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Gabriel Rotello Headshot

Saving Mount Wilson

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A couple of years ago I was hired to write a screenplay about Edwin Hubble and his assistant Milton Humason, who between them revolutionized humankind's view of the universe.

Working from the Mt. Wilson observatory that looms in the distance over Los Angeles, they discovered that the blurry patches of light called nebulae were not mere gas clouds within the Milky Way, as long supposed, but galaxies in their own right. That discovery vastly increased the size of the known universe, but Hubble and Humason didn't stop there. They went on to discover that these new-found galaxies were moving away from each other, and that the further away they were, the faster they were moving.

That surprise shocked the world and smashed Einstein's 'great mistake,' the idea of a steady-state universe. Hubble and Humason proved instead that the universe was expanding, giving rise to the Big Bang theory that now dominates astronomy.

After I took the screenplay job I began driving up to Mt. Wilson to soak up the atmosphere, and I fell in love. The observatory complex was virtually unchanged since Hubble and Humason's time, a shady mountaintop grove affording sweeping views of southern California, dominated by towering coulter pines and interspersed with various observatory buildings that once represented the peak of human innovation. Long eclipsed by newer, bigger instruments elsewhere, they were still working, still quietly gathering information on the great unknown around us.

Since astronomers sleep by day, there was rarely anyone around except for the stray hiker or tourist. In a part of California where massive development has decimated the past, Mt. Wilson is the past. I could hold up photographs of Hubble, Humason and Einstein in a particular spot, then gaze at that spot and nothing had changed at all. Perhaps the trees were a bit taller, a legacy of the fact that Mt. Wilson had never burned.

But all that was threatened this week. The massive wildfire looming over Los Angeles finally inched its way up to Mt. Wilson, and for a while yesterday the mountain was so obscured by smoke that news helicopters could not even see the complex. Many feared the worst.

But as I watched a live feed from the news helicopters, something miraculous happened. The smoke over the mountain suddenly cleared and an enormous plane, a Martin Mars Flying Boat, swooped down and let loose 7,500 gallons of flame-retardant gel. The Martin Mars is itself a relic of the past, a WWII-era behemoth whose oversized construction and sturdiness echoes the ambitions of the men who built Mt. Wilson. It was as though the past were reaching out to save the past.

But of course, there were people flying that plane, risking their lives. And it turned out they were not alone. Although firefighters had been pulled from the mountain on Monday, they had since returned. As the flames approached there were 150 people up there, setting backfires, clearing brush and repairing the pumps on the observatory's 750,000 gallon water tanks.

Talk about risky business. Mt. Wilson stands at the very peak of the San Gabriels, surrounded by sheer cliffs, a place with no exits. The bravery of people who would place themselves up there boggles the mind.

As it stands today, that bravery paid off. LA County Deputy Fire Chief Jim Powers is confident Mt. Wilson will be saved, and told observatory director Hal McAlister that saving the complex is his highest priority and that the firefighters are "not going anywhere. They are very hard working and talented people who will get the job done."

Southern California is generally not kind to its past. We tear down our landmarks with abandon, pave paradise, obliterate history. So it's heartening to see that in the case of Mt. Wilson, people were willing to put their lives on the line to save this bucolic piece of living history, where folks like Hubble and Humason brought the fires of the universe down to earth.

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