A Sabbatical Map

Here is a map of my sabbatical journeys. It includes the trip to Green Bank, the New England swing, and the Grand Tour in chunks. The paths are approximate, especially on the Grand Tour, as they are here driving routes, and I took the train. Also, I didn’t put the exact addresses of the places I stayed. But you’ll get the idea. I think if you click on the box in the top left of the map header you’ll get the legend. Then if you want, you can turn off the driving routes, which will make it easier to see the places I visited. There are several light blue pins marking places I thought I might get to but ended up not going. This time. I worked out a rough estimate that I traveled over 8000 miles in a little over two months.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this experience, for the opportunity to travel to see these amazing astronomical instruments, and for the people who made it possible, namely my congregation at Catoctin Presbyterian Church, my family, and my wife Molly. I am grateful to the church for the financial means to go and for the spiritual support to send me. I am grateful to Molly for her encouragement and for her taking over many of the duties I left as I went. I am grateful to God for the privilege of this journey and for these beloved people in my life.

As my sabbatical is drawing to an end I plan still to keep writing about my experiences. I’m still processing the whole thing, what happened, what didn’t happen, what I learned and didn’t learn, what it all means. So stay tuned.


Observatory 5: Yerkes, Part 3 – The Observing

Written at Sturtevant, WI, Amtrak Depot on Tuesday, August 14
As for the observing itself, the conditions were less than ideal. It was mostly clear and warm 78F at start, 70F at end. Humidity was predicted to be 70% or higher, which is pretty wet. Thin crescent moon (2 days old) was setting as I arrived. Well, it was low in the west. The sky was thick and hazy, and that was the big problem. High humidity, change from mostly cloudy to mostly clear, and apparently, smoke from the California wildfires all conspired against us. The seeing was muddy and rolling, with brief glimpses of clarity. I was really stunned, though, at my first look at Jupiter. Could hardly get a focus on it, and it was yellowish and dark. The color was from the smoke, acting like a filter. It was low in the sky, too, so that didn’t help – looking through a LOT of unstable air. So the image was very large (because of aforementioned optics) but very distorted. It was hard to make out the North and South Equatorial Bands even. Second time viewing was a little better. Could make out the bands and some occasional details between and a bit of darkening near one of the poles (not sure which it was). Still, I’ve seen better with my 90mm scope at home. So yeah, that was a huge disappointment.


Things improved slightly over the evening , but I was frustrated that with 40” of glass to work with here, I consistently have had better views at home. That is the way astronomy goes, though, AND that is perhaps one of the reasons Yerkes is a museum piece more than a research scope these days. Too many nights of weather-degraded viewing a year. Anyhoo,…


Saturn was in much the same boat as Jupiter, only a bit higher. The Cassini Gap in the rings was mostly visible most of the time. With patience and a couple turns I could see disk shadow on the rings behind. A little bit of color distinction on the disk — gray at top, less so further down.
Sketch of Saturn from my journal.
M11 Wild Duck Cluster – Even this was underwhelming. Nice full view of the cluster, but I felt like the stars weren’t quite in focus. We could run the focus in and out, but it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. By this time I was just accepting that the seeing was crap, and I should just relish the experience.
My hope rose again for M17 Swan/Omega Nebula, as nebulae are less affected by bad seeing, but the guys had a hard time even finding it! They added a filter to help. When I got my tern I saw the problem. At f/19 and 475x, we were looking at a tiny portion of the nebula. It served to show noobs what a reflection nebula looks like, but it was like looking at the Mona Lisa’s neck. In fact, we were looking at the neck of the swan, I think. It’s one of my favorite Messier objects, so I think I recognized a pair of stars in the field. Looked like:
Sketch of M17, the Swan Nebula, from my journal

which is cool, but at low power it looks like a swan.

[Here’s a picture I found of what we might have been looking at.]

M27 Dumbbell Nebula – Again, the planetary nebula suffered from narrow field of view and high magnification. It was clearly visible but took up most of the field of view, so there was no sense of scale or contrast. I would have backed off the magnification a bit, but I don’t know where you get an eyepiece longer than 40 mm.

