Showing posts with label Yerkes Observatory. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Yerkes Observatory. Show all posts

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, November 11, 2018

Childhood Landscape--Growing Up Inside The Minds of Visionaries

While reading a eulogy from 1935 found online, I realized that I had spent much of my childhood living inside the minds of some pretty famous visionaries. There were three I know of thus far, whose realized visions framed my world.

One was George Ellery Hale, founder of Yerkes Observatory, the iconic 1895 building where my father worked. Another was John Charles Olmsted--nephew and adopted son of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted--and designer of the grounds of the observatory. Those grounds served as my very expansive and semi-public front yard.

But the person being eulogized, and the subject of this post, was a prominent astronomer of the early 20th century named Edwin Brant Frost. He was director of the observatory from 1905 to 1932, and editor of the Astrophysical Journal. He was also the man whose love of nature brought into being my childhood landscape, and after a youth spent roaming that broad expanse of lawns, trees, and sidewalks surrounding Yerkes Observatory, my mind seems to have continued down pathways of thought similar to his. As an astronomer first and foremost, his head was up in the stars, but he was also a renaissance man who tracked the arrivals and departures of birds, loved music and singing, played sports. He was, for my childhood world, a hidden figure parallel in many ways to my "adopted ancestor" of sorts, Oswald Veblen, who in Princeton had long ago formed a link between the high intellectual pursuits of mathematics and physics, and the beloved natural world we experience during a walk in the woods.

Though it was Hale who in the 1890s conceived of and found funding for Yerkes Observatory, he soon moved on to other projects, leaving Frost to lead the institution for the next 30 years.

At that point, the observatory was "out standing in its field," as they say, surrounded by what in this photo appears to be Wisconsin prairie. Frost loved trees, however, and so hired the Olmsted firm to create a design for the grounds.

Strange, to learn as an adult that my childhood landscape was designed by Olmsteds, but there it is, seen from above, looking like a giant horseshoe crab with the domes of telescopes for eyes. These are the roads and paths I walked to school, and where my father taught me to drive. Along them lived astronomers like Chandrasekhar, who won the Nobel prize, Bill Morgan, Nelson Limber, and my father, Al Hiltner.

With a long list of trees from many continents, my childhood landscape, unbeknownst to me at the time, was an arboretum of sorts, with some trees having grown to be "state records" for their species.

To a kid who, like Frost, took to sports, the grounds were primarily a place to play pickup games of volleyball, football, or baseball, or launch Estes rockets. As I tested my skill as a golfer, seeing how many shots it took to hit a ball all the way around the building, the trees were challenging obstructions to hit the ball over or around. The working class golf course next to Yerkes, where I spent summers seeking and only once achieving an under par round, turns out to have been Frost's idea as well.

Our astronomical enclave was perched on the outskirts of little Williams Bay, Wisconsin, chosen by the University of Chicago because of its littleness, as a place where telescopes would not be hindered by city lights and pollution. Despite the town's small size, there was also a handy railroad that came into town and could carry students and faculty back and forth to Chicago. It was in some ways reminiscent of the Institute for Advanced Study's location on the edge of Princeton, thirty years later.

My path into town for school each day included a wooded path called "Frost's Trail." In his 50s, Frost lost the use of one eye, then the other, which normally would be catastrophic for an astronomer. Yet with the help of his wife and observatory staff he continued on as Yerkes director and editor of the Astrophysical Journal. A wire was strung from tree to tree along the wooded trail so that, with the help of a cane to wrap around the wire, he could find his way to work. Walking that path thirty years later, I would see bits of the long-since rusted wire, and imagine Frost having walked there, experiencing nature by its smell and touch.

In my child's mind, I somehow conflated Edwin Frost the astronomer with Robert Frost the poet. They both liked to botanize. Both were beloved figures. Both had the northeast in their bones. Edwin Frost's wife wrote poetry. So I wasn't too far off.

The eulogy for Edwin Brant Frost encountered online was written by the astronomer and artist Philip Fox, in the elegant, gallant style of the time. Here are some passages:

Most of the extraordinary people we know who are blind are musicians--Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles--certainly no one in as sight-dependent a field as astronomy. And yet in our era, so saturated with rich digital imagery, it is uncanny to learn that Frost not only coped but thrived without sight. In part due to having learned to do math in his head, he was able to visualize the world he could no longer see.

The dominance of sight causes so much to go unnoticed.

Frost kept records of the arrivals and departures of migratory birds, and even came up with a formula to predict the rate of a cricket's chirp related to temperature.

I made a brief return to Williams Bay in the 1970s, and remember walking Frost's trail one spring day when the woods was alive with birdsong, easily enough to fill one's mind with beauty without the aid of sight. One of the songs reminded me of a riff Charlie Parker often used to end his phrases.

Here's something lost from our culture, as people's lives become more urban--the notion that character is rooted in the land.

A nice expression of love for open spaces. Standing on the shores of Lake Geneva this past September, just down a path from the observatory, the lake relieved of the burden of tourists and motorboats that crowd it in the summer, I felt that extraordinary calm, with silence extending out in all directions.

This passage depicts Frost the astronomer almost as a rock star, conceivable in the early 1930s, when science and technology offered promise of a way out of the Great Depression and into an exciting new world. To demonstrate the wonders of new technologies like the photo cell, Frost conceived of using the light of the star Arcturus to trigger the lighting of the Worlds Fair on opening night. Arcturus being about 40 light years away, the light reaching Earth from the star would have just been leaving it 40 years earlier when Chicago had a previous Worlds Fair. At the appointed moment, the lights came on and the crowd went wild. Frost was celebrated for this poetic application of technology, then returned to the comforting open spaces and dark nights of Williams Bay two hours north.

Since the closing of Yerkes Observatory on October 1 this fall, after 120 years of operation, my childhood landscape is in suspended animation. The grass is still mowed, the telescopes still exercised periodically but closed off from public view. The vision of Frost and others was a good one, but now awaits another.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Trees By the Light of the Supermoon

By the time we saw the supermoon last night, it had risen well beyond the horizon. My older daughter wasn't impressed. "I've seen it bigger," she texted. Au contraire, mon fille. The last time the moon was this big was before our time, in 1948.

Don't ask me why the moon would want to venture closer to the earth, and thus look bigger, given all that's going on here. I'd recommend that all heavenly bodies keep their distance, lest we decide to export our brand of planetary stewardship.

The moon made a fine backdrop for scrutinizing the twigs and acorns of a pin oak,

and the leaves of a red oak in the front yard.

That's Quercus rubra to botany types, with hints of Batman.

The neighbor's spruce tree got in the act.

This shot managed to capture some of the texture of the moon's surface along with a few scraggly pin oak leaves.

Given a preoccupation with earthbound interests, this is one of the few times I've pointed my camera skyward, in contrast to my father, who as an astronomer spent much of his time photographing the universe, and then developing the images in a darkroom in the basement of Yerkes Observatory. The school librarian back then made this lamp, with images captured by the observatory's famous 40" refracting telescope.

The moon will be pretty super tonight, too, if the clouds hold off.