Review of Book about Gemini Observatory

On a long flight, I read a fascinating and frustrating book about the history of the twin Gemini 8m telescopes and the optical/infrared astronomical landscape: Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology by historian Patrick McCray. Time for a book review and a new wiki page for books!

“Giant Telescopes” is two books in one. The second half tells the history of the Gemini Observatory. (Gemini is two 8m telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, built by the US, UK, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina, and managed by AURA.)

The first half of the book examines the roots of post-WWII US astronomy — how telescopes have been funded and built. Reading this first half, I felt like someone who has hiked the Grand Canyon for years, and who finally reads a book explaining the geology of the Canyon. McCray’s thesis is that the landscape of optical/infrared astronomy has been shaped by two consistent trends over 70 years: 1) the tension between the Pasadena elites (the lords of Mt. Wilson, then Palomar, then Keck) and everyone else; and 2) the three-pipe funding system (from NASA, private/state partnerships, and the NSF). The book fleshes out how that landscape gave us telescopes, specifically Gemini.

I thought I knew this landscape, given the decade I’ve spent in the Arizona and California observatory systems. But I’m embarrassed to say that I learned a lot from this book. For example, I’ve been paying attention to the push for next-generation ground-based telescopes (TMT and GMT are the two US-based projects; there’s also the European ELT.) I knew that these telescopes have very different designs: TMT uses 492 tessellated 1.4m hexagons, whereas GMT uses seven 8m round mirrors. But I didn’t know that the competing designs for the two US projects can be directly traced back to a competition in the early 1980s between U. Arizona and U. California to build a 15m National New Technology Telescope (NNTT). The book has a (not available online) photo of little balsawood models of competing 1980s-era designs for the NNTT, which clearly shows that these were the designs that would evolve into the current generation of observatories — Keck and LBT — as well as the future observatories TMT and GMT.

The second half of the book (building the Gemini telescopes) I found much less interesting than the first half. I don’t know the history of Gemini well enough to judge the factual accuracy of this section — comments are welcome.

A few questions that this book answered for me:

  • Why is funding for US astronomy a three-pipe system?  (NASA, NSF, and private/state funding)
  • How did Caltech become the dominant partner in Keck, if the University of California designed it?
  • Why was there so little innovation in telescope design for 30 years, between Palomar and the MMT?
  • Why weren’t Gemini’s mirrors made by the Arizona Mirror Lab?
  • Who was Leo Goldberg, anyway?
  • How did AURA come to be, and how did it come to run observatories as different as Kitt Peak and Hubble?

The book raised but did not answer some bigger questions:

  • What is the role of a national facility, when it’s not the biggest or best?  (McCray spends much time comparing astronomy (where the biggest facilities are private) to particle physics (where all the facilities are national.))
  • Are international projects more scientifically productive?  Are they better for national needs?
  • Why has California dominated US astronomy?  Will that dominance continue?

The book also explores several other theses that the author finds important, which you may or not:

  • Gemini was built in the modern way, through systems engineering.
  • Astronomy, like its big brother particle physics, has moved toward big projects and large collaborations.
  • Astronomy has evolved from steer-the-telescope-and-freeze, to push buttons in the control room, to remote observing, to queue access.  (He sees this as a fundamental shift; I’m unconvinced it’s that big a deal.  Just as I don’t really care whether I get my news by radio, print newspaper, or online newspaper — the important thing is to get the information.)

Several aspects of the book disappoint. There’s insufficient discussion of the tension between ground-based and space-based telescopes and funding. McCray does acknowledge that astronomy transitioned in the mid-1990s from being mostly funded by NSF to mostly funded by NASA, and that space telescope time (unlike ground-based time) comes with analysis money. But otherwise NASA is mostly off-stage, which causes McCray to miss the obvious evolution in the 1990s, in which NOAO’s core constituency (astronomers without access to private telescopes) transitioned from using Kitt Peak to using Hubble, in part because Hubble observations comes with data analysis money.

Nor is there discussion of the divorce between Caltech and Carnegie (which used to share facilities), though this divorce had a major impact on the development of large telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, the eventual sites of the twin Gemini telescopes. Most frustratingly, since the book was published in 2004, shortly after Gemini was completed, there’s no comparison of the science return from Gemini as compared to other observatories.  Dollar-for-dollar, was Gemini a good investment?  McCray doesn’t ask.

And some nits to pick: dollars aren’t inflation-adjusted; units aren’t consistent; there are too few (and oddly-chosen) figures; and Gemini’s infrared optimization is described ham-handedly, with no separation of near-IR and thermal IR, which if course have very different design drivers.

Colleagues, I’d really like to hear what you think about this book. I’ve not used Gemini (though I’ve benefited from my collaborators’ large Gemini program), so I was less interested in the history of Gemini per se, than in the backstory, and in what a disinterested historian perceives to be the major driving forces in our field.

Other book recommendations? (Props to S. Kassin for recommending this one). I’m going to tackle Hubble books next.

11 comments… add one
  • John O'Meara Feb 1, 2012 @ 8:23

    I’ll definitely have to pick this one up.

    A book recommendation for you would be ‘The Perfect Machine’ which chronicles the history of the building of Palomar. So much interesting history in that book (First big scale use of pyrex? telescopes. The Shane 3 meter at Lick? Focusing mirror for the Hale. Flooding? Save the cooling mirror blank!)

  • Jane Rigby Feb 1, 2012 @ 8:48

    John, I loved “The Perfect Machine.” George Ellery Hale was amazing — it’s hard to believe one person achieved so much.

