Dear Mt. Wilson
Letters to early 20th century astronomers illuminate the public's poignant struggle to comprehend an awesome new cosmology

By Garrett Soden

From Pasadena magazine
IT 'S EASY TO LAUGH AT THEM. Their illiterate sentences, misspellings, bad grammar, wacky theories and sudden lapses into religious tirades make them inviting targets for ridicule. Take Bobbie Merlino for example, an earnest 18-year old "lad" as he describes himself, who wants to go to Mars. "I want to reveal that innermost secrets of Mars which are puzzling the scientists the world over," he writes. "I will beleive and always beleive that the Planet Mars is inhabited."

Or Alice May Williams, writing from Auckland. Like Bobbie, she knew the truth about Mars: "The Planet mars is inhabited by human spirits like us can talk eat & drink wear clothes, but have great power. . . . They also work our wireless gramphones, machinery, Moving Pictures Talking Pictures and all that sort of thing."

Or a man known only as Edward, who begins his long letter with, "To whom it may concern: This is to certify, That I have found the Key To all Existance."

All kinds of letters have arrived at the Mt. Wilson Observatory since 1908, when the largest telescope of its time was installed on the mountain top. But in the decades between the wars, the observatory's mailbag swelled with a peculiar kind of letter. These were the odd letters. The weird ones.

The simple explanation is that Mt. Wilson's astronomers were making stunning discoveries that brought worldwide fame, and that their fan mail was bound to contain notes from crackpots. Scanning these letters, which are now on display at the Museum of Jurassic Technology, your first reaction may be to smile, shake your head, and to feel sorry for the people who wrote them. But listening more deeply, you begin to hear the voices of people struggling to understand a new, frightening world.

It's easy to forget that in the first decades of the twentieth century, ideas we now take for granted were outrageous. Freud was saying we had a "subconscious," containing things we couldn't remember, but which made us do things. Einstein said that time ran slower or faster, and could even stand still, depending on where you were. Bohr, Heisenberg and others looked inside the atom and found it almost completely empty, and that its particles didn't quite exist, but had the "potential" of existing. In 1925, God was put on trial when John Scopes dared to teach evolution to high school students. Two years later astronomers claimed that a "big bang" created the universe billions of years before God did (according to calculations based on the bible). And on a mountain above Pasadena, Hale, Hubble, Michelson and others were remapping heaven itself.

"Confronted by this amazing body of information," says museum director David Wilson, "people felt a need to state their convictions against these disturbing views." Some of the letter writers tried to accept the new discoveries as best they could, blending them with what they had always believed. One wrote, "I have bin reading up quite a good deal of late since I have came to Calafornia on astronomy and hold it as a study next to my Bible for it is God's creation and worthy to be studied as all God loveing people should." Another told Dr. Fredrick Wright "I am a freelance scientist. I teach that the Moon is part of a core from a busted up earth or planet... Holy Writ affirms this theory without a doubt."

W. Chas. Lamb was convinced that God lived in the Orion Nebula, and that astronomical photography confirmed this. He sent water color sketches, diagrams and long explanations to the astronomers. "This is my position," he wrote, "proved by the photograph, & the Scriptures, - thus the dwelling place of the ineffible glorious and incarnate God..." Writing from Wisconsin, John Rounds suggests that all humankind, including ancient astronomers, originally lived on the moon. The earth at that time was completely dry, but was flooded, as the bible relates, when water fell off the moon. Noah and his ark fell off as well. "It doesent seem possible a flood of that and could be any other way," he writes. This leads him to speculate about human evolution. "Can it be possible the missing link was those astronomers of the Moon. If that is so how can you blame the almighty. I would like to hear from you on this idea."

BUT OTHERS FELT BETRAYED BY SCIENCE, and took it out on the astronomers. "Gravitation is not a Mystery as taught by lying scientists but contemptible lying," writes T. P. Stanley. "Not a scientist nor an Educator nor an astronomer seeks the truth about gravitation but always seeking some lying excuse for teaching senseless gravitation as the great force of the Universe." He fills his long letter with the phrases "lying astronomers," "cheating astronomers," and "the lying foolishness of astronomers." Near his conclusion, he writes, "It is not likely that you can comprehend the Truth Sense and Beauty in the Universe on account of your scientific education. Only a scientific mind with lack of common sense will teach senseless gravitation in which no one can find a word of truth or sense."