The last object for the night was M2, a globular cluster. This one actually looked good! It was a nice fit in the field of view, and the resolution was good, too. Still felt like it could have had sharper focus, but it was okay. Bright core and grainy cover and pretty even drop off out to the edge. (Yeah, well, I know what I mean.) Really a lovely object, or couple hundred thousand objects, as it were.

Sketch of globular cluster M2 from my journal.

And that was that. They brought the lights up and a bunch of us took pics. I got someone to take a couple of me, one looking at the camera and one looking into the telescope eyepiece. The second was stupid, of course, as (1) the lights were on (2) the dome was closed (3) the scope was no longer even pointed at the shutters. Oh well. The first one is a good picture.

The evening ended pretty unceremoniously.

I stood outside for a little bit, letting my eyes readjust to see what the sky looked like. Pretty much like ours at home, I guess. I hoped to see a meteor before going and pretended I did. It was midnight, and I had an hour to go after a long day, so I hit the road.

Photo Dump… Observatories 7-17!

My sabbatical is drawing quickly to an end. My Grand Tour wrapped up last week. My writing output has been lousy. I do, however, have lots and lots of pictures from the Tour that are in annotated albums over at my Google account. (My last photo dump went to my flickr account, but I got a new Android phone for the Grand Tour, so all the pictures automatically synced with Google, so there we go.) So I’m doing what I did after the Lesser Tour and dumping the pics for you to see. I then hope to go back and add commentary posts here for each leg, plus some interpretive and reflective posts on the whole experience.

So here we go. Click on the headings to see the pictures.


Kitt Peak Observatory

Kitt Peak, near Tucson, Arizona, is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory for the United States, established in 1958. There are over two dozen telescopes of various shapes, designs, and age there ranging from 16″ to 4 meters (160″) in size. They do a nice job with their tours, visitor center, and gift shop. I also participated in a nighttime observing program, and that was also well done, despite the monsoon making actual observing impossible.

Sunset at Kitt Peak

As part of the evening program, we got to view the sunset from the crest, which was spectacular. I took many pictures which only hint at the glory. The clouds made it more dramatic, but as the light faded the clouds took control of the night, precluding any astronomical observing.

Mount Graham International Observatories

A couple hours east of Tucson you can find Mount Graham, but you can’t go up it without a permit or signing on with the Eastern Arizona College Discovery Park tour, which is what I did. It takes over an hour to ascend the mountain road with its 108 switchbacks. At the summit are three observatories: the Sub-millimeter Radio Telescope, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, and the Large Binocular Telescope. We toured all three. Meanwhile, the weather degraded from mostly sunny to socked in, foggy, and 25-30 mph winds. The monsoon is real. I’m sure it had nothing to do with me being there.

Lowell Observatory

I traveled by car from Tucson to Flagstaff to see the Lowell Observatory, about a 4-hour drive. It saved me some logistical nightmares of getting there by train. Lowell is a beautiful facility, and they do very nice interpretive work. They also do public observing every clear night, and we happened to get such a thing while I was there. Lowell, named for famed astronomer Percival Lowell, is where Clyde Thombaugh discovered Pluto.


California Science Center

Not an observatory, but a cool science museum that has lots of space artifacts including the space shuttle Endeavor.

Griffith Observatory

Sitting on a hill overlooking Los Angeles is Griffith Observatory, named for Griffith Griffith. Yep, that was his name. This facility has been an important center for science education in L.A. for generations. It’s still very cool. They do public observing through their 12-inch Zeiss every clear night, despite the atrocious light pollution. You still get a decent view of the planets, which can be a real Gee-Whiz! moment, especially for the uninitiated.

Palomar Observatory

The Big Eye, that is the 200″ Hale reflector, one of the most famous telescopes in the world, is housed in this beautiful, Art Deco observatory dome. If you ever see an observatory in a cartoon, it’s probably based on Palomar. It is still among the largest telescopes in active service, and this is an active scientific facility. A couple hours southeast of Los Angeles, actually closer to San Diego, Palomar doesn’t suffer too much from pollution of the bright lights, big city. They have nice gift shop and visitor center and a good tour.

