Friday, December 28, 2018

Yerkes Observatory: A Giant Eye in Need of a New Vision

One of the most distinctive and hallowed buildings in the world closed down this past fall. The original vision behind Yerkes Observatory, to understand the universe, carried it through one full century and well into the next.

Now, this extraordinary building perched high above Lake Geneva in Wisconsin is in need of a new vision and funding that will open the doors once again to its fabulous interior and history. We live in a time when great things that have long been taken for granted reveal themselves to be vulnerable, and Yerkes is yet another entity of extraordinary value and seeming permanence whose future is now in question.

I've taken an interest because  this "birthplace of astrophysics" is my birthplace as well. Not that I was born in the observatory--there was fortunately a hospital in the next town over--but while most kids grow up along streets lined with houses, I grew up with a world famous observatory standing just beyond our front yard. Though located in Wisconsin, it was built by the University of Chicago. Through most of 20th century, the university's astronomy faculty was located there, including Nobel Prize winner Chandreseckhar. Among the better known astronomers trained there is Edwin Hubble, for whom the Hubble Space Telescope is named. Carl Sagan was doing his graduate work there when I was preparing to launch into kindergarten. My father was director for awhile and designed a telescope in one of the domes. Most importantly for a kid, he had a set of keys that sometimes I could borrow, to explore the observatory's elaborate interior. Vast indoor spaces have populated my dreams ever since.

This fall I visited just before the observatory closed on October 1.

Yerkes' contribution to the goal of understanding the universe came from or through the eyes it pointed towards the heavens.The big dome still houses the largest refracting telescope in the world, with a lens 40" across. It was the largest telescope of any kind when it was built in 1897. What was impressive for a kid was the train-like wheels that carry the weight of the massive dome as it rotates, the elaborate system of cables that drive dome and floor, and the way my voice and footsteps would echo in that immense, resonant space.

The big dome still houses the world's largest elevator, a circular floor that rises or falls to meet the angle of the telescope. The founder and first director of the observatory was George E. Hale, and his father made a small fortune after developing and selling hydraulic elevators for use in the rebuilding of Chicago after the massive fire in 1871. Coincidence? I don't think so.

The two smaller domes were accessed by narrow spiral staircases. One small dome housed a 40" reflecting telescope,

and the other still has a special telescope my father, W.A. Hiltner, designed and used to study the polarization of light in space. Since the best skies for observing--"photometric", my father would call them--came on the coldest nights, and the domes could not be heated, my father would dress up in insulated underwear and spend the long cold nights collecting data.

A couple times, I ventured to help him, but didn't make it much past 10pm. I remember the mysterious dials, with labels like "declination", "universal time", or "sidereal time." There were red lights to provide just enough illumination for us to navigate, and a needle making squiggles on a scroll of paper, upon which he would write notes to signify which squiggle was which. This was the patient collecting of data--the often boring work that may or may not lead to fascinating insight.

Yerkes is a generous building, its facade packed with ornament and curious figures drawn from mythology.

Gargoyles perch on its sides, apparently having mistaken the edifice for a cathedral.

I call the building generous because it provides a rich visual experience without demanding that anyone take notice. It tells its stories only to those who have time to pause and explore and speculate on the meaning behind the many symbols and colorful characters molded into the walls and pillars of the entryway.

How many astronomers, preoccupied with their theories of the universe, scrutinizing the heavens by night, noticed that they, too, were being watched as they came and went. The observatory has many eyes carved into its facade, checking out the human mortals as they climb the steps seeking knowledge that will last beyond their lifetimes.

That particular steady gaze bears a resemblance to Yerkes himself, whose controversial wealth funded the building. He now sits as a bust in the rotunda, next to one of the building's many clocks.

While the Yerkes historian Richard Dreiser described the building during one of the last tours, I checked out the carvings that likely fed my imagination as a kid, even though I don't remember paying them any mind.

Some of the characters look surprised to find us there in the rotunda,

but the owls look like they've seen it all. Akin to astronomers with their powerful night vision, they show up in varied forms.

This owl serves as centerpiece for a collection of symbols, some of whose meanings have changed significantly since 1897. At the upper left is what for us is a highly disturbing symbol. It looks like a swastika, but is not. A little research shows that the swastika was an ancient symbol of good luck, before the Nazis appropriated it for much different purposes in the 1930s. The symbol at Yerkes, with lines pointed counter clockwise, is a "sauvastica", having nothing to do with the political aberrations of the 20th century. The Star of David design, too, likely had different meaning back in 1897, when it was just beginning to be formally associated with Zionism.

These owls look to be lovebirds.