Mrs. May Barbara Wiltse was also mad as hell. She writes to George Hale to set him straight on several points. "Any scientific man ought to know better than to say that an eclipse is caused by one body passing through the shadow of another. How any man with a thinking brain can say such a thing I CANNOT understand." Mrs. Wiltse knew "ALL of the secrets of nature, not one, BUT ALL." And she had received them "NOT from any modern man. But from the books you sneer and scorn. ... YOU NEVER WILL DISCOVER anything from looking through your telescope because you must experiment in the laboratory HERE BELOW and KNOW ALL Electrical phenomena TO UNDERSTAND GOD'S electrical machine."

In the early 1930s, the Great Depression added to the uncertainty of the age. Wilbert C. Cunningham, who received his special scientific knowledge from "our material spiritual friends and helpers of the world external to man's negative sense of vision, (the great beyond close by)" hoped the astronomers could help him with his financial troubles. "Money," he writes, "is needed to carry on the work of the Spirit World. We are in needful circumstances due to certain investments which, altho safe, owing to the general business depression are slow in materializing. We have stock in a mine company with valuable holdings in the Alma district, which we offer as security for a cash loan, or will sell all (1800 shares), or any part of the same considerably under the company price."

Bobbie Merino, the boy who wanted to go to Mars, writes from his home in Atlantic City, a few weeks before Christmas, 1932. You can feel his yearning as he implores the astronomers to take him away. "I readily understand that is a very dangerous expedition that we may never return but as long as I just take one glimpse at it I am satisfy if die on the Planet I've always planned to visit. I am not out of my mind. I am as sane as anyone and I am very serious about this matter." To Bobbie, dying in the quest for knowledge on Mars seemed better than living on the streets of New Jersey.

THE MUSEUM THAT NOW HOUSES THESE LETTERS itself bears testimony to our sometimes strange efforts to understand nature. Growing from a collection of Jurassic-period fossils and miscellaneous artifacts gather by a father and son in the early 1900s, the Museum of Jurassic Technology now holds an eclectic assortment of items pertaining to natural history, the history of science, and the history of art. The museum was founded in 1984 in Los Angeles as a labor of love, guided by the inspiration of earlier museums. "In those years," Wilson says, "there was an urge to set up what people felt was a complete collection representing all of nature." Any interesting curiosity would be included.

Both the museum's philosophy and the letters speak of people who believed that with some thoughtful effort, you could make sense of the universe. The difference between us and them is that most of us would be embarrassed to try. Astronomers now watch the skies through the electronic eye of the Hubble Space Telescope (named for Mt. Wilson's Edwin Hubble), orbiting hundreds of miles above the earth. They argue furiously over whether the universe is 20 billion years old, or only 8 billion years old, and whatever they decide, we're likely to shrug in agreement.

Next to our reluctance, the people who wrote these letters are inspiring. Here were people who would speak their minds, and wouldn't be intimidated. "Why you astronomers will not acknowledge my works I CANNOT understand. Are you jealous of me as a simple woman or what?" Mrs. Wiltse demanded. "Of course, I am an unknown woman without money or honor BUT I can fight and I SHALL until I am recognized by the colleges of the world." T.C. Bates, nearing eighty, a self-described "little old twenty acre clodhopper" asked, "What can be the matter with our leading scientists and philosophers? Do they mean what they say? We think they are overlooking a great thing; the fact that human reason has its limits."

"All of us involved in putting the exhibit together ended up having enormous respect for these people," says Wilson. "Even though many of them seem demented or delusional, they nonetheless express a wonderful and perennial quality of human nature: to see for oneself and come to a personal understanding of the great issues facing us as human beings."

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Copyright © 2006 Garrett Soden