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.



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