The Grand Tour

If you have been following this journey of mine at all you know it started with a few short loop trips and then culminated in a coast-to-coast-and-top-to-bottom train trip that I refer to as the Grand Tour. You may have seen my map, my photo dumps, and other summary material by now. I’d like to tell you how it came together, more or less.

Y’all ready for this? Um, no.

One of the odd things to me about the Grand Tour is how elusive it was, how resistant to prediction and preparation. Now, if you have read any of this blog, you know that exact preparation is not really my strong suit any way, but I am capable of it from time to time. But the Grand Tour defied my best efforts in many regards. In the months leading up to my sabbatical I had to come up with enough of a plan to secure approval from the session (the congregation’s ruling board) and the presbytery (regional governing body), as well as procuring funding. In this I was successful, plotting the many observatories I wanted to visit, considering location, historical significance, scientific significance, and diversity of electromagnetic wavelengths being studied, as well as several Christian retreat centers adjacent to some of the scientific sites. I was able to imagine well enough a tour where I could travel by train to these various sites in windows that would allow me to catch their often very limited public tours. In fact, I had more than one plan for reaching most of my desired destinations. Further, I was able to construct a reasonable budget for the whole business. I put together a package comprehensive enough that it won the necessary approvals and members of the church made offerings of about 160% of my budget! So I can plan stuff, see.

Nevertheless, whenever I tried to get more specific about the tour, to really nail down where I was going to be when, the complexity of it was overwhelming. Perhaps it’s just the way my mind and spirit work, but I couldn’t for the life of me get the thing to settle down to a single equilibrium state, as it were. So, while I continued trying to do, other milestones started popping up, and I just had to roll with it. The last session meeting before sabbatical came, and no Grand Tour plan. Sabbatical began, and no Grand Tour plan. The Green Bank Star Quest came, and no Grand Tour plan. So I went on that first leg, knowing I still had time. Then I went on the second leg to NY-MA-NJ, knowing there was still time.

Here, let’s pick up from my journal entry for August 4, 2018, which begins with a description of my trip to the Allegheny Observatory and visit with my dad for his birthday at the end of July. Let’s listen in…

Had started arranging the Grand Tour earlier that week [July 23 or so], including a retreat at the Siena Center in Racine, WI, for Aug. 5-11 and the night program at Yerkes Observatory on Aug. 13 – looking through the 40″ Clark refractor. Got home Monday [July 30] and Molly said, when is your retreat? I said August 5. “Oh, Sunday,” she said. “What? No!” I said. “Oh yes, Sunday is August 5,” she said. “#@¶*!,” I said. As things had started to come together, you see, they had changed from “go to Yerkes and come home” to “go to Yerkes and keep going!” That meant I had 4 days to get ready for a six-week trip!

This is madness! This. Is. SABBATICAL!! (Kicks your settled ass down the pit.)

So here I am on a train to Chicago!

On the Capital Limited from Harpers Ferry to Chicago. In coach.

Pilgrimage is like that

And so it went. Chicago was the hub before getting to Racine for a week’s retreat. After the retreat, I spent another several days in Racine, much of which was spent making travel arrangements to get to New Orleans, get a place to stay, get a car, etc. While I was in New Orleans, I spent a lot of time arranging my travel to Arizona. While I was in Arizona I planned my trip to L.A., and while in L.A. I planned my travel to New Mexico. It was madness in some ways, and it took a lot of time and energy that I would have expected to be spending on reading the writings of the mystics and such, or praying, or seeing the less geeky sites, or just resting, or what have you. I do regret that a bit. But the funny thing is that everything fell into place just when it needed to. Particularly, I found nice places to stay at reasonable prices in usually expensive markets and in interesting residential, non-touristy neighborhoods. I had plenty of time for my observatory tours and got to most of the ones I wanted to see. I was able to stay pretty close to my budget. The other funny thing is how ironic it is that I had to do so very much planning the whole time when I always insist that I am no good at details and planning and that sort of thing. I don’t know, is that ironic or just a life lesson?

