Lick Observatory Gets a Reprieve

Last year the University of California ordered its astronomers to make historic Lick Observatory self-supporting by 2018. Now there's been a change of heart, and the university will continue to pay for its operation.

Lick Observatory (aerial view)

Lick Observatory sits atop 4,216-foot-high Mount Hamilton and overlooks San Jose and Silicon Valley in California.
Debra and Peter Ceravolo

A year ago, the situation looked bleak for historic Lick Observatory, the venerable 125-year-old mountaintop facility that overlooks California's Silicon Valley.

Faced with huge commitments to support its investment in Hawaii's Keck Telescopes and to help fund the billion-dollar Thirty Meter Telescope, officials at the University of California (which owns and operates Lick) decided there just wasn't enough money to go around. So they decreed that Lick should be divested from the university and find its own funding, with a "glide path" toward self-sufficiency to begin within two years and be completed by 2018.

Needless to say, the September 2013 announcement rocked the astronomical community in a way that few of the area's earthquakes ever could. Although "closure" was never actually stipulated, it loomed as the most likely outcome for a venerable institution that held a premier role in U.S. astronomy a century ago.

Prominent members of the astronomical community cried out in protest. Cosmologist Alex Filippenko (UC Berkeley) led a "Save Lick Observatory" campaign. California congressmen petitioned the university's president to reconsider the decision. The area's amateur astronomers mobilized for a fight.

Apparently, all that high-profile resistance — coupled with some belt-tightening — has spared Lick from being cast adrift. In a letter to Claire Max, interim director of University of California Observatories (UCO), provost Aimée Dorr rescinded the divestment plan. "It is no longer [our] intention to require that Lick Observatory be self supporting, begin a glide path to self-supporting status no later than FY 2016-17, or be managed by an entity other than UCO," the letter states.

While the observatory's short-term prospects are now relatively secure, proponents are taking steps to ensure its long-term survival. A Lick Observatory Council, involving Filippenko, other scientists, and private citizens, has started private fundraising efforts and to expand the observatory's outreach and education programs.

Once the World's Largest Telescope

Lick's Great Refractor

The huge refractor at Lick Observatory in California boasts an objective lens 36 inches across. James Lick, who funded the observatory's construction in the late 1800s, is buried in the telescope's massive base.
Debra and Peter Ceravolo

Built in the late 1800s thanks to a $700,000 bequest from wealthy tycoon James Lick, the observatory sits atop California's Mount Hamilton, just 30 miles southeast of San Francisco. To its immediate west is San Jose, which was a quiet town of about 13,000 back then but is now a city of a million souls at the southern end of burgeoning Silicon Valley.

This was the first mountaintop observatory to be continuously occupied, and it's been under the University of California's management since 1888. Light pollution has taken a toll on the facility's breadth of scientific research, though the scopes are still in demand.

"Yes, light pollution has increased," comments Filippenko, "but now, with digital detectors having 2D sky-subtraction capabilities (CCDs), we go deeper than we used to." The Kast spectrograph, for example, can reach 19th magnitude. In recent years Lick's 3-meter Shane Telescope has been at the forefront of the search for exoplanets.

Most visitors don't want to see that instrument, however — they come to see the magnificent 36-inch refractor, whose objective was fabricated in Massachusetts by Alvan Clark & Sons. It's 57 feet long, 4 feet across, and weighs more than 25,000 pounds. For a few years, it was the world's largest telescope — until Clarks finished work on the 40-inch objective for Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.

Historical note: James Lick originally intended to build a giant pyramid in downtown San Francisco but was persuaded to use his wealth instead to build a telescope "superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made." He chose Mount Hamilton so he could see the observatory from his home. He died more than a decade before its completion, however, and his body is interred under the great refractor that bears his name.

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6 thoughts on “Lick Observatory Gets a Reprieve

  1. mjbolte

    Nice article about Lick Observatory that captures the news of the last well. But, I have to quibble with one statement: “Light pollution rendered the facility useless for most scientific research long ago”. This is not true as came be demonstrated easily by looking up the papers published each year based on data obtained with the Lick Obs telescopes.

    There are a few reasons for the continued scientific productivity. One important one is that the city of San Jose and other communities in the south Bay area have actively sought input from astronomers and been very good at implementing “astronomy friendly” lighting and lighting ordinances for the past 40 years.

