Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"The Great Man" - Aden Meinel

I was wondering how to title this post, and it came to me this afternoon while taking a photograph of 3 real pioneers in astronomy and optics in Arizona. After taking the photo at left of Helmut Abt, Aden Meinel, and Roger Angel (from left to right) as they toured the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, Roger offered to take a picture of me with "The Great Man", and that title seems appropriate given all his accomplishments in just a couple square blocks on the University of Arizona campus. By the way, here they were examining one of the 11 foot slumpings that Roger is researching to make inexpensive high power solar voltaic collectors.

Aden's early days in Arizona was the topic of a lecture last night as part of the public lecture series at Steward Observatory. Titled, "Why Kitt Peak? -- The History of Iolkam Du'ag and the Birth of Kitt Peak National Observatory", he addressed how Kitt Peak was selected as the site of the National Observatory. Reading his biographical highlights, Helmut Abt took nearly 10 minutes to cover the basics! The essentials, as relates here, is that Aden was in charge of selecting the location of the National Observatory, narrowed it down to a list of 4 possible locations in Arizona, Kitt Peak being the final choice, which required negotiations with the Tohono O'odham Nation for a lease arrangement. Aden served as the founding director of Kitt Peak and oversaw the site surveys, construction of the first 36" telescope and design of the 84" and 60" solar telescope. He then served as the third director of Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, including the relocation of their 36" telescope to Kitt Peak, and the design of the University's 90" and Multiple Mirror Telescopes. Aden then went on to be the founding director of the Optical Sciences Center - one of only 2 optical centers in the country specializing in optical research and education. Realize that the headquarters of all 3 institutions are pretty much adjacent to each other on the University of Arizona campus, with OSC located in the Meinel Building. The photo at left shows Leo Goldberg (KPNO director), Nicholas Mayall, and Aden Meinel (former KPNO directors) at the 4-meter telescope dedication in 1973 (named for Mayall).

The lecture was filled to capacity with attendees spotted from all three centers on campus where he served as director. Interestingly, I've worked at all 3 institutions, from Kitt Peak and Optical Sciences through the '80s, and Steward Observatory since then. It was great seeing all the "old timers" there, some of which I've not seen in well over a decade!

The highlights for me are always the pictures and stories of the old days. Kitt Peak was "discovered" by Helmut Abt as he criss-crossed the desert southwest from the air. One of it's advantages was a large developable area, though it was on reservation land, and the only access was on horseback. After arranging permission for a visit with Tohono guides, Aden showed the resultant home movies and photos from that first ascent in February of 1956. He related the story of how the precious water (there was none at the mountaintop) they brought first went to the horses, then into the bucket next to the fire to which was added coffee for the group. That first overnight visit showed great promise, and the location has gone on to be one of the largest concentrations of astronomical telescopes in the world. Aden related the story of the trip down when his horse slipped on the rocks, and while it was fine, Aden broke his arm... It was some time before a road was built to the site, and the first routine access for observers and the first 16" telescopes was a bulldozer road straight up the east side where slopes approached 100% at times (45 degrees!).

Another highlight for me was the second part of the lecture, given by Bernard Siquieros, Education Curator of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Cultural Center and Museum. He told the native's historical and religious perspectives of Iolkam Du’ag (the Tohono name for Kitt Peak, which ironically roughly translates to "home of the clouds"!). Most moving for me was the slide show of past and current life on the reservation with his wife, children and grandson providing musical accompaniment in the native tongue it was great!

Kitt Peak has always been a special place for me to live, work and visit. It was a wonderful evening to learn some of it's early history and get the native perspective as well.


Alan said...

A "Great" Post as well Dean- Thanks for sharing this. I love the campfire photo.

Eric J. Anderson said...

That was a really cool story...a great bit of local history that I knew little about.