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the massive Hooker 100 inch still searching in straight lines

Digital Lines

by Doug Filter & Dann Filter

An exploration of linearity, direction and connections

Mt Wilson is a place of contrasts and juxtapositions. In a beautiful, snow sparkled natural setting high above the warm day in Los Angeles, we were immediately struck by straight lines - the rigidity of the purposeful towers and historical engineering of the observatory proper, set against the ambiguous organic lines of the wilderness setting. Phil Merrill chuckled as he assigned us this topic – which, like the universe surrounding us on the mountaintop, could be all encompassing. "There are no straight lines in nature" he observed, directing us to the obvious visual contrasts. "Or are there?"

Phil could be right, at first glance. The elevator shaft to the top of the solar telescope is made of geometrically direct lines, in contrast to the more casual approach taken by trees and treebranches all reaching to the stars. The superstructures and support engineering is also made of obviously straight lines. But look deeper . . .

solar tower elevator shaft fractal tree bark from a different angle solar tower from nearby trees

Our first few images captured the contrasts – interesting towers, unusual viewpoints and the meandering branches of the thick pines. We looked up the elevator to the solar telescope, then looked up an ancient tree trunk. In fact, even though this place has a wonderful vantagepoint above incredible vistas of the metropolis and the valleys far below, this is one overlook that inspires you to look up -- a long way up -- into the cosmos. Men and women have been coming here for decades to take a straight, unfettered look into the sky and beyond. We found ourselves almost unconsciously following their gazes.

We wandered, then found a spot where some cement pillars were still standing. Don Nicholson, the scientist who hosted our group, told us how in the 1920’s, Albert Michelson conducted experiments to measure the speed of light. Using prisms, mirrors, powerful lights and machinery, he was able to send a beam of light from this cement base 22 miles west to the summit of Lookout Mountain, where it was reflected back 22 miles to the starting point. He was able to measure the elapsed time and make some accurate calculations of light speed. Was this our straight digital line? Surely, one would have to travel straight and narrow over that distance to be able to return to an exact starting point in 44/186,000ths of a second. But, light is made of waves, cycles, and frequencies. Light bends. In fact, observations of a star light years away from the giant telescope indicate a position for the source which, if traced back to the originating star, would bend to that star's new location.


From this starting point, Albert Michelson sent a beam of light in the direction of the ghost beam (illustrated) 22 miles to the summit of Lookout Mountain, where it was reflected back.

Many of us ended up at the solar telescope where we had made the acquaintance of some of the solar scientists. Here, in the warmth of the heater and new friendships, we felt the strongest connections of all. We listened as the scientists told us of the history of the telescope, visited by esteemed scientists from all over the world – Einstein, Hubble, Hawking . . . here, where we were standing, some of the best and brightest minds of the century had left their footsteps and evidence of their work. A digital connection back through the ages – a cosmic timeline. If you are to take Einstein’s relativity theories, the speed of light and the possibilities of time and space travel, you could make a case for direct connections to this place from all of the eons. We could see ourselves peering over Einstein’s shoulder as he and Charles St. John, Mt Wilson’s Solar Astronomer inspected the readings from the solar telescope on January 29, 1931.

Connected across 21 days and 67 years, the Digital Explorers connect with another visit. Left to right, Dann Filter, Albert Einstein, Doug Filter, Charles St. John, Todd Iorio and Robert Lindstrom.

in the company of giants