Mount Wilson Observatory

Mount Wilson was one of the first great observatories on the West Coast, developed by George Hale, the man behind Yerkes and (eventually) Palomar. It’s about an hour and change northeast of Los Angeles and is home to several former claimants of World’s Largest Telescope. Now primarily an educational outreach facility and center for outdoor activities like hiking and mountain biking, Mt. Wilson played a key roll in changing the way we understand the shape, structure, size, and age of the Universe.

New Mexico

Molly flew out to join me in Albuquerque 32 days after I boarded the train in Harpers Ferry. We spent a day doing a self-guided Breaking Bad tour, which you can look here at if you’re into the show. We also enjoyed the New Mexico Space History Museum, the White Sands National Monument, the Three Rivers Petroglyph park, and the Valley of Fires lava flow site. Again, if you are interested in these, feel free to click on over. I’m going to keep the major bullet points for the official Grand Tour sites, such as…

Sunspot and Apache Point Observatories

Up on a mountain overlooking Alamogordo and White Sands, near the town of Cloudcroft, and just down the way from Mayhill where I spent a week on my last sabbatical, you can find Sunspot, the national solar observatory. You might have heard about Sunspot in the news recently. It was closed and evacuated by the FBI three days before we got there, leading to all sorts of speculation and conspiracy theories. Turned out to be a criminal investigation of a janitor involved in child porn, and definitely not aliens. Gross. Any way, just around the corner is Apache Point, an active observatory that is home to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, an important digital, 3-D map of stars and celestial objects that revolutionized the field about the turn of the century. No visitor center, gift shop, or tours, but the public is welcome to stroll around. So we did.

Monastery of Christ in the Desert

This is the bookend retreat for the sabbatical, balancing the week at the Sienna Center in Wisconsin. Molly and I spent three days and three nights with the Benedictine brotherhood at this monastery on the Chama River near Abiquiu, NM. It is a beautiful and remote setting. Most of the time was spent in silence, or a close facsimile, and we attended quite a few of the services of the hours. The brothers start their day with Vigils at 3:30 a.m. and Lauds at 5:00 a.m., and we managed to miss those somehow. We very much enjoyed our time in reflection there, and the night sky was incredible.

Moon Over the Monastery

Here are many repetitive pictures of the moon, Venus, Jupiter, and friends low over the mountains west of the monastery on two successive nights.

Acoma Sky City Pueblo

Molly’s mom joined us from Colorado when we returned from the monastery to Albuquerque. We spent a day at the Acoma Pueblo, about an hour west of ABQ. I had been planning to go to the Chaco Canyon Native American Heritage site, which is the remains of a very large community dating from about 800-1200 AD in northwestern New Mexico. Chaco shows a great deal of intricate astronomical knowledge built into the layout and architecture of the entire site. Unfortunately, the logistics of travel precluded getting everywhere I hoped to go, and Chaco fell off the list. Sky City was much more doable and turned out to be a fascinating side trip. The Acoma are thought to be descendants of the Chaco people.

The Very Large Array

The last of the Grand Tour observatories, the Very Large Array, is a bookend to the first observatory on my sabbatical, Green Bank. The VLA is the largest radio observatory in the world, a collection of 27 radio dishes, each 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, set in a Y pattern with a 22-mile diameter. It is well known from Carl Sagan’s original Cosmos series and the Jodie Foster movie (based on a book by Sagan), Contact. Once again, radio astronomy proved to be absolutely fascinating, not only to me, but also to Molly and Mom who were both quite impressed. Good tour, good visitor center, nice gift shop.

And that’s pretty much it!

We spent a couple days with Mom at her place in northern Colorado, after which we took the train from Denver home to Harpers Ferry. I have some pics of the trip home here. I still have a couple places I want to get to in and around DC, but time is running out to get it in under the title “sabbatical.” Like I said, I hope to post more about the journey, things I learned, ideas I’ve pondered, observations I’ve made about life, the universe, and everything, so stay tuned.


Observatory 6: LIGO

I’ve been keeping up better with recording my journey with my photos, which are now living at my Google account since I have an Android phone. Say what you will about the evil digital empires, it is convenient.

