Trip to Palomar Mountain

I asked young Fred if he knew what a telescope was. He responded, “It’s something you look through to see things wiggling in a drop of water.”

When I said that was a microscope, he asked “Aren’t they the same thing?”

After I described the difference, he gave a good summary: “Okay. One helps you see tiny things that are up close; and the other one helps you see big things that look tiny because they are far away.” I laughed, and said, “You got it.”

Mount Palomar, August 2016

Mankind has used both microscopes and telescopes to help us understand more about life, and that leads us to today’s Reflection on Life.

“When we go see mom today, is there anything else you would like to do?”

When Carol asked that question four years ago, I responded, “I’ve wanted to visit the observatory at Palomar for years. It’s about forty miles from Mom, so let’s go early to Palomar Mountain, then visit mom afterwards.” And so we did.

The Spanish name “Palomar” means “place of the pigeons” or “pigeon roost”; for in the early 1800s, Spaniards found multiplied thousands of band-tailed pigeons on the mountain.

The nearest town to the observatory is Rincon, California. Its altitude is 1,030 feet above sea level. But make sure your car is in good condition because you will drive up a steep, narrow, winding road to an altitude of 5,616 feet. It is sixteen miles by road, but almost one mile straight up.

The Palomar Observatory

There, gracing the mountaintop is a glistening, white dome: the Palomar Observatory operated by the California Institute of Technology, known as Caltech.

George Ellery Hale conceived of the idea and wrote about it in 1928. The Rockefeller Foundation gave $6,000,000 toward the project, and the Corning Glassworks company created the 200-inch object that would become the primary mirror. Originally weighing twenty tons, Corning had a railway flatbed modified to transport it; and it took sixteen days to safely ship it from New York to Pasadena, California.

Receiving it on Palomar Mountain in April of 1936, Caltech personnel spent thirteen years cutting, grinding, and polishing the mirror. Finally weighing about fourteen tons, the concave mirror was installed and the telescope was put into operation in January of 1949. American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble (after whom the Hubble telescope was named) was given the honor of being the first person to use the Palomar Telescope.

The observatory operates several telescopes: the 18-inch Schmidt scope, the 48-inch Samuel Oschin scope, a 60-inch scope, and the 200-inch Hale telescope which was the largest in the world for 45 years. The Gran Telescopio Canarias (Great Canary Telescope on the Spanish Canary Islands) is largest now, with a 409-inche mirror, which is 34 feet in diameter.

Using the Hale telescope on Palomar Mountain, we’ve discovered many things, among which are millions of distant galaxies and quasars, and we’ve studied the structure and chemistry of intergalactic clouds.

Jean Mueller, the first woman hired as a telescope operator at Palomar Mountain in 1985 (also the first woman to operate the Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles), discovered over 100 supernovae by studying Palomar data. A supernova is the explosion of a giant star with the resultant brightness of about ten billion suns.

Several recent projects – among many – include studying near-Earth asteroids, Kuiper Belt Objects, star formation, planets in other solar systems, and black holes.

The Observatory up close

Because of light pollution, the observatory has reduced its major operations, shifting more work to the Hubble Space telescope. Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, the observatory was open every clear night of the year except December 24 and 25. Sections of the Palomar Observatory were open to the public during the day where visitors could take self-guided tours daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Guided tours of the dome and portions of the observing area were available Saturdays and Sundays from April through October. I strongly recommend a visit to the site, and you will be amazed at what you learn. Information is available at the Observatory’s web site: http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/homepage.html and http://www.astro.caltech.edu/palomar/visitor/.

I find it interesting that Job 9:9 and 38:32, written over 3,500 years ago, names Arcturus, Orion, Pleiades, and refers to nearby astronomical bodies. Psalm 8:3-4a tells us that Almighty God created the vastness of the seemingly infinite cosmos, but also reveals that God is concerned about mortal humanity. Scripture says, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

Think of it: the ultimate Supreme, Sovereign God is concerned about finite, mortal man; and you don’t need a telescope to find Him, for He’s only a prayer away.

