“No One May Ever Have The Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory”

GENTLEMEN. ARE YOU INTERESTED IN SEPARATING VALUABLE CHEMICAL COMPOUNDS FROM THE SUNSHINE RAY? WORTH BILLIONS OF DOLLARS. APPRECIATE AN AIRMAIL REPLY. Labeled “CAT. #0021: Telegram from Charles V. Carrol to the Observers at Mount Wilson,” this unusual appeal is one of the more direct examples of a curious subgenre of correspondence to which the pioneering astronomers of the early twentieth century must have become oddly accustomed. This modest but fascinating selection of letters on loan from the Museum of Jurassic Technology, the maverick Los Angeles Wunderkammer that David Wilson has stocked with a wild assortment of collections and artifacts where fact and imagination overlap, presents a period snapshot of the idiosyncratic, often plainly irrational but always fiercely propounded ideas that swirl in the wake of widely disseminated “official” scientific findings.

Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, California, was established in 1905 by Dr. George Ellery Hale. Its site, 5,704 feet above sea level in the Sierra Madre mountains, enjoys ideal conditions for both stellar and solar astronomy, and the arrival in 1908 of what was then the world’s largest actively used telescope helped make it the source of a disproportionate number of the major astrophysical discoveries of the first half of the twentieth century. News of these breakthroughs was published initially in the specialist press but soon found its way to the newspapers; by the early ’30s, the observatory was receiving twenty thousand visitors a year and had become a source of wonder to many more. While most of the letters in Mount Wilson’s increasingly weighty mailbag communicated simple admiration, a few sought to relate detailed insights into the structure and purpose of the universe that—so the authors were convinced—required the astronomers’ urgent attention.

“No One May Ever Have The Same Knowledge Again: Letters to Mount Wilson Observatory 1915–1935” brings a number of these missives together with a few related artifacts such as telescope components and photographs (on loan from the observatory and the Carnegie Institution); all are installed in a long, low vitrine in the center of a darkened gallery. Accompanying the display is film footage of the observatory and its staff shot in the ’20s in which dour, self-conscious men in flat caps and long coats issue instructions and operate controls (or at least pretend to for the benefit of the camera), bringing their huge machines slowly to life. There is a prosaic, industrial look to these activities that runs counter to the excited tone of the newsreel narrator, who glosses over the obvious tedium of much of the work to gush that “great changes are occurring throughout the universe” and that the “scientific eye of America” will be there to watch and record them for the betterment of all.

The commitment to pursuing these kinds of mismatched combinations—the confusion of the real with the staged, the scientific with the imaginary, the artistic with the truly unhinged—is what drives David Wilson’s broader project and makes a stash of (authentic) antique crank mail interesting. He demonstrates that the histories written by amateur crackpots and paranoid schizophrenics, the ill informed and the delusional, may have value beyond the picturesque. He admires the Mount Wilson correspondents for their willingness to confront the biggest questions and for the raw individuality of their conclusions, untarnished as they are by standardized terminology or shared belief.

The letters serve as vivid examples of some of the ways in which any “fact,” once it arrives in the public domain, inevitably becomes the subject of endless and ungoverned reinterpretation. But they are emotional documents too, and this quality only gains in intensity by contrast with the impersonal mechanics of serious astronomy. Many of the letters hint at lives as strange and unknowable as anything to be found in deep space. “I have gone through frightful things,” writes one Alice May Williams. “Still I go through it & I am beginning to get knowledge.”

Michael Wilson