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.

Observatory 7 – Kitt Peak, Part 1

Okay, right off the bat, you can see my annotated pictures of Kitt Peak >here.<

I am now writing this in March, so –– Good Lord, it’s more than six months since I was there??!!! I didn’t write much in my journal at the time, or here. Fortunately, I did add some commentary to the pictures linked above. Well, let’s see how much I remember.

The National Optical Astronomy Observatory at Kitt Peak is about an hour’s drive and change west of Tucson. They run three tours through the day most days: the solar observatory, the 2.1 meter, and the 4 meter. They open at 9:00 a.m. and tours start at 10:00. It was my intention to get there for the tours, because that was sort of the point of being in Arizona, so I was up and out by about 8, which is pretty good for me. Had breakfast from McD’s in the car, which was about the worst food I had on the whole trip — except for breakfast on the Capital Limited. After driving about an hour on that beautiful morning, I was starting to see some mountainous terrain pop up, and not much later started thinking I was seeing a shiny white or silver dot on top of one of the mountains. As I got closer I became convinced it was a dome. Sure enough, I soon came upon the turn off to Kitt Peak! I was very excited. The road up the mountain was quite a drive, a bit of a white-knuckler in places with some pretty serious switchbacks and sheer drop offs. Nevertheless, I made it safely to the top.

One of the first things I noticed when I got out of the car in the parking lot was that it was very, very quiet, except for some wind in the trees. I liked that. Which is good, because I spent all day and a good bit of the night there. Well, about twelve hours or so. I made my way to the visitors center, which is a small brick building with a beautiful mural, a fair sized patio with some tables and benches and sciency things, and an observatory dome on the roof of the building. Inside, it is filled with sciency displays in about 2/3 of the space and a gift shop in the remaining 1/3. Went to the counter and paid for the three tours ($15 for the lot) and for the evening observing program ($75). There were two choices for observing, a general objects and deep sky program and “Our Marvelous Moon.” It still being the monsoon season, I had reserved a spot for the moon program as I figured you can see the moon pretty well even in pretty bad conditions, but you can’t see all the faint fuzzies unless it’s pretty good.

Tour #1

The first tour was led by docent Katy, who is a professional astronomer, retired with 50 years experience. She was very knowledgeable as you might expect, and very engaging, as you might not expect. About 15 people had appeared for the tour, which began in the center with a little history about how the site was chosen, negotiated with the Tohono O’odham Nation, and developed as the National Observatory. The object of the tour was the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, which had been retired earlier in the year. It is fascinating design and an exceedingly large instrument. As you can see in the pictures, there is a large vertical column connecting with a diagonal structure that extends underground. This diagonal column is north >polar aligned<, that is, it is aimed at the north celestial pole, the point to which the earth’s rotational axis points in the northern sky, like an equatorial telescope mount. Because it is, sort of. Turns out there is a rotating flat mirror at the top of the structure on the diagonal axis, and it tracks the sun. The sunlight reflects off the mirror and down the axis through a 500 foot optical tunnel to a concave secondary mirror, then back half way up the tunnel to any or all of three more mirrors. These mirrors reflect the light down into a variety of spectrograph instruments in a subterranean laboratory (which sounds more evil than it is). We got to look in from an observation room about half way down the optical tube, which looks kind of like a subway station. We also got to go down to the lab, although since it is closed now we could only look in. They did 5 or 6 decades of groundbreaking solar science there, but now it is considered obsolete. So we’re back to the question of what do you do with giant, historic, obsolete astronomy equipment? Oh, fun fact. While we were walking around the solar observatory, half the sky was clear blue and the other half was entirely socked in and producing lightning and thunder, so that was kind of exciting. What happened to that beautiful morning I drove in on?

Tour #2

We made our way back to the visitor center to see if there was anyone new going on the next tour. I don’t remember now if there was or not, actually. Katy led the second tour, too, which was to the creatively named >2.1 Meter Telescope< (that’s about 84″ or 7 feet). It is a large Cassegrain-style reflector on a large, equatorial fork mount. That it is equatorially mounted means the base is at a 32º angle from vertical. As the mirror alone weighs a ton and a half, having this enormously heavy yet super-sensitive piece of equipment standing at NOT perpendicular to its base felt a bit unsettling, like something was not right. Like the angles! (See what I did there?) Any way, this telescope has done lots of groundbreaking science and is particularly notable for being the first scope to use >adaptive optics<. At this point, several months after the fact, I don’t remember why, but I felt oddly bored with this telescope. Maybe it was that Katy spent a good bit of time explaining adaptive optics, with which I was already familiar. I remember being grumpy about that guy in the group who thought he knew more than the PhD astronomer, so maybe I converted my anger to boredom. Maybe I was hungry. I don’t know. Looking back, it’s an impressive instrument that I’d love to have in my back yard.