Chance vs Divine Providence

Charles sent me an e-mail and said, “I would really like to read your take on Chance (or Luck) vs Divine Providence.”

To answer this will involve condensing five books into 809 words. Thank you, Charles, for the request.

First, let’s understand “chance.” It deals with opportunity, accidents, random occurrences, possibilities – all without design or control by anyone. For example, I flipped a quarter in the air twenty times and let it land on the floor. I started each flip with George Washington’s head facing up. It landed heads up eight times and tails up twelve times. I ran the same experiment again, but this time I started it with the Eagle facing up. It landed heads up nine times and tails up eleven times. That’s interesting, but still, chance.

We would shift to Divine Providence now, except luck was mentioned. This goes into religion – but not Christianity.

Luck is another name for the Greek goddess Tyche; with Fortuna being Tyche’s Roman counterpart. We get the concept of good or bad fortune from the goddess Fortuna. Tyche and Fortuna are primary goddesses to whom the Greeks and Romans prayed for material blessings.

Enter The Moirae, or the Faits. These three goddesses supposedly predetermined the entire life and destiny of everyone who will ever live. That included everything the person thought, said, did, and what happened to him or her. We now call it “fatalism.”

Saint Augustine, who initially rebelled against God and believed in the Faits, eventually created a Christianized version of fatalism. He said nothing could happen without God’s specific command, and that God had predestined our entire life for us. Let’s see about this. If the average heart-rate is 70 beats per minute, God would have to stand there and specifically order each person’s heart to beat 36,817,200 time a year. Multiply that by 7,500,000,000 people in the world!

No. God sets some things in order, and commands them to keep it up.

Augustine then misapplied Romans 8:29 to support him. It says, “For whom he [God] did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his son.” But Paul put the emphasis on “foreknow”; not on “predestinate.” Paul wasn’t talking about God choosing whom He will save. Instead, Paul is talking about God’s fore-knowledge of who will choose to live for Christ.

Let’s bring in sovereignty: “supreme power; freedom from external control; autonomous.” Some national governments are sovereign.

Finally, we come to Divine Providence. And that truly is God’s position. The book of Job clarifies that no one tells God what to do. God, by Himself, decides what He will AND will not do.

Providence deals with: preparation, good governance, foresight, guidance, prudent management. General Providence refers to God supporting the natural order of the universe. But Divine Providence refers to God specifically and intentionally interacting in the affairs of mankind. Therefore, we need to read carefully and understand what God said in Scripture.

James 4:2-3 says, “And yet the reason you don’t have what you want is that you don’t ask God for it. And even when you do ask, you don’t get it because your whole motive is wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. (GNT)” This 2-fold Scripture alone informs us that God requires our interaction: 1) we need to ask of God, and 2) we need to have the right attitude.

Let’s add Psalm 37:23. “The steps of the godly are directed by the Lord. He delights in every detail of their lives.” God takes pleasure in interacting with and caring for His people.

Although God sees the sparrow as it falls to the ground (Matthew 10:29), He does not mandate its death. Two of my sisters had houses that burned down several years ago, but they were not hurt. My dad died of cancer at age 89. My mother died at age 97. Another sister died of cancer at age 50. People get hurt out of carelessness. My lawn mower quit today. And sickness and death are still part of the human experience (Romans 5:14).

Does God purposely engineer all that? No; all that happens because we are part of the human family. The Bible says that death will be the LAST enemy to be conquered (1 Corinthians 15:26), so we can expect the other maladies and difficulties to continue for a while.

God does decree some of what happens in human history, but does not control or mandate every human decision. Instead, God leaves personal decisions up to us (Romans 6:12-13). Nevertheless, God does respond to prayer and can use all things that happen to us for our good (Romans 8:28).

