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.<

Pictures from My Siena Retreat

I have so much to write about, and I’m so far behind! I hope you took opportunity to look at the pictures at the links I posted last time. I hope you enjoyed doing that, because I’m sending you another set the same way.  But not at the same place.

I got a new phone for the Grand Tour. A smart phone. My first smart phone. Yes, I know, but my old flippy was just fine and no one ever tried to hack it, I’m pretty sure. Any way, the new phone is also my new camera, of course. And in a major breach of Douthett etiquette, it’s not an iPhone but an Android-running Samsung thing. It cost about a third of what an iPhone would have been, so I got it. Fine, I’m cheap. I can live with that. But I digress. Any way, since it’s an Android, it syncs with Google Photos, so that’s where my pics are going at this point.

After a stupidly long train trip from Harpers Ferry to Chicago (6.5 hours late arriving) and another hour train from Chicago to Sturtevant, WI, I arrived at the >Siena Retreat Center< on Sunday, August 5. Siena is a ministry of the Dominican Sisters of Racine, and it’s a really lovely facility. There is still a convent there with a fairly small group of sisters who are faithfully living out their vows and their mission of praise, blessing, and preaching. I chose Siena fairly early in my planning process for the Grand Tour, as it is only an hour from Yerkes Observatory, and it looked like a beautiful site right on Lake Michigan with some interesting retreat offerings. These observations turned out to be accurate. It’s a beautiful place, a lovely setting, and I chose an interesting and challenging retreat.

The retreat I signed up for was about the only one I could fit into any plan for the Grand Tour that was open to men and Protestants. It also intrigued me. “Painting and Praying with Icons: Our Lady of the Sign” is what I selected. I remember when I was in seminary and we studied the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1050 AD, which in no small part focused on the proper use or lack thereof of icons. It was the culmination of what I remember being called the iconoclast controversy. I sided with the iconoclasts, the side that believed icons were a violation of the second commandment. As with many things, I have mellowed on this issue a good bit. Nevertheless, the idea of actually painting (or “writing” as it is said) an icon and praying with it was definitely going to be a stretch! Spoiler, I did paint/write my icon, but its future in my prayer regimen remains in question.

So I have a collection of pictures from the retreat that are primarily showing the progression, step by step of my icon writing. It is a fascinating process, but a bit grueling for beginners to fit in a week. I expected that it would almost a paint by numbers process, and that there would be vary little room for variation from the proscribed structure of the icon. At our level of competence any way, this turned out not to be the case. While all (there were 17 of us in the retreat) of our icons are essentially the same, they are also wildly diverse in their style and detail. This is due to different levels of skill and experience in part, as some of us had never really done any painting before and some were 30-year art teachers. But it also was a product of choice and preference, and maybe also theological emphasis. Any way, in the end, the icons were as unique as the people in the room. I think this was a delightful outcome for our group and is also generally acceptable at the casual iconography level. If we were doing icons for a church installation, I think the rules are more rigid.

Let me say just a word more about the group. I was predominantly women and predominantly Catholic, but there were a few Protestants and a few men. Well, about three of each out of 17. Still. Quite a few of the women were sisters, but only a couple were from Siena. One of the Protestant women was a pastor at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. Despite being in the minority in religious tradition, gender, and geography, I felt very much included in the group as a rule. Indeed, the group seemed to gel really well, being very supportive on one another and enjoying one another’s company. You know how in groups like this there is often that one person who is a thorn in the flesh? Well, unless it was me and I didn’t realize it, that thorn was not present.

Now, I did feel a bit like a stranger in a strange land in as much as many of the participants knew each other or knew the same people and places. Perhaps more than that were the distinct theological difference of belief and experience between Catholics and Presbyterians. The icon was of Mary and Jesus (more on that later), and my relationship with Mary is pretty academic. Meanwhile, for most of the Catholic folks, Mary is a present and active player in their daily life. For example, when we were finishing up, some of the women were complimenting my icon, and when I said I had never really painted before they were all the more impressed. One said, “She was really working through you, you can tell that!” I was caught completely off guard by this and had to spend quite a few moment figuring out who “she” was that was working. Of course it was Mary, but it never crossed my mind that Mary was as much author of my icon as its subject.

Okay, well, let’s get to the pictures. The link below will take you to an album full with some additional commentary on the process and the meaning of the icon itself, so I encourage you to go have a look. I say more about him in the album, but our instructor was Drazen Dupor from Croatia, and his website is >here<. Enjoyed getting to know him a bit.

Alright, alright. Enough talk. Let’s look at some >Platytera pictures<. There are a lot of near-duplicates, and some differences from one step to the next are pretty subtle, so you’ll have to pay attention. I’ll be glad to take your questions when you’re done.

And tomorrow, it’s on to the Yerkes Observatory, home of the largest refracting telescope in the world.


Picture this….

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.