Any way, going way back to Louisiana and the LIGO facility, you can see my pictures and comments at >this link.<

Short form: >LIGO< stands for Laser Interferometry Gravitational wave Observatory, which consists of two campuses, one in Hanford, WA, and the other in Livingston, LA, where I went. It is an instrument that measures the distortion of spacetime by waves created by the interaction of supermassive bodies like neutron stars and black holes. It is a whole new way of looking at the universe, it is incredibly precise, and it is remarkably expensive. New technology is like that. We don’t know yet what the practical applications of all this will be, but I bet it will be cool.

LIGO Livingston is open to the public one day a month through their educational center. They have a very good collection of interactive displays aimed at kids and novices to help explain the science they do there. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly. Tours don’t really show you much of the actual instrument, as it is pretty inaccessible being encased in evacuated steel tubes surrounded by evacuated concrete tunnels. So you get to see the control room and the outside of the tunnels and a prototype of some of the pieces of the instrument. But somehow, that was adequate for me.

It is mind bending to think about waves in spacetime. They aren’t waves inside space but space itself waving. That means when the waves pass over the earth, the whole planet, your home, your chair, your body are all stretched and squeezed. You don’t notice because the effect is minuscule, but it happens nevertheless.

The universe is a weirder place than you would imagine.


Observatory 5: Yerkes, Part 2 – The Night Program Experience

Written at Sturtevant, WI, Amtrak Depot on Tuesday, August 14

Yerkes observing last night was awesome and strangely mediocre. It was amazing to use that venerable, world’s largest refractor and to see how it would have been used for science (more or less). The scope itself weighs 6 tons! And one guy can move it around with surprisingly little effort It’s that well balanced. Like at Allegheny (or probably the other way around), the floor is a giant elevator with the pier in the center isolated from it and the rest of the building. So we moved up and down all night. The floor weighs something like 36,000 lbs with 48,000 lbs. of cement counterweights around the perimeter. A small DC motor moved it up and down — the ORIGINAL 1897 motor! Similarly the original motor runs the clock drive (I think I have that right).

The main dome of Yerkes Observatory, home of the 40″ Alvan Clark refractor, still the largest refractor in the world.

Dan Koehler (KAY’ lur), the director of public relations and tours with whom I corresponded, led the program, as he has done for some 27 years. He is extremely knowledgeable and talked almost the whole time. (We started at 9:00p and ended about 11:45p.) With 18 people in the group we didn’t have huge blocks of time to stare but we weren’t really rushed either. You could look 2 or even 3 times at each object. We saw six objects: Jupiter, Saturn, M11, M17, M27, and M2. These were chosen for their various classes – planet, open cluster, reflection nebula, planetary nebula, and globular cluster – and their positioning. Dan gave detailed descriptions of each, specifically and by class.

The scope is 40” in diameter (the lens is, any way) and 63 feet long with a focal length of 19,100± cm. So the focal ratio is f/19, which means the field of view is tiny! I don’t remember the formula, but it’s really small. Good for planets, not so good for deep sky nebulae. We used a 40mm Explore Scientific (I think?) eyepiece, and that gave us magnification of 475X. It was a great big eyepiece – like a coffee mug or soda can – good for public viewing. Dan’s assistant (read: guy that does all the work) was named Chuck, I think. Let’s call him Chuck. Chuck would slew the six-ton scope around by hand to get it in roughly the right place, then check the giant setting circles (big wheels on each axis of the mount with coordinate system numbers), then adjust again to get about where the object should be by coordinates, then adjust the dome (and the floor as needed) to line up with the scope, then use the 6” finder scope, then jigger the thing to get the object centered in the eyepiece. It took up to 10 minutes for some objects. Dan advised and helped as needed and gave commentary. Then we would get to line up or blob up and take turns looking. We started with lights on, then level by level they were turned off.

Dan talked a little about the fate of Yerkes. He doesn’t know much for sure, but there is a group of concerned, local supporters that have been negotiating with UChicago. It sounds hopeful, but the lack of clarity and information is obviously frustrating to Dan and the others who are waiting to see if they will have jobs. Also, Dan reminds me a lot of Thom Lamb in appearance and manner.

After we observed the six objects, they brought the lights up and a bunch of us took pics with the scope. I got someone to take a couple of me, one looking at the camera and one looking into the eyepiece. The second is a pretty stupid picture, of course, because (1) the lights were on (2) the dome was closed (3) the scope was no longer even pointed at the shutters, all of which is plainly apparent. Oh well. The first one is a good picture. The evening ended pretty unceremoniously. I don’t remember if anyone even said, “Good night, thanks for coming.” It was just okay, that’s it, here’s the stair down to the door. Scientists are not always sentimental.

