April 11, 2007

#107 with a bullet

People who think there is no levity in the sciences haven't taken enough astronomy classes. Every astronomer I've known, especially the ones who seemed at first the dullest, has been some kind of dry wit. There must be something about looking at million year-old light all the time that automatically gives people enough perspective to have a decent sense of humor. The best thing about this is that the community is also small enough that the good stories get around. But the other day I heard one that ought to be notorious enough to warrant some kind of internet evidence (though I found none on the official website for this particular location).

McDonald Observatory in Texas' remote Davis mountains was a wild cowboy outpost in the middle of the last century. At least in the sense that toting guns around for "protection" from the wilderness during late nights of observing was not unusual. Unfortunately, the advisability of this scheme came into question in 1970 when an advisor-mentee relationship went off the rails in the worst possible way. No one seems to have many specifics on the nature of the disagreement, but it had been escalating for some time it seems. The advisor, who was working with some other students with the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith Telescope, finally frustrated this fellow to the point that he stormed out of the observatory and returned with a 9mm Luger. According to the version of the tale I heard, the disgruntled gunman/astronomer then declared "I'm gonna kill you!" and advanced upon this guy. They scuffled, and a shot was fired, but the advisor managed to escape to a downstairs optics lab with his shocked students, and climb out some kind of special trap-door installed in the event of an astronomy-related gunfight.

At this point the perp, left alone in the chamber, committed the worst offense imaginable: he lowered the telescope so that it was horizontal, and fired the rest of his ammunition into the primary mirror.

Threatening his original target may have been a crime of passion, but the later act was premeditated and deranged. In addition to the obvious insanity of shooting a nice mirror that never hurt anyone, it is difficult to see what he thought he would accomplish. If you shoot someone, they'll probably let you win the argument, but a broken reflector isn't good for anybody. Hundreds of other people used that telescope in some way, and moreover, he managed to turn a perfectly understandable act (taking a shot at another scientist, a common event in the academic world), into an completely unjustifiable one (taking a shot at a very useful inanimate object). More importantly, he ought to have anticipated that firing randomly into the reflector wouldn't actually damage it significantly. Telescopic glass is thick and resilient, and after some dark epoxy was added to the bullet-holes the instrument was back to normal -- something any psychopathic, gun-wielding astronomer should have known.