We returned to the visitor center, and those of us who were staying on (pretty much everyone) could have lunch if we’d brought it, which it says to do in the literature for the tours. There is no food service for visitors. So I had brought some leftovers from dinner the night before at Za’atar, a mediterranean restaurant in Tucson. The weather was stable and pleasant at that point, so we ate out on the plaza. There are a couple of tables and benches, along with a couple cool sundials that have no practical application to lunch. I sat with the woman who manages the gift shop and schedules people for tours and night programs. She was very interesting to talk with. She is a member of the Tohono Nation and active in her church. She told me that she loves the quiet and the peacefulness at the top of the mountain (me, too!), and that people in her church ask her to pray for them while she is at work because she will be closer to God. We were both a little disappointed in their theology, but she prays for them nevertheless. She told me about her family and some of their struggles, so through the rest of my travels I prayed for her. 

Meanwhile the weather began to deteriorate, with clouds and fog moving in across the valley and across the mountain, too. Great. Made for some interesting photos, any way.

Tour #3a

The third tour was to the Mayall 4.1 meter telescope, the largest on the mountain. This part was led by a different docent, named Dave if I remember correctly. We began with some background and history at the visitor center, then moved to the parking lot. Two reasons for that: first, we were driving to the Mayall dome, and second, in the parking lot is a large cement donut with a mural painted on it. I had noticed it on my way in but not really looked at it. It turns out that the donut is a slug the same size and weight as the mirror for the 4.1 meter telescope that was used to balance the scope during construction. Once everything was finished and nothing was likely to fall, then they put in the actual mirror. Once that was done, they had to figure out what to do with a giant cement donut. Rather than roll it down the mountain, they invited a Tohono O’odham artist to do a mural on it, and it was put on display in the parking lot as you walk toward the visitor center. It’s pretty cool on all counts. Dave pointed out that a 160″ disk of glass weighs a couple tons, or at least this one does. What is remarkable is that the aluminum coating on the glass disk that makes astronomy possible is equivalent to about two paper clips, just a few molecules thick. Amazing!

We all loaded in a big white van to head up to the Mayall dome. We hadn’t gotten a quarter mile down the road when someone raced up, flagged us down, and told us we couldn’t go, because it was a hardhat day. They were renovating the dome and moving stuff with cranes, so it was declared unsafe for visitors. Well, that made for a short tour. We ended up back on the patio, and Dave continued his lecture valiantly. Shortly, though, Katy showed up, talked with Dave for a minute, and then excitedly told us they had arranged to let us see one of the other telescopes, the WIYN 3.5 meter.

Tour #3b

WIYN stands for Wisconsin, Indiana, and Yale Universities, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO, i.e. Kitt Peak). The WIYN scope, a large (obviously) alt-az-mounted Cassegrain reflector, is generally not open for public tours, but it was also down for maintenance, so we got lucky. It is about 20 years newer than the 4.1, and consequently it is vastly lighter and more compact and housed in a much more efficient box with shutters instead of a classic dome. Because the mirror was spin cast and honeycombed, it weighs about 1/8 of what the 4.1 meter mirror does. This means the mount can be correspondingly smaller and lighter, and the whole thing is just a lot easier to deal with. It has capacity for detector instruments in three different places at once that can be switched between easily by, well, I guess throwing a switch to move the tertiary mirror. There are dozens and dozens of actuators on the back of the primary mirror, which are not so much for adaptive optics as to correct for stresses when the mirror is tipped at different angles. Engineer Emily gave us the tour. She has been working on this scope since she was an undergrad, and now she’s the managing engineer for it and probably not yet 30 years old.

That concluded the daytime program, three and a half telescope tours for $15. Not a bad deal. I spent quite a while browsing the swag in the gift shop and exploring the displays in the visitor center before the next part of the adventure began.

Sabbatical 2018: The Movie

Here’s a video summary of my sabbatical travels touring U.S. astronomical observatories. It is entirely inadequate to capture the depth and richness of the experience, but it will give you a taste with some pretty pictures and peppy music (from http://www.bensound.com).

The review presentation

I presented this with a review of the whole experience, or bits and pieces of the whole experience, for the congregation after worship on Sunday, December 9, 2018. We also video recorded that presentation, including this. It’s under an hour long, and you can see that here:

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.

[Update: I ended up putting all my photos on Google, so I’ve added those as secondary links in the descriptions. So you can see them at either Big G or flickr, or both.]

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.