Google Donates $1 Million to Lick Observatory

The San Francisco Bay Area lights the horizon as astronomers use the 3-meter Shane Telescope's adaptive optics to tame the twinkle of stars during an observing run. (PHOTO CREDIT: Laurie Hatch)
The San Francisco Bay Area lights the horizon as astronomers use the 3-meter Shane Telescope’s adaptive optics to tame the twinkle of stars during an observing run. (PHOTO CREDIT: Laurie Hatch)

Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton in California started with one man, James Lick, a wealthy eccentric who wanted to build a pyramid to himself in downtown San Francisco. His friends convinced him to build the world’s greatest telescope instead, and after his death, engineers constructed the first ever permanent mountaintop observatory on Mount Hamilton outside the Bay Area. Lick’s body was eventually exhumed and buried beneath his telescope.

But 127 years later, the founder’s fortune is long exhausted. Now, Google, which built its monument to itself in nearby Mountain View, has stepped up to help the struggling neighborhood observatory solve its funding problems. The tech titan is giving Lick $1 million. In recent years, that same amount had been slashed from the observatory’s former $2.5 million annual budget, forcing telescopes to be left dormant at times due to staff shortages.

The donation is just the latest turn in a sharp change of fortune for Lick, which seemed destined to close only months ago.

Lick isn’t the most modern facility, but its importance is vital to the astronomers and graduate students who observe there. Many of the University of California’s more than 100 astronomers use Lick’s telescopes as a test bed for new instruments as well as for time-intensive research projects that are impossible on more modern instruments where nights are precious. UC astronomers also see Lick as an invaluable part of efforts to train both undergraduate and graduate students, who wouldn’t have a chance at spearheading projects on larger telescopes.

“Google’s very generous gift will make it possible for Lick to provide these opportunities and to continue to develop forefront tools such as adaptive optics, which removes image blurring caused by turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere,” UC Observatories Director Claire Max said in a prepared statement released today. Her office is in charge of operating Lick and the UC’s share of the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

Adaptive optics — now the backbone of the world’s largest telescopes — was essentially invented on Mount Hamilton. Most of the first 100 exoplanets were also discovered here. And dark energy was initially seen through extensive observations of distant supernovae made at Lick Observatory. Those lines of research are still the most active.

That legacy appeared likely to come to an end in 2013 when the UC’s Office of the President decided to defund Lick Observatory amid massive system wide funding cuts and shifting priorities. The state had hacked the UC’s budget right as its astronomers geared up to partner in the more than $1 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project.

“We never said that we were going to close Lick or that we wanted to close Lick,” UC Provost Aimée Dorr said in a recent interview with Astronomy. “We did say that we did need to find a different funding model for Lick based on what the UC astronomy community identified as priorities, what they said about how much money they had and how much they could afford.”

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SOURCE: Astronomy Magazine, Eric Betz

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