The Persistence of Beautiful Things

The Cambridge Science Festival was held last week in Cambridge MA, and the kids and I got to go to two of its events.  The first was Rocket Day in Danehy Park, where they got to tape fins onto two-liter soda bottles, fill them half up with water,  pump them to 70 PSI from a CO2 tank, and shoot them hundreds of feet into the air.   Entirely satisfying!  Fortunately, the park was big enough that we didn’t hit any of the soccer games.

The second was a tour of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.   This is a complex of buildings about a mile from Harvard Yard.  The kids got to make star charts, see how high they could jump on the Moon, and play with the fun Microsoft tool WorldWide Telescope, which lets you zoom in to the highest resolution images of the planets and stars.  The highlight, though, was seeing the Great Refractor:

The 1847 15″ Great Refractor at the Center for Astrophysics, and Leo

It was the largest telescope in the country when built, and the largest refractor  in the world.  Here is the President’s Report of 1847 boasting of its accomplishments in seeing the 8th moon of Saturn and the 2nd of Neptune, but bemoaning the fact that its enormous cost of $36,000 was still not covered, and the Observer still not paid.  They petitioned Congress to avoid paying $800 of import duty on it, but to no avail.  There’s a full description of it and its history here.

The Observatory was out in farmland at that time, on the highest point in Cambridge.  Now it’s in the middle of a dense city.  The Refractor had to cease operations in 1912, when the electric street light got too much for it.   They did get 65 years of use out of it, though, mainly for photometry.

Yet it has now been sitting unused in the most prime real estate in Massachusetts for 100 years.    The dome doesn’t close reliably, so they haven’t even been able to use it much for public star-gazing.    Why keep such a huge and useless thing around?

Because it’s beautiful.   The brass gears twinkle, and the mahogany tube gleams.  It’s mounted on a huge pier of solid, cool granite.   There’s an observing chair mounted on rails next to it, that can move around it and up and down as the heavens turn.  It’s covered in red velvet, and lets you look right into the eyepiece.   Even visiting it in the day time gives one a thrill, and it must be magnificent to actually use it at night.

That thrill is what has preserved it for a hundred years.   Think of the vast number of machines that you have used in your life: the old cars, the old appliances, the old computers.  They’re all in landfills now, or ground up for recycling.   We hold on to very little.  I only own two things from my grandfathers: a wooden-handled screwdriver that still fits the palm perfectly, and a drafting set.  The set was made in Germany in the 1920s, and still has the compasses and the dividers, the holders for pencil leads and the nibs for ink wells.   It’s such a piece of perfect organization that you want to draw something grand and geometric with it.

Walk into any major museum and you’ll see pieces of painted cloth that are hundreds of years old, and pieces of stone that are thousands.   I’ve seen Japanese swords with perfect finishes from 1200 CE; imagine keeping a piece of steel entirely away from water for 800 years.

Whatever a thing’s original purpose was – a sword to chop off peasant heads, a portrait to flatter a rich merchant, a drafting kit to draw tractor parts, or a piece of glass to find new moons – doesn’t matter.  What matters is what feelings it stirs in people of the present.  Give something appeal and it’ll be preserved.  What gets saved is what’s beautiful.

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