In all that happens to us, God monitors our reactions. It is our reactions and attitudes that shape us, and prepare us for our interaction with God in heaven.

Fort Sumter

Dad was a chaplain in the US Navy and we moved around somewhat. So in my four years of high school, I attended four different schools: two in Southern California, the third near Boston, and I graduated in Charleston, South Carolina in 1964.

In April of 2016, the USS Yorktown, CV-5 Survivor’s Reunion was held in Charleston, and I was chaplain for the group. One day, Carol and I drove over to James Island to locate the house my parents rented and the high school I attended. This was the first time I had returned to the Charleston area since May of 1964, but I located both house and school without a hitch. They hadn’t moved.

Memories flooded my mind, and I verbally relived many of them while Carol listened. (I met Carol in Southern California in late August of 1964.) When my parents lived in the Charleston area, we didn’t visit Fort Sumter which is situated in Charleston Bay. Perhaps that was because renovations, beginning in 1961, had not been completed. But now I was looking forward to visiting the fort.

Fort Sumter was named after General Thomas Sumter – a hero in the Revolutionary War. Built primarily by slave labor, construction of the fort was started in 1829 but was still incomplete in 1861 when the War Between the States began.

There are several names for that war, and each name reflects the feelings of various groups through history. A well-accepted name is The War Between the States. Many northern folk called it The War of the Rebellion, while many Southerners called it The War of Northern Aggression. Some Europeans called it The War of Secession, but the common name here in modern America is the American Civil War. But as Colonel Butch Quick said, “There was nothing civil about it!” Well over 625,000 Americans died in that hellish conflict.

Many believe that the war was not primarily about slavery. As an example: South Carolina’s General James Longstreet is quoted as saying, “We should have freed the slaves, THEN fired on Fort Sumter.”

Understanding that South Carolina was thinking about seceding from the brand-new Union as early as 1827, Fort Sumter was not built to keep South Carolina in line; the fort was one of a series of fortresses built along our eastern coastline to protect our major ports from potential European aggression.

Our tour boat backed away from the wharf and sailed around the bow of the USS Yorktown, CV-10, that was docked nearby. The Yorktown (built to replace the USS Yorktown, CV-5 that sunk in the Battle of Midway in June of 1942) was commissioned in 1943 and is huge; but with its flight deck looming 50 feet above our heads, it looked enormous.

A twenty-minute cruise toward the Atlantic Ocean, Fort Sumter looked small with walls currently about 15 feet high. However, seventy thousand tons of New England granite had originally been imported to build the 5-sided Fort Sumter on the harbor sandbar; and the walls in 1861 were 5 feet thick and 50 feet high. It was designed to house 650 men with 135 canons.

South Carolina had officially withdrawn from the fledgling United States of America, and Confederate Brigadier General Beauregard ordered Union Major Robert Anderson to surrender Fort Sumter. When Anderson refused, the Confederate forces began firing on April 12, 1861.

The fort was built to withstand a naval assault using small, ship-mounted guns, but it could not long endure the massive bombardment from the shore-based gun batteries. Even though there were no casualties during the 36-hour bombardment, Major Anderson finally realized that the situation was hopeless.

Therefore, to save the lives of his men, Major Anderson raised a white flag. Deciding not to capture the Union forces, General Beauregard provided a boat and personnel to take the Union soldiers to a Union ship waiting off shore. Note: two years later in the heat of the war, on September 8, 1863, Union naval forces, using larger guns, attempted to regain control, but failed. Again, the fort was severely damaged.

Ninety-eight years later, South Carolina and the US Government agreed to restore Fort Sumter and make it a National Monument with a Visitor Education Center. This was being completed as I graduated from high school just across the harbor on James Island.

Fifty-two years later, I returned with Carol and the USS Yorktown CV-5 Survivor’s group, and finally had the privilege of touring the fort. I was impressed with the history and the restoration. If you have the opportunity, I would encourage you to visit Fort Sumter.