University Lowbrow Astronomers

“To The Unmounted Lens” from the Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Continued.

by Liz Calhoun
Printed in Reflections: July, 2010.

(Poem used with permission of the University of California Regents/Lick Observatory.)

[This is a part 2 of a three part article, for part 1 see “To The Unmounted Lens” from the Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Part 1, by Liz Calhoun, May 2010.]

The late 19th century witnessed a dizzying acceleration of U.S. industrialization. Although the nation did not balance its urban and rural populations until a few years into the 20th century, nevertheless, the Industrial Age was starting to overshadow agrarian simplicity by the end of the Civil War.

The Lick Observatory was not simply a good place to observe and catalogue stars and ruminate on the mysteries of the galaxy: it was an important component of the business world of the 1880s. How so? Because the “paying” work of a major observatory was TIMEKEEPING. “The work of astronomers is usually very far removed from what is called practical utility,” states the “Hand Book.” “The American public is highly interested in all scientific results which can be stated in popular form, including those in astronomy, but there is almost only one point where the work of astronomical observatories touches the business interests of communities directly. This point is in the distribution of time by electric signals from an observatory to railroad and telegraph companies, to city and tower clocks, to private business firms and manufacturing and other corporations, for commercial purposes” (Hand Book, p.98)

Therefore, when you read these next two stanzas “To the Unmounted Lens,” try to appreciate the grudging embrace of applied science by sincere spiritual reverence. Not without a fight will the romanticism of religious enthusiasm give way to a world of pistons and boilers and sweep-second-hand sterility. The unmounted lens once established and operating will reveal Heaven and the heavens in their timeless perfection.


O blindfold, O enfettered, now hath Time

Unto its golden fullness come—along

The dim horizon glows the dawn—awake,

O slumber-held; unclose, O wondrous Eye,

A world awaits the breaking of thy sleep.

O bright Evangelist come forth! Earth’s way

Lies lonely thro’ the trackless void; a waste

Of cloud and storm, and darkness vast and deep,

Betwixt her and the stars, and far beyond

The farthest glint of star lies Heaven—so far

We cannot see the road the souls must tread

Who thither go. Perchance that thou mayest span

The gloomy sea, and set the Gates of Death

A little way ajar. Perchance that thou

With cloudless vision slowly sweeping up

The mighty Nave that cleaves the galaxy,

God’s visible Tabernacle in the skies,

Star-built from shining undercroft to dome,

Past pillared pomp of worlds, and columns wrought

With fair entangle of amethyst and pearl,

Thro’ jacinth portals hung with mist of stars,

And fiery fringe of suns—mayest come at last

Even to the Chancel of the Universe;

And so thro’ glories veiled and far, behold

The Choral Stars that sang so loud and sweet

On the first morning when Creation sprang

In dewy beauty from Jehovah’s hand.

Mayhap that thou, with swiftness unconceived,

Wilt overtake the light and see the things

That have been, and that shall be nevermore;

Follow the dying star in her swift flight

Athwart Eternity; track the lost world,

That drifting past our ken, still gleameth fair

Upon the confines of some far off realm;

Perchance the Star which first spake peace to men

Will dawn through thee upon the waiting earth;

And O far-seeing Eye, perchance mayest thou

Reveal the City Beautiful which lies

Foursquare in midst of heaven, whose shining walls

Are of fairer jasper builded and pure gold;

Whose battlements are crystal, and whose ways

Are sapphire-paven, and whose gates are pearl.


Thou answerest not; but this we know—that thou

Wilt life the world one step nearer heaven.

Thou art the topmost pace of that vast stair,

Builded by Titan souls up thro’ the gloom

Of churchly tyranny and priestly scorn;

Still standeth Galileo at the base,

Forever, straining his grand sightless eyes

Towards the light, groping with shackled hands

For the next step, where Newton stands and weighs

The Universe. Slow climbed those God-like souls,

Building this mighty stairway as they went

One step between the cradle and the grave.

Leverrier set this landing, whence he saw

Uranus swerve a hair-breadth from its path,

And cried, “A world! A world! No eye has seen,

Behold ‘tis such a weight. ‘tis such a size!”

And lo! The world is there—and Herschel, this—

Grand, patient Herschel, watching thro’ the years

The rhythmic revolutions of the spheres,

Seeing in the store house of the Infinite,

The star-dust of the uncreated worlds.

[to be continued ... for part 3, See “To The Unmounted Lens” from the Hand-book of the Lick Observatory, Conclusion, by Liz Calhoun, September 2010.]

Images by Elinor Gates & Tony Misch of the Big Snow of 2001.


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