There's some irony in the fact that a building with so many eyes was directed for many years by an astronomer who lost his sight at the age of 55. Undaunted, he continued as director for another ten years. Some of the story of Edwin Brant Frost, particularly how his love of nature influenced his leadership of the observatory and his reaction to blindness, is told in another post.

Down the marble-lined hallway is what I call "the stairway to the heavens," which astronomers would climb as they headed to the big dome for a night of observing.

The attic seems to belong more to a ship than an observatory,

with its small round windows. There were cots there for astronomers to sleep undisturbed through the day, and in the 1960s, a computer was installed, filling a whole room. I spent some time in there, converting my father's data into punch cards to run through the computer.

The attic also holds some sort of instrument to study the sun, seldom used, apparently.

The observatory made it into a movie or two. For twenty seconds, starting at 1:26 in this trailer for the movie Chain Reaction,  you can see an actor running up from my house towards the observatory, along with some chase scenes in the hallways and on this roof.

The reality was a bit less dramatic. Our community of astronomers and staff, clustered in a pastoral setting on the outskirts of little Williams Bay, would gather on the observatory grounds, sometimes to play volleyball or baseball, sometimes for picnics, which in this photo appear to be pretty sedate affairs. Maybe they were, with ice tea and sandwiches, those aluminum folding chairs and a croquet game set up nearby. The Chain Reaction movie would be much more realistic if it had had the actors running through one of our picnics, upsetting tables, tripping over croquet hoops.

More breathtaking than the picnics was the view from the catwalk of the big dome. Here's a picture of my father with George Van Biesbroeck, gazing out across the lawns and forest, some 75 acres of which remain a part of the observatory and will hopefully be preserved. Lake Geneva, a popular vacation destination for Chicagoans, is in the distance.

That was back when the observatory's value to the world was beyond question. Fast forward to the present, when a few valiant, dedicated individuals are working to give Yerkes a new mission for a new century. The University is in negotiation with the Yerkes Future Foundation, a nonprofit organized to create a vision, raise funds, and find present meaning in this remarkable piece of astronomical history.

And then there's Katya Gozman, a U of Chicago student who gave me a tour and who loves Yerkes at least as much as I do, and Kate Meredith of GLAS Education (Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM), who leads the education and outreach that, since the building's closing, has relocated offsite.

Their passion and dedication to the observatory's future gives hope that funding will ultimately come forth to match the love.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Unexpected Backyard Beauty

When autumn color is gone, and the landscape is dressed in drab for the coming winter, these collages of ice, leaf, and reflection come as a surprise. They are the work of nature on a most humble canvas, revealed at the end of this post. If you want to expand each photo to have a closer look, click on it, then click the left arrow to return to the post. They feel good to gaze upon, and need no words.

Particularly mysterious are the horizontal streams of bubbles caught in the ice.

Do you see the face in this one?

This 35 gallon plastic tub that catches runoff from the roof is the humble canvas upon which these photographed images formed. Maybe the face in the previous photo is the water's memory of Leo, who sometimes takes a drink when the ice has thawed.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

What A Yard Can Learn From the House it Surrounds

When I see leaves out-cast on the street, I think of what the inside of a home would look like if there were no closets, shelves, or pantry. Clothes would be flung over the furniture. Camping equipment would be piled in a corner of the dining room. The hallway would be cluttered with canned goods and dishes.

Storage is basic to our indoor lives, and yet has somehow gone missing in those outdoor spaces just beyond the front door. We don't make a house presentable for company by tossing all the leftovers in the frig out on the front steps. Somehow a yard is expected to be all living room, all display, without any division of space to accommodate the variety of functions we take for granted indoors. Shrubs could be used to create "rooms", but instead are either pressed against the foundation or along the fenceline.

Thus, when leaves fall, many people feel they have no place to put them other than out on the street, where they represent a hazard for bicyclists and, in this photo, addled parents dropping their kids off for school.

Elsewhere in town, the perception of leaves as litter rather than stowable resource can leave whole lanes blocked for days or weeks.

The alternative involves designing outdoor space to emulate the multi-use partitioning of indoor space. Areas devoted to lawn are like a living room carpet, shrubs are like decorative furniture or walls, trees like a roof. And some out of the way spots serve as closets or pantries, perhaps "walled off" by shrubs.

Dealing with leaves becomes a process of raking them onto a tarp and carrying them off to the "pantry," like wine that will get better with age.

This particular pile of leaves, 10x8x3, looked like a lot, but is mostly fluff, like a big pillow.

The leaves headed to a 6-foot diameter leaf corral which, for demonstration purposes, is integrated into a front yard garden. The pile of leaves from the driveway easily fit in the corral. This year's innovation: the top of the piled leaves was made concave, so that rain will seep into the pile, helping accelerate the decomposition. When a rain comes, the fluffy pile will quickly contract, leaving room for yet another pile of leaves from somewhere else in the yard. Leaf piles continue to reduce in size day by day, which means a leaf corral steadily makes room for more and more material throughout the winter, spring, and summer.

