Promethean Fire – Text by Alfred Noyes
I sing of those who caught the pure Promethean fire
One from another, each crying as he went down
To one that waited, crowned with youth and joy.
Take thou the splendour, carry it out of sight
Into the great new age I must not know
Into the great new realm I must not tread.
The piece was composed for the July 7, 2019, Mount Wilson Sunday Afternoon Concerts in the Dome series, curated by cellist and artistic director Cécilia Tsan.
Mount Wilson Observatory founder George Ellery Hale invited his friend, the English poet Alfred Noyes, on a night when no members of the press were invited, to commemorate the night of first light at the 100-inch telescope dome in 1917. The text of Promethean Fire comes from this poem. Hale’s colleague, my grandfather, Harold D. Babcock, used the text in his obituary of Hale in 1938, wherein he also describes an evening open house held at the observatory in 1919, with music supplied by a strolling harpist.
Promethean Fire is essentially a short tribute to Hale. He had previously built Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin, but Mount Wilson was Hale’s first mountain-top observatory, which involved multiple logistical difficulties. It eventually included three solar telescopes and two large reflector telescopes for night-time work. Andrew Carnegie and others helped make the success of Hale’s observatory possible, Edwin Hubble and others helped make it internationally known, and scientists such as Albert Einstein came to visit. But Hale had the original vision for the mountain.
Discoveries made at Mount Wilson include the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and our position in it, proof that we are not the only galaxy in the universe, and proof that the universe itself is expanding.
Hale did not live to see the completion of his dream for Mount Palomar, the 200-inch telescope, in 1948. He could only imagine the images this elegant machine would collect.