Monday, July 25, 2011

Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton in San Jose, California

Reflector Telescope at Lick Observatory

The Lick Observatory is one of the best attractions in San Jose, California and even better, is no cost. It was dedicated in 1888 with a state-of-the-art telescope, furthering man's undaunted quest to understand the solar system and reach for the stars. Every thirty minutes a docent gives a fifteen-minute tour, but viewing everything on the campus will take about two hours. Several telescopes and their associated instruments dot the site, including a Planetary Finder. The Lick Observatory has discovered more planets than any other observatory in the world.

Docent Tour at Lick Observatory

History of James Lick Observatory

The Observatory's founder, James Lick (1796-1876) was the richest man in California during his day. Originally from Pennsylvania, he was a businessman with the foresight to buy real estate in the beautiful western territory around the time of the gold rush in 1849. Lick's holdings escalated in value. He never married, but did father a son through a beloved mistress, and didn't meet the boy until he had grown into a man. Lick was unimpressed by his progeny's laziness, and promptly removed him from his will.

Apparently Lick had other plans for his fortune, namely building a monument to immortalize his success and stature. He entertained the now laughable ideas of erecting a giant Egyptian pyramid in San Francisco or a colossal stature of himself in San Francisco Bay, but eventually was convinced to proceed to a more practical end. He would use his vast resources to build an observatory with the largest, most advanced telescope in the world, and the site for this technological wonder would be Mt. Hamilton, the highest peak of the Diablo Mountain Range and within distant sight of his home in Santa Clara.

Mt. Hamilton View at Lick Observatory

After its completion, he donated the facility to the University of California, and students studying science and astronomy have been interning there ever since. A cluster of buildings house about twenty-five people and at least one dog in this remote setting.

In 1959 the Shane Dome and its 120-inch reflector telescope were installed on the premises, bringing the Observatory once again to the forefront of astronomy and research. The Shane telescope is a scientific marvel as it yields photos and information about distant stars and galaxies in our universe. A self-guided tour in the Shane Dome includes an audiovisual presentation and interpretive displays.

As impressive as Lick's telescopes are, so is the twisty, nineteen-mile road from San Jose to get there, winding through narrow passes and precipices in a steep ascent. Originally the road was the most modern one in the entire State of California, yet it still took seven hours to travel. Today it takes an hour or so, but the views are just as amazing. Visitors should bring food or snacks and have a full tank of gas as there are no facilities on Mt. Hamilton.

Lick Observatory Courtyard

The Lick Observatory is open every afternoon and closes at 5:00 p.m., but those wishing to make the trek are advised to call ahead to (408)274-5061 for current information as it is sometimes closed during the winter. It actually does snow in San Jose! However, the city offers many things to do for visitors, and the Lick Observatory definitely ranks among its top attractions.


The Lick Observatory; San Jose, California

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