The 40″ Clark refractor and me
Me, pretending to look through the telescope and also through the dome wall with the lights on. Derp.











I stood outside for a little bit, letting my eyes readjust to the dark to see what the sky looked like. Pretty much like ours at home, I guess. I hoped to see a meteor before going, as the Perseid meteor shower had peaked just the night before, and eventually I pretended I did. It was midnight and I had an hour to drive after a long day, so I hit the road.

Details about the observations are coming up next.


Again, >click here to see my pictures from Yerkes<

Observatory 5: Yerkes, Part 1 – The Tour

[Ed. note – Yes, I know I missed writeups for Observatory 3: Holmdel and Observatory 4: Allegheny. They appear in my post >Picture this…<, and I will try to give them the full treatment eventually. For now, enjoy Yerkes!]


Written at the Green Grocer deli in Williams Bay, WI, on Monday, August 13

So I’ve just come from the >Yerkes Observatory< tour. Wow! What a beautiful place. I made the 12:30 tour, which starts with the history and the architecture o the observatory by a fellow named Robert who is writing a book on the subject. The 1895 building has a number of stylistic elements that remind me of Stewart Hall at PTS (c.1893?). It also has very many quirky symbols, faces, and pseudo-gargoyles to keep your interest for days. From there it was up to the main dome (of 3) to see the 40” Clark refractor. The setting is very similar to the Allegheny 30”. Similarly massive pier and mount and scope, similar elevator floor and dome track and such. Yerkes host Richard didn’t activate anything as Kevin (?) did at Allegheny, though. But, I’ll be back tonight to see it all in action! So excited! And even though I have no room for such, I bought 2 t-shirts. Because SO EXCITED! I’ll use a couple to wrap my icon to ship home tomorrow.

It is tragic that Yerkes is facing closure w/o funding. I don’t know how you find $20M to buy such a facility or the $500k/year to keep it up and open. I mean, that’s a lot of change, but to let such a resource for public science outreach languish seems unjustifiable. The location is too cloudy and light polluted for actual science, and the scopes are too small for cutting edge, or even dull edge science I suppose. It is 120 year old tech, after all, from the steam era. But photons don’t care. There must be some way to use the equipment for good. Then again, nothing lasts but the earth, and that one for another 4B years. You can’t keep everything. Where would you put it? But if you can make a museum out of a singer’s house in Memphis or even Winchester, VA, can’t we preserve such an important scientific site?

Meanwhile, I met another interesting person yesterday at the Meli Diner and Pancake House beside the Comfort Inn where I am staying. He was in the next booth and saw me writing in my journal. As I got up to leave, he asked if I were a journalist. Well, I mean, I was journaling, but I said no. A podcaster, yes, journalist, no. He asked about the podcast, so I told him it was religious stuff…. Pastor… sabbatical… blah blah. Well he was interested in it all, at least for the moment. Then I said, “I assume that you are a journalist?” Yes. He is working on a book about people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. Apparently, WI is a good place to find such. Also, being Paul Ryan’s districted added extra interest. So we talked politics a little. He gave me his card – Ben G_______ / New York / Beirut. Beirut? Yeah, he was there for 8 or 12 years. He says he thinks US is more interesting these days, though. Wow, okay! I rooted around and found my last business card and gave to him. [He said if he’s ever in the area he’ll stop by.] I’ll watch for his book.

>Click here for my collection of pictures from Yerkes.<

Picture this…. Observatories 1, 2, 3, and 4

I’ve been collecting pictures of my sabbatical travels, only a few of which have appeared here so far. I’m putting them on flickr. I think flickr is kind of out of favor, but I’ve got a terabyte of free space, so I’m going to use it. If you want to see my pics, you’ll have to use it, too.

So here are the links for my travels so far. I still have to write up a few of these visits, and I’m about to embark on the Grand Tour, so expect more posts and more pics soon.

Green Bank Observatory

The Green Bank Observatory, Green Bank, WV, is a premiere radio astronomy site and a great place for a star party. Their largest instrument, featured here, is the enormous GBT, or more formally the Robert Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world.