Let me wrap this up with some more from my journal from later that same day. Having reflected on my experiences and lack thereof in prayer during the sabbatical so far, I went on to record…

… So I prayed before bed Thursday night [8/2]. Again, [as during prayer at Miller Chapel in Princeton,] gratitude upon gratitude! Awareness of the rarity of this opportunity and experience, and its sacredness. I prayed, thankful for the privilege (with all that word carries these days); for protection for me and my family while we are apart; for providence while I’m on the road, that things will continue to fall into place; and for a pilgrim’s heart – that I not fall prey to tourism, but make this a truly sacred journey for the glory of God. This last became a powerful theme and led me at last to pray for great peace of heart, that I may be open to all who are around me and to opportunities to glorify God at every turn.

Last night I prayed with Molly before bed, and prayed much the same way. I feel like it really helped me in reframing this departure. I am a pilgrim now.

At the same time, I will be away from home for longer than I ever have been. I’lll be away from Molly for longer than I ever have been. I’d be lying if I said I’m not anxious about that. But why? Not any fear about our relationship. Just being away from home and heart for so long. Having things so unsettled for so long. Being out with strangers in strange lands for so long.

But then, isn’t that exactly what pilgrimage is about? Perhaps facing this, more than all else, is a lesson worth carrying back to the Church. Well, let’s maybe see how it turns out before we write that sermon, but yeah, keep it in the hopper for sure.

I did preach that when I got back. Might be time to revisit that theme of leaving the comfort of home for the wilds of the next destination where God is leading us. If for no other reason than I need to remind myself how good that can be.

Enjoy the ride.

Observatory 4 – Allegheny

To begin with, here is the link to my pictures from the Allegheny Observatory over at the Googles, taken on my trip there Friday, July 27, 2018. There is some commentary there that will likely overlap with this entry, the core of which was itself written on August 4, 2018, on the train to Chicago at the beginning of the Grand Tour. Here we go.

It has been a wild week or two. I went to Pittsburgh last week for Dad’s birthday and went with Meredith to the Allegheny Observatory. That all came together suddenly, of course. I arranged to go to a Pirates (baseball) game with Dad and Meredith, and in communicating that to Dad, he sent me a note reminding me about the tour schedule at the observatory – Thursdays and Fridays only. Well, the ballgame was on Saturday, so…. I called and left a message Thursday hoping for room in the Friday tour. How popular can this be? I thought to myself.

An Unexpected Journey

Went hiking with Ken K. in Harpers Ferry on Friday morning and heard from the observatory at 1:30 that there was no room on the tour that night. Huh. Not expecting that, but oh, well, okay. I lallygagged around the house a bit, thinking there was no urgency to get to the Burgh. Then I got a call from the observatory at 4:30 that there was a cancellation, and they had spaces available at 8:00! Well, it’s a four hour drive, but yes, of course I’ll take 2 please!

I threw myself and my stuff in the car and drove like crazy to get there. I called M. to have her meet me there. When I hit the turnpike I realized I didn’t really know where I was going. This will end up being a recurring theme, as I had the same problem finding the Holmdel Horn, you may recall. I didn’t have an active smartphone, just my flippy, and I didn’t even have a GPS box in the car. Turns out I didn’t have a PA map in the car, either, let alone a Pittsburgh map. So I stopped at one of the rest areas along the way and set about to buy a map. By the time I found one, about 6 or 8 people had lined up at the counter ahead of me. Ugh! I don’t have time for this! So I opened the map and took a couple pictures of the area around the Allegheny Observatory, and hit the road. Not really proud of that, but it got me there. Except for the part where I missed a turn and ended up going over the Fort Pitt Bridge and through the tunnels toward the airport instead toward the Northside. A little looping around, back across the Westend Bridge, and I was back on track with minimal panic. I arrived about 8:20 p.m., so Whoohoo! Don’t do the math; I was driving fast. Even so, I missed all the introductory lecture and history. The group was just starting on the tour of the building, and M. saw me at the door and let me in.

The Observatory

The large dome of the Allegheny Observatory in sunset and clouds.