  • Benny Feb 1, 2012 @ 9:27

    Hi, thank you for this review – sounds like a very interesting book.
    I haven’t read it, but from your review I got the feeling that it cannot serve an un-biased view of the “Caltech vs. the world” tensions.
    [I heard enough comments from Pasadena-people about how Gemini is a disaster, while they could barely name a single instrument, or, when I pushed a bit, name a single Keck instrument which is comparable to some of Gemini’s…]
    anyway – this sort of tension is out there, and I suspect that an author with the aim of telling Gemini’s history is naturally biased. Would you say you actually felt this ?

    Regarding your comment on the major shift (“I’m unconvinced it’s that big a deal. Just as I don’t really care … the important thing is to get the information”). I think it IS a crucial point, especially for the younger generation. As a grad student, I followed a fully observational project, with lots of Gemini and VLT time… all in “queue”. This means I’m an “observer”, but never (officially) visited a proper modern facility. If you couple this to the fact that many depts. don’t have private facilities and, you get a lot of young people who never really got the meaning of guiding, acquisition, focus, slit position etc etc. [I was surprised when, in an unofficial visit to Gemini, the night staff walked out for a few minutes to observe the chance for light clouds…]. I’m not necessarily saying its BAD, but it surely is different, very different, from what all observers went through “back in the days” (read: back when out PhD advisors did their last round of hands-on observational research).

    Sorry for the length, and thanks again for the review and blog!

  • Ian Feb 1, 2012 @ 13:17

    This book was on my reading list, too, so thanks for the preview. I’m not sure whether to feel protected or uninformed that I know so little about the great Divorce…

  • bph Feb 1, 2012 @ 13:43

    The reason why CalTech is a half owner of the Keck Observatories is because they showed up with the Keck Foundation money. CalTech, like a lot of big name private universities, has a huge fund raising advantage over UC.

    CalTech is not, however, the dominant partner. The board is split by member institutions in proportion to funding and so has the same amount of UC and CalTech representation (arguably NASA is underrepresented.)

    see, for example,

  • Sarah Feb 1, 2012 @ 17:12

    I read this book while writing my PhD thesis, which was on ELT-related technology. I found it quite inspirational for my own work – definitely worth reading if you’re into telescopes, instruments, politics, astronomy….

  • Ben Feb 1, 2012 @ 22:10

    I think there is some discussion of the Carnegie-Caltech divorce in Dennis Overbye’s “Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos,” although that’s not a primary concern of the book. It’s a very engaging book, more focused on the people and science than on the policy/politics that drive the field, which is the concern of “Giant Telescopes.”

    Having at least some idea of where the politics came from is very valuable because we all have a tendency to accept the way the field is as “just the way things are,” rather than understand that there are specific economic and political reasons that they came about. For example, the private/public observatory distinction is very different in US radio astronomy – why? Partly because US optical astronomy really started in the late 19thC as individual projects funded by wealthy patrons, while US radio astronomy developed out of WW2 technology and was Big Science from the beginning. That’s an oversimplification, but with a large kernel of reality.

    Benny, one of the things that cranky old observers lament, while banging their wheelchairs together playing floor hockey, is exactly what you point out. It’s possible to do an observational project from space, or in queue mode, or with large databases, without ever going to a telescope. And a limited number of small telescopes, or public telescopes, limits the opportunities for training students on them. Is this a bad thing? I think so, in the sense that if you never actually observe you never really understand the limitations of data, pointing, focusing, seeing, and so on; if you never look at the light path through a spectrograph you never quite understand what the tradeoffs are when designing a spectroscopic observation.

    However, I will say, it’s often still possible to go to a telescope if you bug people to let you do it (rouse a cranky old observer from his or her slumber, they might like to have someone to talk to). This may be less true in places where all the national facilities are strictly queue-scheduled, and the downside of that is a discussion for another day.

  • Marshall Perrin Feb 3, 2012 @ 11:11

    bph wrote:

    “The reason why CalTech is a half owner of the Keck Observatories is because they showed up with the Keck Foundation money. CalTech, like a lot of big name private universities, has a huge fund raising advantage over UC.”

    That’s not the complete story. The UC originally had a big-money donor of their own as well, in fact before Keck, and Caltech was going to be a minor partner. When the Keck donation happened, the two institutions suddenly realized they had enough money to build *two* telescopes, and thus was born the idea that UC and Caltech would each fund one of the two telescopes. However, this woman passed away unexpectedly, and her heirs decided they had other plans for the money, so in the end Keck agreed to double the gift and cover the construction cost of both. See page 82 of Structures of Scientific Collaboration [Google Books] by Shrum et al., or the chronology that Jerry Nelson gave in his retrospective of Keck presentation available here [PDF], see slide 41.

  • Xeneize Feb 3, 2012 @ 12:06

    Dear Jane, interesting comments, thanks. Another part of the less known history: the birth of the Gemini Project is also in part related to the interest by the US Air Force to share the knowledge of adaptive optics technology with astronomers in the last part of eighties. Please, see this illuminating book “The Adaptative Optics Revolution. A history” (2009, Duffner, Robert W),

  • Bruce Macintosh Feb 7, 2012 @ 17:31

    Add me to the list of people recommending “The Perfect Machine” – it’s a very nice counterpart to this Gemini book. It’s perhaps a bit more personality-driven, maybe because the key players aren’t around to be offended – and also deals well with the technical challenges.

    I wouldn’t beat up McCray too much for not covering ground-vs-space tensions – this is a relatively focused book (in spite of the title) on the national project that became Gemini. Caltech vs Carnegie is also somewhat out of scope (but treated in “The Perfect Machine”).

  • Iva Feb 8, 2012 @ 17:17

    I recently came across a book about Henrietta Leavitt. It’s on my reading list.

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