Hopkins Observatory

The Hopkins Observatory at Williams College, Williamstown, MA, is the oldest extent and continuous observatory in the United States, with 180 years under its belt. It has been moved on campus twice and hosts a small museum, a planetarium, and Alvan Clark’s first professional telescope, a 7″ refractor.

Princeton Theological Seminary

PTS is not an observatory, but it is my alma mater, and it’s one of my retreat stops. I didn’t spend as long as I had hoped there this trip, but I guess I spent long enough. Pics include my old hall, Miller Chapel, and the very spot where I met my wife, among others.

Holmdel Horn Antenna

The Holmdel Horn is a national historical landmark in Holmdel, NJ, but you have work to find it. It is on the campus of the Nokia lab on Holmdel Road, across the parking lot, up a hill, around the bend, and in the maintenance yard. It is important for being the instrument that found the first evidence of the Big Bang, namely the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Allegheny Observatory

The Allegheny Observatory is on my list primarily because it’s near my hometown, making it easy to also visit my dad and my daughter. It is, however, a pretty cool site with two impressive refracting telescopes. The smaller, the 13″ Fitz-Clark, was built by Fitz, later damaged, and then refigured by Alvan Clark near the height of his career, and we got to look at Jupiter through it. The big scope is called the Thaw (for its benefactor), a 30″ refractor, about 48 feet in length built by Brasheer Optics.

Coming up next…

This weekend I’ll travel by train to Racine, WI, to the Siena Retreat Center for a week, followed by a visit to the Yerkes Observatory, an important historical and scientific facility that is scheduled to close in October. Here’s hoping they find new patrons. After that, it looks like LIGO in Louisiana, then Arizona, southern Cal, back to Arizona, and New Mexico. That should wrap up by mid-September.


Observatory 2: Hopkins

dscn2317It’s the oldest extent and continuously used observatory in the United States.

What is Hopkins Observatory at Williams College in Williamstown, MA, Alex? <DING!>

I had never heard of Williams College or its observatory before this project. As I started digging around and expanding my list of wanna-sees, and looked for the oldest, this is what came up. It was established in 1838 (the college goes back into the eighteenth century) with equipment purchased from England, of which a transit scope and mercury regulated clock, used together for mapping stars, still exist in the observatory’s museum wing.

From what I have learned, Albert Hopkins, brother of the college president at the time and an ordained minister, was adamant that the college should provide practical educational experiences for students, especially in science and in astronomy in particular so they might experience the glorious works of God and not just read about them in books. He was the driving force and namesake of the observatory. Stone blocks over each of the two doors have biblical references inscribed, one from Isaiah and one from Haggai, encouraging those who enter to consider who formed the heavens and set the stars in their courses.

The rough-hewn stone building is not large compared to others on campus, but stands two and a half stories and contains a planetarium and a museum, and it is crowned with a wooden rotating cylinder (acting like a modern observatory dome) that houses an historic telescope. That telescope, a 7″ diameter refractor, is the first one made professionally by Alvin Clark, the legendary American telescope maker of the 19th century who completed his career with the famous, world-record holding 40″ refractor at the Yerkes Observatory on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. (The Yerkes is on my list for August.) I am told Clark left his job to build the Hopkins refractor in 1851.

I arrived at Williams about 4:30 p.m. and took a bunch of pictures of the Hopkins Observatory exterior. There was a planetarium show at 8:00, where I was to meet John who was presenting the show and was to give me a wee tour, so I had time to kill. The WC Museum of Art was just next door, so I went to see some preColumbian religious artifacts, some costumes of Tom? Shawn, an American dancer, and listened to a presentation on a multidisciplinary investigation into nonhuman animal mind given by a philosophy professor. An interesting afternoon to be sure! Made my way to the Purple Pub for dinner, which took longer than I would have liked and got back to the observatory about 7:50. Just as I was about to introduce myself to host John, a couple of his extended family appeared, and my chance was lost. I enjoyed the show with about 30 other people, more than I would have thought would fit in the wee building, but there were still a few seats after that. After the show I eventually had the chance to introduce myself to John as the guy who was coming, and we briefly discussed how what we had was a failure to communicate. Nevertheless, he showed me the museum pieces and told me about the five directors of the observatory since its founding and other history. Regrettably he said he could not show me the Clark telescope except in the daylight. John and student research assistant Ross encouraged me to check in with admin Michele in the morning to see if I might get a look at the scope yet.