If only closets worked like that.

Maybe it was a youth spent in Wisconsin, driving through farmland dotted with picturesque silos, that makes this frontyard scene seem just as aesthetically pleasing as any other yard on the street. It can be depressing to ride through a town where so many yards are unused, like empty outdoor mansions that are kept swept but devoid of life and utility.

In the photo, the large leaf corral is barely visible behind the tree in the background. The smaller, 3' leaf corral in the foreground is the "Wishing (the earth) Well," which encourages passersby to drop a leaf in and make a wish. It has a central cylinder of critter-proof wire mesh where food scraps get tossed, to decompose while hidden from view by the surrounding leaves. There's no odor because the decomposition process is aerobic.

Each fall, before accepting a new crop of autumn leaves, the Wishing (the earth) Well yields a wheel barrow full of rich compost, to be spread on the vegetable garden.

If only all the unused stuff clogging our homes would magically break down into the building blocks of new life. Yards can learn a lot from houses, and in some ways may come to outshine their teacher. That's the way it oughta be.

Friday, December 07, 2018

My Letter About Wildfire in the New Yorker Magazine

The New Yorker published another letter of mine, this time about the often unmentioned ecological role of wildfire. The letter was in response to an article by Ian Frazier entitled "The Day the Great Plains Burned." For someone familiar with the fascinating subject of fire ecology, even the article's title sounded curious. Fire has swept across the prairies for millennia, whether started by lightning or by American Indians.

As with most coverage of wildfire, the article's focus was on the destructiveness of the fire and the negative impact on people. What goes unmentioned in nearly all news coverage is that, depending on the intensity and frequency, fire can play a highly beneficial, even essential role in many plant communities.

The prairie grasses are well adapted to fire. Their perennial roots, unharmed by the fire, quickly sprout new growth afterwards, enriched by the nutrients released in the ash left behind. Like oak leaves and pine needles, the dead stems of native prairie grasses are resistant to decay--an adaption that encourages fire to sweep through, exposing mineral soil upon which their seeds can sprout.

Adhering to a compelling storyline of destructive fire, of brave firefighters, and of helpless victims, journalists cannot see beyond their preconceptions. To portray wildfire accurately, they would need to explain that wildfire is a friend that we have turned into an enemy. That is a more complex story less flattering of those consuming the news.

Similarly, and this part of the letter was edited out for space considerations, others look at nature and see only God's will. One very useful aspect of the article was the non-judgmental interviews with people affected by the fire. One resident put it this way:
“I’m not knowledgeable about that. Climate change, if it exists, might have something to do with the fires. But, whether it does or not, I know God is in control. He allows or causes the increase in fires to happen for a reason.”
“The fires are a wake-up call. They will get worse. We humans think we are in charge. We think we are indispensable to God, but he is showing us that he is in control. He is telling us that we need to find God.”
One way to accommodate both religion and science is to say that science is the study of how God works. That philosophy allows people to study nature as a means of better understanding God. More widespread, it seems, is the view that God acts directly upon us, and uses nature as a mere tool. This view, like the journalist's compelling but misleading storyline, blinds people to the ecological realities behind a wildfire.

The central challenge of the 21st century is to develop a healthy relationship with nature, to give back as much, or even more, as we take. To do that requires stripping away the filters that prevent us from seeing and appreciating nature's brilliant logic. Sometimes that logic, like rainy days and freezing cold, can be inconvenient, exasperating, even dangerous. More often, understanding reveals an elegance and beauty in nature's workings, and a way for us to participate in sustaining its balance and beneficence.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Vision Hill--A Sacred Place From Childhood

In the well-traveled world, there are special places people pass by everyday but have never noticed. This website is populated with many of these, places that lie hidden in plain sight as we speed by. This one is a scene from childhood, vivid in my memory but unknown to many who live there now.

When I returned earlier this fall to the small town of Williams Bay, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Geneva where I spent the first 16 years of my life, one place I wanted to visit was a grassy bit of high ground called Vision Hill. What made this clearing in the woods special for me was not the view of Lake Geneva, mostly blocked by trees, but a small gathering place built into the hillside.

There were stone terraces for sitting, and a stone podium for holding forth. I may have only visited it a few times, it being on the fringe of my childhood orbit, and have no memory of ever seeing it used, but this special place in the woods has always played on my imagination.

Having been prepared to find it completely overgrown, like a Mayan ruin, or even sold off and developed, I was surprised to find the lawn still mowed, the terraces ready for an audience to gather, the podium patiently awaiting a speaker. Unappreciated in childhood was the sturdy and well-crafted stonework.