The building is a mix of Art Deco, Greek revival, and 20th century scientific lab. We saw some of the museum pieces and labs and such before seeing the two big refractors, which were both very cool: the 30-inch Thaw refractor, which is f/18.8 with a 47-foot long optical tube (!) having been designed and built by Brashear Optical in 1912 (according to the website), and the 13-inch Fitz-Clark refractor. This latter was originally designed and built by Henry Fitz Optical of New York in the 1860s. There is a fascinating story of how the objective lens was stolen and held for ransom, but the director wouldn’t negotiate with terrorists. It was eventually returned, but it was ruined in the process. The observatory hired Alvan Clark to refigure it, which he did, making it a greatly improved instrument. Hence, it is the Fitz-Clark. The tour was quite interesting. Our docent was knowledgeable, having worked or volunteered at the observatory for something like 25 years. He did have an odd verbal tic of sighing dejectedly in the middle of most of his sentences, but otherwise, he was quite good. We got to see how the Thaw scope slews and how the floor is actually an elevator to line you up with the instrument so as to avoid ladders and falls and broken bones. This was fascinating and some brilliant engineering, considering everything was designed to be run without electricity!

The Observing

We got to take turns looking through the Fitz-Clark at Jupiter, as Jupiter was the only thing peeking through the clouds. [Clouds will also become a recurring theme.] Beautiful view, nevertheless. Some detail on the disk, and Ganymede was just on the limb about to disappear. There were about 40 people on the tour, so there wasn’t much chance to hog the scope, unfortunately. Any way, it was very fun to be there with Meredith, and she enjoyed it, too.

My sketch, ex post facto, of Jupiter and Ganymede as seen through the Fitz-Clark refractor.


Just a couple weeks ago Jacob and I watched a documentary about the Allegheny Observatory and some of its key figures on Netf… a movie streaming service. It’s called Undaunted: Forgotten Giants of the Allegheny Observatory. It was fascinating! It made up much of the knowledge I might have gained in the lecture if I had lived an hour closer to Pittsburgh, or if I had better planning skills.

Observatory 3: The Holmdel Horn Antenna

Just to get this off the table up front, this isn’t really an observatory. The Holmdel Horn Antenna (HHA) is a single piece of equipment that is sitting out in a maintenance yard behind a laboratory in New Jersey, even though it is a national historic landmark. What gets it on my list to visit is that it is the piece of equipment that provided evidence for the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe, thus revolutionizing the field of cosmology.

I had read about the Holmdel Horn Antenna somewhere some years ago and heard about it a number of times in stories and podcasts about cosmology. When I started putting my Grand Tour together I looked it up and found an entry in the >Atlas Obscura< website, describing it and its location. For some reason, I thought having read this some months earlier would be adequate for me to find the thing without notes, maps, or GPS. Lesson learned. Little in life is that simple. Now, however, as a result of my naiveté, I have an interesting story.

Setting Out

I started the day at Williams College at the Hopkins Observatory with Dr. Jay Pasachoff showing me the 7″ Clarke refractor, as you may recall from this entry. I figured I had about four hours from northern Massachusetts to Holmdel, New Jersey, and it was before noon, so I expected to be there mid-to-late afternoon and on to Princeton in time for supper. Here’s why I’m not an engineer: I failed to take into account that I was driving into the greater New York City metropolitan area on a Friday afternoon, and that I did not have an exact address for my destination. These are pretty basic considerations for travel estimates probably, so my four hour estimate easily turned into more than 5 hours. Well, I knew I was going to Holmdel Road, but I had lost track of the Atlas Obscura article that has both the address and the coordinates, I did not yet have a smart phone with a data plan, and in my searches from Williamstown, Google was not precise about the location.


I got to Holmdel Road and went up and down it a few times, looking for a sign or historical marker or something to no avail. I was running low on gas, so stopped at a gas station. Full service only in New Jersey, of course, so as I was getting a fill up, I asked the fellow pumping my gas if he knew where the Horn Antenna was. He looked at me a bit and asked, “You a HAM operator?” “No, amateur astronomer,” I said. Turns out Mike (the guy’s name is Mike) is HAM who got his start looking at Saturn in a telescope at the family lake house upstate when he was a kid. Now he lives close to NYC, so Venus is about all he can see. BUT he is a HAM and has talked with the ISS as it passed over. How cool is that?! And yes, he did know where to find the Horn. Go down Holmdel to thus and such, turn left, go about a mile to the Bell Labs facility. It’s out in the yard around back, you can’t miss it. They’ll never move that thing, he said, because it’s a national landmark and it’s huge.