So that is what I did. And Michele, who had scheduled my visit in the first place, got me in with Prof. Jay , who is director of the observatory, and who agreed to show me the Clark. It was quite generous of them both, for who am I but an odd pilgrim passing through, and the professor had just returned from Tazmania where he had seen a partial solar eclipse. Turns out, according to Ross and John, he has seen 66 eclipses live, more than any other human. Any way, we went up the spiral staircase on the outside of the observatory and in the cylinder-dome, and there it was! What a beauty! A long dark blue tube with brass ends and fittings on a more-or-less German Equatorial mount atop some massive timbers. It was pointing down, and Jay said to pull the end down. Wow! I got to touch it and move it! Bang! And knock the far end into a beam! Holy crap!!! Okay it was more of a bump than a bang and no harm done, I guess, but holy crap! Between my clumsy attempt and Jay’s more steady hand  we got the end down where we could read the brass plate: Alvin Clark & Sons, Cambridge, Mass.

Jay also let me try turning the dome-cylinder, which is accomplished with a hand crank. A dozen or so turns on the crank and the roof moved about 6 inches! Jay said, “That’s why we don’t do that very often!” For sure.

I got a couple pictures, and that was about it, probably five or ten minutes, but he was meeting his wife for lunch, and I got to see, touch, and hopefully not destroy an amazing astronomical artifact. I was giddy as a school boy and am very grateful to the astronomy department at Williams College. Get to know their name.


Observatory 1: Green Bank, part 2

Radio astronomy is a fascinating branch of science, in part because it is in some ways very different from optical astronomy. Since we can’t see radio, you can observe and gather your data anytime, day or night. The dishes that act as telescopes get basically one-pixel resolution. So where your phone or camera has several megapixels resolution, the largest radio dishes basically act as a single point, if I understand correctly. It is by panning the dish across an object that you are able to form a picture from it. But there is also a great deal to be learned from radio data without even making it into a picture. For example, different chemical elements give off unique radio frequency signatures. Hydrogen emits radio at 21 cm wavelength, which translates to a frequency of 1420.4 MHz. Since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the galaxy and the universe, you might think that trying to map it would be a little crazy. But an interesting thing happens when you observe a span around that 1420.4 MHz. Because of the nature of space and time and electromagnetic waves, we can detect if the hydrogen being observed is moving toward us or away from us, and how fast it is coming or going, and how far away it is from us. That’s a lot of information! So mapping the hydrogen in the galaxy is like making a navigational map of rivers, harbors, lakes, and seas. It gives you an idea in 3-D of how the galaxy is built and how it is moving and changing.

At the Green Bank Star Quest, I got to do some of that kind of science directly! After a workshop on the basics of radio astronomy (where I learned some of the above), we were given the opportunity to use the 20-meter dish to look at … anything we wanted! A couple others in the class and I looked at two significant radio sources, Cass-A (supernova remnant) and Orion-A (star-forming region). Later we added the Owl Nebula, the moon, Mercury, and a variety of other objects. Some were strong radio sources and others less so, and Mercury not at all, which is weird. I still have a lot to learn about what our scans mean, but it was amazing to be able to run a world-class instrument.

I also got to use the 40-foot radio dish at GBO. It is, I think, the smallest of the active dishes at GBO, but let me tell you, 40 feet is not a small dish! About seven of me end to end would fit across it. This dish is also rather historic in that, as I am led to understand, it was used by Frank Drake for the first SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) experiments in the 1950s and 60s, Project Ozma. This is a transit dish, which means it is always pointed along the N-S meridian, rotating up and down but not side to side. There is a control room in a below ground bunker that looks like a science office from the 1960s. A couple stacks of electronic equipment stand in one corner, the instruments appearing to be of 1980s vintage. By means of analog dials and switches and a digital frequency selector and a tractor-feed data record with two pens, one can collect actual science data by aiming the telescope, selecting a frequency range, and interpreting the graph on the paper strip. It is wildly old school science, and it was a blast! Three of us worked together to get some data under the tutelage of our guide Sophie, but I got to take home the data. I followed some directions on a hand-out and found that the blob of hydrogen we investigated near the center of the galaxy was moving away from earth at (if I recall correctly, as I don’t have it here with me) 48 km/sec. How cool is that?