    It is also true that working at high spectral resolution minimizes the effects of a bright sky due to city lights and observations at wavelengths longer than 10,000A (1 micron) are completely unaffected by the lights of the Bay area. Many of the observations at Lick Observatory utilize high-spectral-resolution observations and are made in the “near-infrared” part of the spectrum.

    Finally, we are fortunate that on many nights, particular in the summer months, the marine layer creeps in over the passes of the Santa Cruz mountains and blocks out the lights of the entire Bay area. On these magic nights, the skies about Mt Hamilton are as dark as they were in 1888 when the Observatory was completed. Best regards, Mike Bolte

  2. Alex Filippenko

    I thank Kelly Beatty for his positive and generally accurate news note
    about Lick Observatory. The partial financial support of the UC Office
    of the President is very welcome, and it helps open doors to those of
    us seeking additional, external funding through and related efforts.

    However, Mr. Beatty makes one very glaring error, stating that “Light
    pollution rendered the facility useless for most scientific research
    long ago.” This is manifestly false! Lick telescopes are used nearly
    every night of the year, by dozens of astronomers, for cutting-edge
    research. At visible wavelengths, one simply chooses projects that are
    not badly affected by city lights — such as monitoring bright stars
    for the presence of exoplanets and studying relatively nearby
    supernovae. Indeed, having access to very large numbers of nights each
    year on modest-sized telescopes at Lick, UC astronomers can conduct
    long-term and time-intensive projects that are simply not possible at
    most other observatories.

    For example, the new 2.4-m Automated Planet Finder (led by UC Berkeley
    Professor Geoff Marcy and UC Santa Cruz Professor Steve Vogt) is one
    of the world’s most powerful instruments for seeking exoplanets.
    Also, during the decade 1998-2008, my group’s Lick Observatory
    Supernova Search with the 0.76-m Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope
    was by far the world’s most successful survey for exploding stars in
    nearby galaxies, and it still one of the leading supernova searches.
    Moreover, UC Irvine Professor Aaron Barth is conducting one of the
    world’s best studies of supermassive black holes at the centers of
    low-redshift active galaxies. Other examples abound.

    Lick has been, and continues to be, an observatory where new
    technology is developed and tested. A case in point: laser guide star
    adaptive optics was developed at Lick by a Lawrence Livermore National
    Lab group led by Dr. Claire Max, followed by incredibly detailed
    infrared images when the system was subsequently implemented on the
    10-m Keck telescopes. Now at UC Santa Cruz, Professor Max’s group
    continues to improve adaptive optics with lasers on the Lick 3-m Shane
    telescope. In part, this is because Lick has somewhat darker infrared
    skies than Hawaii, owing to Lick’s higher latitude.

    In addition, Lick provides direct, hands-on access to telescopes for
    undergraduate and graduate students, so they can best learn
    observational and technical skills. At Lick, graduate students and
    postdoctoral scholars are allowed to conceive, propose for, execute,
    and complete their own projects, thereby adding immensely to their
    development as strong, skilled, independent research scientists.

    We all want the darkest skies possible. But despite the city lights
    of the San Francisco Bay Area, Lick Observatory remains a vital,
    productive facility for astronomical research at visible wavelengths,
    and of course the infrared as well (with its dark infrared sky). And
    this shouldn’t come as a great surprise; after all, the largest
    telescopes in the world are in constant use even when the Moon is
    gibbous or full!

    More details can be found at . See also the
    richly illustrated lecture that I gave in February 2014, which can
    found at or at
    (it is Lecture 36 at the latter site).

    Alex Filippenko
    Professor of Astronomy
    University of California, Berkeley
    President, Lick Observatory Council

    1. Kelly BeattyKelly Beatty Post author

      hi, Alex & Mike… thanks for the great comments about Lick Observatory’s role in modern astronomy. we agree that lots of great research can still be carried out at Lick, but it’s undeniable that light pollution has taken its toll. I’ve modified the text a bit. hope the new wording rings truer to your sense of the situation.

  3. Peter WilsonPeter Wilson

    Kelly might have also mentioned that larger particle colliders have rendered Berkeley’s cyclotron useless for most scientific research long ago…but it’s probably just as well he didn’t!

  4. Glenn

    Lick may well be close to downtown San Jose but as the Ceravolo’s pic shows, the road is very winding so be prepared for a long slow trip despite the short as -the -crow-flies distance. I drove a 24 foot RV in August 2014 making it even more harrowing in the narrow sections. But the old observatory oozes history and it was a privilege to visit the main dome with its magnificent wood panelling. They certainly don’t build ’em like that anymore. The floor is raised using water pressure!

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