recent past that swirls around steady atmospheric conditions over a mountain above Los Angeles [6]. A fantastic tale of ingenuity and perseverance used to build the largest telescopes in the world in during the Twentieth Century of Western Civilization--to capture images of the sun and stars and other celestial objects and data. [7] [8] Glass, steel, rebar, the technology of the emerging railroads used to engineer the most precise equipment to augment the human eye. The dream of completion is to exceed the boundaries of our finite bodies in search of origins and destiny alike.

Finally we must pass through the Hooker 100-inch telescope lens, to glimpse ourselves [9][10]. But how are we to get there? We must leap the hurdles of time and space, backwards through the lens [11] to arrive at the present understanding of the past. A 9,000 pound slab of glass tilted to the sky allows a chance to locate ourselves again, nowhere near a galactic center (as Shapely discovered) but off to its side, the outskirts or suburbs as it’s playfully called, of our cosmic neighborhood. There we are. Here we are. . . gradually moving with Hubble’s measured expansion rate. [12] [13]


[1] Big Bang: Timeline of the metric expansion of space, where space (including hypothetical non-observable portions of the universe) is represented at each time by the circular sections. On the left, the dramatic expansion occurs in the inflationary epoch; and at the center, the expansion accelerates (artist's concept; not to scale). - NASA/WMAP Science Team. [public domain]

[2] Nine Year Microwave Sky: The detailed, all-sky picture of the infant universe created from nine years of WMAP data. The image reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the seeds that grew to become the galaxies. [9 year WMAP image of background cosmic radiation (2012) Credit: NASA / WMAP Science Team WMAP # 121238.] [public domain]

[3] "The Blue Marble" is a famous photograph of the Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft en route to the Moon at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres (18,000 mi). It shows Africa, Antarctica, and the Arabian Peninsula. [public domain]

[4] The history of life on Earth began about 3.8 billion years ago, initially with single-celled prokaryotic cells, such as bacteria. Multicellular life evolved over a billion years later and it's only in the last 570 million years that the kind of life forms we are familiar with began to evolve, starting with arthropods, followed by fish 530 million years ago (Ma), land plants 475Ma and forests 385Ma. Mammals didn't evolve until 200Ma and our own species, Homo sapiens, only 200,000 years ago. So humans have been around for a mere 0.004% of the Earth's history. [BBC, History of Life]

[5] Heliocentric model from Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). [public domain]

[6] Mount Wilson Observatory (MWO) is an astronomical observatory located on Mount Wilson, a 5,715-foot peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles, CA.

[7] Image of sun from Mount Wilson Observatory’s Snow Solar Telescope.

[8]  Solar observing lesson from MWO 150 Solar Tower: the white disc is a live image of the sun, the small silver pellet represents Earth, the tiger-eye marble represents Jupiter, and the card displays an image of the largest sunspot ever observed at Mount Wilson Observatory.

[9] MWO 100-inch Hooker Telescope Dome (exterior).

[10] MWO 100-inch Hooker Telescope.

[11] View looking up into the bottom of the glass lens of the 100-inch Hooker Telescope.

[12] A locker used by Hubble at MWO.

[13] VAR! plate reproduction image presented for educational purposes inside 100-inch Hooker Telescope, of Andromeda Galaxy (Messier 31) which led to Hubble's discovery of the first Cepheid variable star in M31, establishing that M31 was a separate galaxy from our own.

*Photos by Christina Ondrus, except where noted otherwise.