Along with experiences in several other lectures and workshops, I found that I was just having the best time being a science student again. It gave me a thrill, not only to be learning from professional scientists, but also to do actual science. To be transparent, I also got a thrill from being a good student, knowing or figuring answers to questions ahead of others in the class. Yes, I like being an overachieving, curve-busting, teacher’s pet and always have.

But really, it’s the thrill of the science.

Observatory 1: Green Bank

I spent four days and nights at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in Green Bank, WV, July 11-15. A local astronomy club has hosted the Green Bank Star Quest there for fifteen years. It is a very well run event, and I had a ball.

Now some star parties are just camping at a dark site, observing the sky at night and (as I’m told) either sleeping or drinking during the day. Not at GBSQ! First, there’s a bunk house and cafeteria, so no camping required, although you can if you want. Second, they had tours, speakers, and workshops lined up from 9am to 8pm every day, so no reason to be bored. These were really good, too! I learned so much about radio astronomy, “multiple messenger” astronomical discoveries (finding things out through various lines of inquiry), and even astronomy history! The evening keynote speakers were all very enthusiastic, interesting, and engaging on their various topics. I met some new friends as well as spending time with a college bud of mine. In fact, when I registered I was told I am now part of the Star Quest family!

There is more to write about this week’s experiences than I can manage tonight, but I want to get one thought out there. The principle scientist at GBO, Dr. Jay Lockman, was the keynote speaker for Thursday night. He spoke about his experience in developing one of the Great Courses for The Teaching Company on radio astronomy. He told us about the rather grueling process of writing, editing, and filming the course, about some of the history of radio astronomy that he learned himself in developing the class, and about his own radio research, which ironically ended up on the cutting room floor, all of which was quite interesting. His recent research is on the enormous bubbles of gas and dust that have been found to be expanding from the center of the Milky Way above and below the central core, and how, by tracking neutral hydrogen in those areas, some theories as to their nature and flow have been developed. This led my friend Bruce to ask in the Q&A, “As fascinating as this is, how do you answer those who say (and always there are those who say), ‘What is the point of all this? What difference does any of this make? How does this help anyone, or me in particular?'” Dr. Lockman asked Bruce what his answer is first, to which Bruce said, “My answer is, ‘What is the point of a baby?'” which I thought was insightful.

Dr. Lockman, acknowledged Bruce’s idea but went on to say, <paraphrase> “Of course we who do such things know about the intrinsic value of science and of any sort of knowledge, and we can talk about that and about how we may someday find practical applications to all these discoveries. Further, we can talk about the relatively tiny financial investment that we make in science and the vast returns we receive on that investment. But frankly, I am tired of trying to convince people of that. If it isn’t obvious, it is very difficult to get someone to understand it. What I have come to use as an answer instead is that people are interested in these things. I spend a great deal of my time telling conferences full of people like yourselves about this, and they are excited by it. We have 50,000 visitors a year that come through this facility, because they care about science and want to learn things. So it makes a difference because there are people who care about it.” </paraphrase>

This blew me away, and it continues to provide thought fodder for me. It is a great prophetic statement in its justification of something precious and its repudiation of the inherent repudiation in the question. Let’s look at other cases. We might ask, what is the point of professional sports? What good does it do anyone? What is the point of popular music? What is the point of photography, or sculpture, or quilting? What is the point of fishing, or hiking, or boating? What is the point of collecting antiques or beer cans or paperweights or dolls? None of these things has any practical justification, either, but people pour large amounts of time, money, and energy into all of them and more. People make careers around most if not all of these things, too. Why should science, which produces so much more value to the world than, say, football, be held up for scorn as a waste of time and money? And, if the value of science is found in that humans like it and find meaning and pleasure in it, then so, too, the value of all those other things as well, at least to the extent to which they are not harmful to human wellbeing.

Humans do what humans do. Some of us love science. Let’s give thanks for that.