Okay, off I went, following Mike’s directions. I knew the turn he mentioned pretty well, as I had used it a couple times already. But his 1-mile estimate was as good as my time estimate, as it turned out to be about 3 miles to Bell Labs. I drove onto the campus and drove all around the loop, all around the extensive building. No horn. I drove around a couple times. No horn. So I went to the front door and in to find someone who could direct me, which I eventually did. This guy says “Horn antenna? Is that what they call it? I didn’t know that. But yeah, you just go out of the parking lot and turn right, and it’s right there. Can’t miss it.” Okay. Out I go, turn right. No horn. There is something there, though. It’s a small memorial to Karl Jansky that looks like two old steam heat radiators. I recognized it as essentially a stylized version of the replica they had Green Bank. Cool, but not the HHA.

Getting Late

Back I went to the building. By now it’s well after 5:30, and there is almost no one around. I went to a security/information desk and asked another fellow if he could tell me where the HHA was. Nope, no idea. “Can you look it up on that computer you’ve got there?” I asked. Nope, the internet was down, or he didn’t have the login, something, I don’t remember what, but no, he couldn’t look it up. “Is there anyone else here who might know?” Yeah, maybe. So, God bless him, he leads me off across this enormous lobby, half way across the building, and we find a guy who ought to know. “This guy is looking for the Horn Antenna,” says my guy. The other guy says, “Oh, they moved that years ago!” Oh really? That’s not what Mike told me, I said to myself. “Yeah, they moved over to the Nokia Labs over on Holmdel Road.” Well, I had been past that several times, so I knew exactly where it was. Thanking them both profusely, I headed out.

Got to the Nokia Labs site and found a sign: “Horn Antenna – ESCORTED ONLY.” Ugh. So I went to the building to see if there was anyone that at 6:15 p.m. on a Friday who could escort me. LOL no. Well, I hemmed and hawed for quite a while, even pulling out my laptop to see if I could wardrive their WIFI to find that article I’d seen. Finally, I decided just to take my chances with whatever security they may have (which turned out to be none), and up the hill I went. I mean, after all, it is a National Historic Landmark.

Ah, There You Are

Finally, driving into what is basically a maintenance yard with trucks and tractors and sheds and garages here and there, I found the Holmdel Horn Antenna National Historic Landmark. As I write this now, I can objectively compare this antenna to the GBT, to the Sub-millimeter antenna, and to the VLA, and say the HHA is not very big. But in the moment, after such a long search, as I stood near it the thing seemed huge! I guess I wasn’t expecting something 20 feet across the front, 40 feet high, and maybe 80 feet long. As you can see from my pictures, the front edge is curved like a scallop shell or maybe more like a nautilus, as there is an opening and a membrane over the back of the dish forming a funnel or … a horn! It is designed to rotate in altitude and azimuth to point anywhere in the sky, but they keep it pointing at the ground so it doesn’t fill up with precipitation or trash.

It was originally used to track early satellites and such in the 1950s and 60s. Then in 1964 two Bell scientists, while working on some other project, found this low level noise wherever they pointed the antenna. As they eliminated a wide variety of possible sources, they came to realize they may have found a kind of background radiation in the universe. It took some others getting involved, too, if I recall correctly, before all the pieces came together to show that what they had found was the predicted leftover light from the Big Bang that had stretched and shifted across the billions of years of the universe’s expansion from visible light wavelengths of hundreds of nanometers to microwaves with millimeter wavelengths, about 10,000 times longer.

Serendipitous cosmological science machine

I spent about 6 1/2 hours getting to the Horn that day and then spent about 10 minutes actually looking at it. I’m so glad I found it, though, and those 10 minutes were totally worth it. I was fascinated by this piece of industrial science, with its motors and gears and girders and bolts and all, that by chance detected one of the most sublime forms of radiation in the universe.