The Muleskinner and the Stars: The Life and Times of Milton La Salle Humason, Astronomer

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Springer, Aug 28, 2015 - Science - 196 pages

This is the story of the astronomer Milton La Salle Humason, whose career was integral to developing our understanding of stellar and universal evolution and who helped to build the analytical basis for the work of such notable astronomers and astrophysicists as Paul Merrill, Walter Adams, Alfred Joy, Frederick Seares, Fritz Zwicky, Walter Baade and Edwin Hubble.

Humason’s unlikely story began on the shores of the Mississippi River in Winona, Minnesota, in 1891 and led to the foot of Mount Wilson outside Los Angeles, California, twelve years later. It is there where he first attended summer camp in 1903 and was captivated by its surroundings. The mountain would become the backdrop for his life and career over the next six decades as he helped first build George Ellery Hale’s observatory on the summit and then rose to become one of that institution’s leading figures through the first half of the twentieth century.

The story chronicles Humason’s life on Mount Wilson, from his first trip to the mountain to his days as a muleskinner, leading teams of mules hauling supplies to the summit during the construction of the observatory, and follows him through his extraordinary career in spectroscopy, working beside Edwin Hubble as the two helped to reconstruct our concept of the universe. A patient, knowledgeable and persistent observer, Humason was later awarded an honorary doctorate for his work, despite having no formal education beyond the eighth grade. His skill at the telescope is legendary. During his career he photographed the spectra of stars, galaxies and other objects many thousands of times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye and pushed the boundary of the known universe deeper into space than any before him. His work, which included assisting in the formulation of Hubble’s Law of redshifts, helped to set the field of cosmology solidly on its foundation.

Milton Humason was one of the most charismatic characters in science during the first half of the 20th century. Uneducated, streetwise, moonshining, roguish, humble and thoroughly down to earth, he rose by sheer chance, innate ability and incredible will to become the leading deep space observer of his day. “The Renaissance man of Mount Wilson,” as Harlow Shapley once referred to him, Humason’s extraordinary life reminds us that passion and purpose may find us at any moment.

 

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Contents

1 Early Childhood in Minnesota
3
Untitled
5
2 1902
15
3 Mount Wilson
25
4 Life in the Valley
64
Part II Ordinary to Infinity 19171938
82
5 Winning Friends and Favor
83
6 The Spectroscopists
101
8 The Great Observatory
144
Part III A New Era 19381964
154
9 The War Years
155
10 Beginning Again
167
11 An Aging Star
183
Epilogue
189
Bibliography
193
Index
195

7 The Battle Over the Structure of the Universe
117

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About the author (2015)

Ron L. Voller is an author, illustrator, musician, singer, songwriter, historian and sculptor living in New York City. He is the author/illustrator of 'The Adventures of Jude and the Guitar of Galore' (Author House, 2006). Ron received his B.A. in music and literature from the University of Denver. He began writing seriously twelve years ago after a successful career as a musician. He has written much in almost every genre of literature and has self-published one children's book, which he also illustrated. He has recently submitted an article for publication to Astronomy magazine. Dan Lewis, Dibner Senior Curator, History of Science & Technology at Huntington Library, has referred to Ron as the "world's foremost authority on Milton Humason."

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