Eight members and one guest
of the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society joined 20 members of the Capital
Area Astronomy Club of East Lansing on a field trip to historic Yerkes
Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin on Saturday, August 19, 2000. This was
somewhat of an anniversary trip, since the KAS took a trip to Yerkes
almost 30 years ago to the day!
The adventure began at the Oakland
Drive "Park & Ride" where the sleepy
eyed members of the KAS gathered to meet the bus. Thanks to all our
participants for arriving on time. The bus arrived at We were amazed by the
quality of the bus from Ground Transportation Specialists. It was very
appropriately decorated with colorful stars (and stripes)! We were even
more amazed when we boarded the bus, which was laid out inside much
like a commercial airliner. It had roomy overhead compartments, a
restroom, personal lighting, and closed circuit TV's throughout. We
joked with the bus driver that all it lacked was a hot tub and lower
level recreation room!
Our luxury bus left the "Park & Ride" at exactly We were on our way to
Yerkes! Once everyone was settled in, Robert Miller welcomed us and
distributed name badges. A continental breakfast of pastries and juice
were then served. Jim, our speed racing bus driver, put the bus into
hyperdrive and in no time at all we were at our first rest stop in
northern Indiana. Then
it was on to the WindyCity
and then a lunch stop in northern Illinois
near the Wisconsin border. It struck us that
Jim, our speedious bus driver, bore an uncanny resemblance to the late
Dave Thomas, so we all got a chuckle when he pulled into a Wendy's. We
tried to buy him lunch, but he told us it was taken care of. Hmm?
Jim took the back way into Wisconsin (which he said
was faster) and we were greeted at the border predictably by bovines,
but happily not by a native welcoming party bearing cheese heads. Then
it was a quick trip through Richmond
and Lake Geneva to WilliamsBay and finally
Yerkes Observatory, which to our surprise is nestled in a neighborhood
of modest homes.
Yerkes is very impressive. It is located on a large
tract of land in a park setting. It was built by the University
of Chicago in the late 19th
century with financial backing from Chicago
transportation magnate Charles Tyson Yerkes. University
of Chicago architect Henry
Ives Cobb designed the observatory. The architecture is Romanesque and
highly ornamental, which was typical for the period. One could spend
hours simply walking around the building studying the intricate stone
carvings. George Ellery Hale, the first director of Yerkes, was the
driving force behind the project and went on to build Palomar
Observatory in California.
At the time of its construction and for many years afterward, Yerkes
was at the pinnacle of astronomical research. Hale invented the
spectroheliograph (an instrument for studying gases in the upper layers
of the Sun) during his tenure and many solar discoveries were made
using the 40" refractor. Gerald Kuiper, a giant in solar system
research, discovered methane gas in Saturn's moon Titan and two new
moons of Uranus. He also detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of
Mars. The 105 year old refractor continues to gather important
scientific data to this day.
The crown jewel of the observatory is the 40"
telescope, which today remains the largest refractor in the world.
Weeks after joining the faculty at the University
of Chicago, Hale learned
that the University of Southern
California had abandoned its project to
build the world's largest telescope. The huge glass disks from France
had been acquired by the optical company Alvan Clark and Sons, and they
had already fashioned the disks into 40" lens blanks. The telescope
itself was assembled by the manufacturing firm Warner and Swasey. They
were also responsible for the construction of the telescope mount, 90'
diameter dome to house the telescope, and a 73' diameter elevating
floor that lifts astronomers to the telescope eyepiece.
Our private tour began at (CDT) on the front steps of the
observatory. We wound up sharing our tour with 40 "planetarium hacks"
from the Digistar Users Group on a field trip from their conference in Chicago.
KAS member Eric Schreur was among them. Our tour guide was Richard
Dreiser. After the introduction, the two groups went their separate
ways. We were finally treading up the long flight of stairs for the
highlight of our trip, seeing the historic 40" refractor first hand.
Much to our disappointment, Richard evaded astronomy during his talk
and continually wandered off the topic when he was asked specific
technical questions about the telescope. We began to wonder if this was
some guy they called in off the street to handle the overflow crowd.
Despite the fact of a knowledgeable tour guide, we accomplished our
mission. We saw the larger-than-life refractor. It was a fantastic
sight to behold.
The tour continued with a brief stop in the library. Mr. Dreiser showed
us an astronomy book from the 1770's. Several members of the group made
Mr. Dreiser an offer for the book, but he wouldn't sell! Our next stop
was the dome containing the Warner & Swasey 40"
reflector (which is referred to as the 41" to avoid confusion with the
great refractor). It was more than obvious why reflectors are the
dominant telescope. The 41" reflector was dwarfed by the 40" refractor
even though they were the same aperture. This telescope is currently
being used to test an adaptive optics system, called the Wavefront
Control Experiment (WCE).
It was at this point that our problem arose. As we
headed down a spiral staircase to visit the 24" Boller & Chivens
reflector, our tour guide changed his mind and took the first half of
the group to the dome containing the 24" reflector. The problem was the
other half of the group never heard about the change and was left
hanging high and dry; they kept going to the original destination: the
adaptive optics lab. Yerkes staff member Vivian Hoette showed the first
half of the group the 24". This telescope is currently being used in an
educational program called Hands-on Universe. The other half of the
group never got to see the 24" reflector and only a handful saw the
adaptive optics lab.
Then it was time for the long voyage home after our
three and a half hour tour. Many of us did not want to leave. There was
so much more to explore. The architecture of the building itself needed
at least a full afternoon to survey. Oh well, we just have to plan
another trip (maybe an overnighter next time!) As the sun set slowly in
the west, Jim put the bus back into hyperdrive and sped us to Shoneys
near the Wisconsin border for our evening
repast. We then took the scenic route through Chicago
and returned to Kalamazoo
at . Tired,