It was a surprise, too, to see signs still standing, carrying a religious message that somehow hadn't registered before. My memory had secularized this place, universalized the concept of vision. Regardless of religion, a hill serves all who seek vision, insight, perspective.

For a kid growing up next to Yerkes Observatory--a small but world-class astronomical enclave on the edge of town--religion meant getting up on a Sunday morning, putting on a skinny tie and heading down the hill into town to congregate at the Congregational Church. It was mostly my mother's idea, a legacy of her father, a minister in Ohio who, interestingly enough, also founded the chemistry department at the University of Toledo. He was a minister in the summer, an academician the rest of the year.

The strong faith he must have felt seems to have become diluted in subsequent generations. I'd hear the words, read a paragraph or two in the bible I was given, but none of it stuck. When we sat on the floor in front of the Sunday school teacher and sang "Jesus loves me, this I know", I felt reassured at the possibility, but no closer to believing. During sermons, I would gaze upward at the beautiful A-frame wood ceiling, or at the louvers from which emanated the rich tones of the organ, or at the elaborately carved eagle decorating one of the lecterns. The wood and the music were real, but God remained an idea. Church service is where I discovered that my dad's passion for opera didn't translate into being able to sing. He was an astronomer, and though I didn't pick up much actual astronomy from him, I got to visit distant desert mountaintops during his observing runs. Those telescope-studded mountains too were vision hills, where people could peer deep into the universe.  From my father I also gained a scientist's curiosity and openness to possibility. I didn't see much evidence to support religion's narrative, but have never fully rejected it either.

George Hale, the astronomer and visionary who founded the observatory where my father worked, also had a grandfather who mixed religion and science--"a Congregational minister who later became a doctor." For him, too, religion didn't take. According to an online history of Hale,
when his wife asked him to go to church “for the sake of the children,” he wrote: “Of course you must see that it is hard—really impossible—for me to reason one way through the week, and another way on Sunday. My creed is Truth, wherever it may lead, and I believe that no creed is finer than this.”

Though truth has not led me resoundingly to God, it has not led me resoundingly away, either. There have been times when serendipity seemed to go beyond mere chance, to imply a state of grace.

The podium, or pulpit, at Vision Hill turned out to be a perfect height for leaning forward to deliver a message, and when my congregation of two requested my CO2-We're an It sermonette, I obliged, hoping that the grandfather I never knew would have approved.

Botanically, the hill doesn't much reflect the natural splendor of a creator's original vision. It would be nice to think that spring wildflowers still bloom on the hillside, but in early fall, there wasn't much beyond weedy species coating the ground beneath some walnut trees, black locust, and ash trees succumbing to Emerald Ash Borer. It was heartening to see that stiltgrass has not yet reached my home town.

Nearby, on the side of the hill facing the lake, were a few wooden signs with quotes from the Bible, weathering with time like fading memories.

The signs are along a path heading up the hill from what in my day was called George Williams College Camp. Stone benches were set next to the signs to expedite contemplation as the hiker gazed out over the college campus and the lake. The trail is still used, but the overgrown benches have met much the same fate as my early religious training.

Ground-ivy, also known as creeping Charlie or gill-over-the-ground, now blankets much of the hill with its tiny roundish leaves, a testament to what can be achieved by a weedy ground cover's slow spread over time.

Still, for anyone seeking remnants of their childhood landscape, this visit would have to be counted a great success--a sleepy hilltop improbably surviving a turbulent era, tended to and used just enough to match the memory. Better yet, I was able to show it to some of the Yerkes observatorians who live nearby but were unaware of its quiet presence just a short walk from the road.

The college's website includes a map showing its location (#11), with a short description of the walk leading up the hill. Interesting in the description that there was a "head for the hills" element in the origins of the outdoor chapel on Vision Hill--an escape from the racket of the motorboats on the lake. Here was a point of unity between the religious and secular worlds. Whether it was an astronomer peering into the sky, or a worshipper seeking communion of a spiritual sort, both of these activities depend on a lack of interference, be it light pollution or noise pollution.
"Another path leads to Vision Hill, once called “Inspiration Hill,” which was purchased in 1906. It was originally used as a place of worship when lakeside services became interrupted by the sounds of motor boats on Geneva Lake (one worshipper actually caught a fish during a service)."

Friday, November 23, 2018

Autumn Leaves in an Upside Down World

Turn a photo of a woodland pond upside down, and it almost looks like the leaves are still on the tall trees reflected in the water. Sweetgum, pin oak, and black birch all are represented in the leaves below and the trees above.

A fallen black birch sprawls across the water. If the trees around this pond could look down, they would see their fate in their reflections.