Lick Observatory in California: Leader in Astronomy and Tech

The Lick Observatory is one of the most important astronomical sites in the United States. Located on Mount Hamilton east of San Jose, this multi-building facility is one of the core parts of the University of California’s astronomy program, as it gives hundreds of aspiring and currently practicing astronomers access to crystal-clear visions of the night skies using the Great Refractor in the observatory’s dome. 

The Lick Observatory was built in 1888 as part of a grant by California’s wealthiest citizen of the time, James Lick. To this day, it is not only an essential practical tool in the belt of professional scientists but also a symbol that shines on and demonstrates the good that wealth and funding can do when put towards a noble and selfless cause. 

In this article, we aim to break down the functions of the Lick Observatory, its role in the University of California Observatories, and how the building and its components and exhibits are used and visited by the public.

Our goal is that after reading this, you will walk away with a more appreciative and deep-seated understanding of this important building, which seamlessly blends the historic with the modern.


How the Lick Observatory Came to Be

Nowadays, it’s difficult to imagine one of the wealthiest members of society freely giving over $1.2 billion away towards scientific achievement with no ulterior motives. However, that is exactly what happened in 1888, when James Lick donated over $700,000 of his personal fortune to the cause of building an astronomical observatory that was fit to house the finest astronomical equipment in the country. When adjusted for inflation, that $700,000 comes out to a staggering $1.2 billion that would today equal the total GDP of some small nations. 

James Lick naturally decided to put his name on the building, but that was just about the only stipulation he mandated regarding its construction and design. Instead, the top scientific minds of the age got together to decide how the building would be built.

Expert architects and astronomers weighed in on precisely how the building should be situated, where it should be placed, what materials should be used, and more. It is helpful to remember that this was done back when light pollution was less of a factor when it came to observatories delivering quality images to astronomers.

However, the designers of the Lick Observatory were still able to consider its possible existence and design a building that would grant massive amounts of visibility to people no matter how bad the city dweller’s energy expenses got. 

Large telescope inside Lick Observatory

The Lick Observatory’s Modern Role in Science

Today, the Lick Observatory plays an essential role in modern astronomy. Not only is it utilized by professional astronomers from all over the world, but it also houses researchers that do work to generate new pieces of technology, newer and better telescopes, and more.

Facilities such as the Lick Observatory function as a practical laboratory for professional scientists to work through their experiments and develop new hypotheses while also working on the theoretical side. 

The Lick Observatory houses a historical record of telescopes through the ages, showcasing how far we’ve come in our ability to observe the known universe.

While it’s easy to imagine how big telescopes can get these days, the Lick Observatory is one of the facilities housing these behemoths. Besides a historical record that houses older and out-of-date telescopes, the Lick Observatory houses five research telescopes used for scientific observation today. These include the following telescopes: 

  • Shane Telescope
  • Automated Planet Finder
  • Nickel Telescope
  • Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope
  • Coude Auxiliary Telescope

Besides these research telescopes, the Lick Observatory houses even more scientific knowledge and practical tools, including Adaptive Optics systems. The facility is where researchers have perfected and put into practice the ability to detect visual anomalies in an image and then adjust that image so the anomaly is effectively removed.

To put that into layperson’s terms, imaging real-time Photoshop automatically adjusts whatever you are looking at to display the correct image. Even if a cloud passes in front of your camera lens, it would not negatively impact your image – that’s what adaptive optics is. It represents a tremendous breakthrough in modern astronomy. 

Now, it would be impossible to break down every piece of technology housed at the Lick Observatory. Well, it’s not impossible, but it would take much more time and effort than we’re willing to dedicate to this article. Instead, we would encourage you to read more about the Lick Observatory or to visit their public website to learn about news and events affecting the facility and the University of California Observatories. 

Visiting the Lick Observatory

Today, anyone is free to visit the Lick Observatory and marvel at the historical significance and modern pragmatism that the facility offers. An estimated 35,000 people visit every year, many of which are small children visiting as part of a field trip. The Lick Observatory makes a concerted effort to provide easily digestible scientific information to children to get them interested in science, the cosmos, and astronomy.

While these numbers might seem relatively low, it is helpful to realize that the Observatory is only open two days a week: Saturday and Sunday. Monday through Friday, the observatory is used as intended – as a mountaintop observatory!

Lick Observatory on treed hilltop

Events at the Lick Observatory

Music of the Spheres

Every year, the Lick Observatory hosts many events attended by many intellectuals and public figures, including musicians, artists, and, obviously, scientists.

These events include the yearly Music of the Spheres, where professional musicians come into the observatory and play a concert, an expert astronomer will give a lecture, and attendees can view the skies through a series of telescopes. In 2023, there will be six such Lick Observatory education programs held.

These events are held during the summer when visibility tends to be highest. There is less moisture in the air and, therefore, a less likely chance that cloud coverage will form and obscure the ability to see anything. 

An Evening With the Stars

Another popular event at the Lick Observatory is Evening With the Stars, where “star” astronomers will talk to attendees about the latest important discoveries or advancements. While it might sound surprising in an age where we have already discovered all the land there is on Earth, astronomers are coming across new celestial bodies every day.

These discoveries are crucial to our overall understanding of the universe. These events also feature the opportunity to take a gander through two giant telescopes while expert astronomers can tell you what you are looking at. Again, in 2023 there will be six of these events held, and they will occur during the summer when visibility is at its highest to maximize viewing pleasure. 

In addition to these two events, the Lick Observatory hosts many other smaller photography nights and public evening tours. These evening tours allow visitors to walk through the facilities and get a basic breakdown of the function of each building, the uses for specific pieces of equipment, and more.

These tours occur at night so that visitors can take a measured look through the available telescopes and get a more detailed impression of the stars and planetary systems that are visible through them. 

The Lick Observatory 

If nothing else, in our minds, the Lick Observatory represents everything that can go right with the field of science when given the resources it so rightfully deserves.

The work being done at the Lick Observatory has practical and theoretical applications for people around the world, and it is open to the public so that you can peer in and look at what they’re doing.

These tools and buildings for curious people are increasingly being fazed out of society, so if you’ve ever wanted to have a hands-on look at how professional scientists go about understanding the world, then we encourage you to visit the Lick Observatory and take a look at what they are doing for yourself.

If you do decide to go, we might recommend you get an equal blend of concerts and expert lectures. After all, when experiencing the night sky, it’s best to take as much in as possible. Good luck!

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