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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Observing the Stars

“It must have been nothing; a small light reflection that startled me [...] It makes me realize how desperately alone the earth is.”

A strong theme in Teenagers from Outer Space is that of space travel and exploration. Though stilted, the dialogue between the two astronomers at the very beginning of the film reflects a deep-seated need for humanity to know more about what lies beyond our planet and solar system; to know whether or not we’re truly alone in the universe.

That Graeff chose astronomers to discover the alien spacecraft and not necking teens as in The Blob (1958) shows a commitment to addressing the alien landing as a realistic threat, rather than a cartoonish shock-fest like most other science fiction films of that era. Taking a page from The Day the Earth Stood Still's book, Graeff suggests with his film that our actions and our way of life could be of consequence to possible “others” beyond ourselves, and also addresses the fact that these others could be as careless about our culture as we are about each others’.

And whether by chance, coincidence, or necessity, the observatory Graeff chose to include in his film is as steeped in history as the questions that we’ve asked ourselves since the dawn of man.

The Mount Wilson Observatory, located on Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains near Pasadena, has been an important fixture in the astronomical world for over 100 years, since its groundbreaking in 1905. It was the second great observatory in California, and one of the premiere research facilities in the world. For forty years the observatory boasted the world’s two largest telescopes, first the 60 inch Hale telescope (carved in 1896 as a present to pre-eminent scientist George Ellery Hale, who founded the Observatory) and later the 100 inch John D. Hooker telescope.The Mount Wilson 60 inch telescope, circa 1957.

While three solar tower telescopes round out the facility, it’s the Hooker telescope that’s made history. Edwin Hubble, whom George Hale had hired as a young man, used it in his discovery of the expanding universe. According to the observatory’s official websites, other great discoveries made there include:
  • sun is not at the center of the Milky Way galaxy
  • proof that countless galaxies exist in addition to the Milky Way
  • existence of the magnetic field of the sun and its key role in solar activity
  • recession of the galaxies indicating the Big Bang origin of the Universe
  • existence of populations of stars of various ages in our galaxy
For many years, the 60 inch telescope has been open to the public in an effort to bring interest to the subject of astronomy, which the Mount Wilson facility promotes by alliances with nearby major universities including UC Berkeley, USC and UCLA. Tours of the facility are given daily.

One of the perks of the observatory’s location is its non-varied weather conditions, which allowed for the scientists at Mount Wilson to use interferometry to heighten the results of their research. In layman’s terms, interferometry is: “the use of multiple viewing points to increase resolution enough to allow for the direct measurement of the size of details.” 1

“superposing (interfering) two or more waves, which creates an output wave different from the input waves; this in turn can be used to explore the differences between the input waves. Because interference is a very general phenomenon with waves, interferometry can be applied to a wide variety of fields, including astronomy, fiber optics, optical metrology, oceanography and various studies of quantum mechanics”2
Interferometry is important to the study of astronomy as it measure the correct diameter of stars, which appear larger in telescopes than their actual size in space.

Mount Wilson as seen in Teenagers from Outer Space. The shot used in the film is actually a stock photo from the observatory.
In 1919, researcher Albert Abraham Michelson, most well known for his experiment disproving the ether as a fifth element through which light travels, and his partner Francis G. Pease used the telescopes at Mount Wilson to measure the diameters of distant stars, and were the first scientists to measure a star other than the sun. Their work also marked the first time an interferometer was used in astronomical research.

In light of this wealth of history, Graeff's inclusion of this well-known academic facility, instead of a more famous Hollywood landmark like Griffith Park Observatory cements the very real notion that anything could be out there, if we keep looking.

As for whether we'll ever meet our long lost friends, enemies, or maker in the sky,

"We can only wait and wonder. Wonder how. Wonder when."
  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Wilson_Observatory
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_astronomical_interferometry
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interferometry

  1. http://www.mtwilson.edu/ - Mount Wilson Observatory, Official site.
  2. http://www.cr.nps.gov/history/online_books/butowsky5/astro4d.htm National Parks & Services

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