$840,000 bequest of W.J. McDonald of Paris resulted in McDonald Observatory -- dedicated 75 years ago today
Paris was part of a statewide celebratory tour that marked Monday as the 75th anniversary of the dedication of McDonald Observatory in the mountains of West Texas.
Friday, one day after a celebration at the Perot Museum in Dallas, McDonald Observatory director Dr. David Lambert was the guest of the Paris Rotary Club.
“I hardly need to tell you folks in Paris that W.J. McDonald is the origin of our McDonald Observatory,” Lambert, 75, said at the start of a 45-minute talk about the observatory and its history.
William Johnson McDonald organized and opened the First National Bank of Paris in 1886 on the northwest corner of the plaza in downtown Paris.
Upon McDonald’s death in 1926 at the age of 82, the longtime bank president, a bachelor, left $840,000 – the bulk of his estate – to the University of Texas “to be used and devoted for the purpose of aiding and erecting and equipping an astronomical observatory.”
The Paris Texas Exes joined with the Rotary Club to bring Lambert to Paris.
Brandon Hoog, a member of the Paris chapter of University of Texas alumni, introduced Joel Barna, development manager for McDonald Observatory and the UT astronomy department, who then introduced Lambert.
“Last summer or early fall, Mr. Barna reached out to us,” Hoog said, and said a Texas tour was being planned for the 75th anniversary of the observatory’s dedication on May 5, 1939, “and we would be remiss if we didn’t do something in Paris.”
“I’ll admit I didn’t know this. Mr. Barna reminded us of that fact, and so we celebrate the family and the observatory. So we’re very happy to be partnering in this event,” Hoog said.
Barna has been with the observatory since 1996. Lambert, an Oxford graduate and himself a renowned astronomer, became director of the McDonald Observatory in 2003.
As director of McDonald Observatory, Lambert has led the efforts to design, fund and build the revolutionary Hobby-Eberle Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX), now under construction at the observatory in the Davis Mountains, halfway between Odessa and El Paso.
Lambert titled his talk, “The W.J. McDonald Observatory – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.
Harry Yandell Benedict, the UT president at the time of McDonald’s $840,000 bequest, had an astronomy degree, “so he knew where the astronomers were around the country, and he identified a possibility of collaboration with the University of Chicago,” Lambert said.
“The University of Chicago had their opposite problem – they had lots of astronomers but essentially no telescopes, no observatory. And knowing of UT’s money, they had looked for a site for a telescope around Lubbock and other places.”
With McDonald’s $840,000 was built an 82-inch reflector that was the second-largest telescope in the world at the time of its May 5, 1939, dedication – smaller only than a 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson outside of Los Angeles.
“This was not a campus telescope, a small size just for students to use. It was a major research facility,” Lambert said.
“Bearing in mind that the 100-inch was the largest telescope, there was a competition between what you could do with the two telescopes,” he added.
Edwin Hubble (who was among those attending the May 5, 1939 dedication) had a major say in what happened to the 100-inch, and he chose to direct his work and that of many colleagues on the galaxies. The expansion of the universe had been discovered by him in 1922.
Otto Struve, who came from a long line of Russian astronomers, was the first director of the McDonald Observatory, going there from the University of Chicago.
“Struve chose to direct research on the 82-inch primarily into the puzzles involving stars, such as their structure, formation and evolution, about which very little was known in the 1930s,” Lambert said.
UT’s 30-year agreement with the University of Chicago ended in 1962, and UT assumed sole control of the 82-inch on Sept. 1, 1963 – “so in a sense, we are celebrating not only 75 years, we’re also celebrating 50 years,” Lambert said.
With NASA, the National Science Foundation and the State of Texas providing funding, a 107-inch telescope, then the third-largest in the world, was completed in 1968 atop Mount Locke in the Davis Mountains with substantial NASA assistance.
“NASA was primarily interested in the telescope for a program of lunar laser ranging, firing a laser from the telescope,” Lambert said.
Three of the Apollo astronaut crews left small reflectors on the moon.
“The laser was directed at the reflectors one at a time, and a little bit of light hit the reflector, and a little bit of that light was reflected back into the 107 inch, so you could measure instantaneously the round-trip travel time from the McDonald Observatory to the moon and back,” Lambert said.
“Among many other things, that provided a novel test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and much information about the orbit of the moon.”
In recent years, telescopes have gotten bigger and bigger, so big that they are now measured in meters rather than inches. The largest, the $1 billion Giant Magellan Telescope, is under construction on an 8,000-foot mountain in the Atacama Desert in the Andes foothills in Chile. It is the size of a basketball court and is housed in a building about the height of the UT Tower in Austin.
The McDonald Observatory’s response to remain competitive was to build the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), named for former Texas Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and Robert Eberly, who was a benefactor at Penn State.
“It has an 11-meter primary mirror, 433 inches or about 36 feet across – which is, I suppose, about half the size of this room,” Lambert said, waving a hand around the PJC ballroom.
“The remarkable thing about recent discoveries (by telescope),” Lambert said, “is that people had assumed that if there were stars with planets around them elsewhere in the solar system, they would be like our solar system. The first few planets near the star would be rocky planets – like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. And then further out, you’d get gassy planets, like Jupiter and Saturn. And secondly, these planets would all be in the same orbit, like looking at a CD disk seen edge on,” Lambert said.
“Well, Discovery No. 1 was that external solar system planetary systems have hot Jupiters. Not predicted. Nothing like our solar system,” he added.
“At McDonald’s, by combining measurements made with the Hobby-Eberly Telescope and with the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers discovered that in one system, two of the major planets had orbits that are tilted at about 30 degrees – not in the same plane like our solar system. The orbits are tilted, and that was a shock to the theoreticians who had been worrying about planets going around stars.”
Heretofore, astronomy has focused on “normal material,” which is how Earth and other planets making up our solar system are classified.
That makes up only 4 percent of the energy mass balance of the universe, he said.
Then there is “dark matter,” which has a gravitational influence and makes up 23 percent of the universe, and astronomers know only very little about that, he said.
“And then, there’s the anti-gravity which is given the more polite name of “dark energy,” which makes up 73 percent that we really know nothing about.
“Imagine if at the end of a semester, you go up to the professor and say, ‘Well, I know a lot about 4 percent of the syllabus. I know a little bit about another 23 percent. What grade am I going to get?’ And then the professor says, ‘What do you know about 73 percent of the syllabus?’ and you have to say, ‘Nothing.’ That is the position where astronomy is now. We’ve been using telescopes since Galileo in 1509, and we’ve ended up knowing virtually nothing about 73 percent of the contents of the universe at the present time,” Lambert said.
“Now, you can think of that as a tremendous embarrassment, or you can think of it as a tremendous opportunity. The Dark Energy Experiment we’re doing (at McDonald Observatory) takes a view that this is an opportunity.”
He finished with a poem, “The Star Splitter,” by Robert Frost: “The strongest thing that’s given us to see with is a telescope. Someone in every town seems to me owes it to the town to keep one.”
Lambert concluded: “That’s the spirit that W.J. McDonald must have had when he decided to leave his estate to the University of Texas, and we have benefited from it for 75 years.”
By Charles Richards, eParisExtra