Yerkes Prepping for Different Duties... Jul 9, 2006 12:17:56 GMT -6
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on Jul 9, 2006 12:17:56 GMT -6
U. of C. says goodbye to storied eye to the sky
WILLIAMS BAY, Wis. -- In the gloaming between Earth and stars lurks the humpbacked silhouette of the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory, its great glass eye on a universe whose secrets it has plumbed since 1897.
Armed with celebrated history, it faces a more modest future--educational outreach instead of cutting-edge research.
Obsolete almost as it was built, the observatory and its 40-inch-wide main telescope--still the biggest glass lens in the world--were left behind by better-equipped astronomers in the push to the edge of the universe. Instead, its researchers had to study the closer objects that others ignored.
Yet, patient as the skies, the observatory endured long enough for a second life, this time as a tool for inspiration.
The decisive move came last month, when the University of Chicago announced a real estate sale that would preserve the observatory for academic outreach, while gracefully letting the university out of costly day-to-day operations.
"Our hope is that the observatory can be in the 21st Century a greater center for outreach in astronomy than the observatory was to research," said Hank Webber, University of Chicago vice president for community and government affairs. "Our goal is to preserve it in a way that would serve more schoolkids and more teachers."
Some oppose deal
Skeptical neighbors, powerful alumni and competing developers are scornful of the deal, through which the university will get $8 million from New York developer Mirbeau Co.
The land deal--settled except for the smallest details--would transform dozens of acres on the observatory's grounds into luxury homes and a new resort. Taxes from new neighbors, plus five more years of operational expenses and a $1 million dowry from the university, are to preserve the place as a celestial extension school, notable for its lineage of astronomers, filigree of Victorian adornments and a telescope that capped an earlier technological age.
Edwin Hubble did graduate work behind that lens. Albert Einstein visited once. But its future is fixed. No matter who runs the facility near Lake Geneva, research is winding down at Yerkes.
This is retirement, telescope style.
Like energetic emeriti reluctant to give up work, several aging telescopes have reinvented themselves as centers for academic outreach. The 36-inch Great Lick Refractor in San Jose, Calif., built in 1888, is home to college astronomy courses and teacher workshops.
The Allegheny Observatory's 30-inch Thaw refractor in Pittsburgh, installed in 1912, was used to study the weights of stars before university students seized it for class work. With a digital camera to its base, the 26-inch refracting telescope at the U.S. Naval Observatory (circa 1873) in Washington D.C. describes the stately minuets of double stars.
Because of its size, Yerkes is the grandfather of them all--and the least likely to be built.
In the sunset of the Victorian Age, the race to build the world's largest telescopes pushed technological boundaries, mostly for shaping glass, which bends under its own weight as if it were a liquid.
When plans to build a monster telescope in California were killed, Yerkes was able to secure a thrilling prize: a pair of 40-inch glass disks poured in France for a telescope bigger than any yet built.
Singing their praises as he stepped onto the roof of the observatory, astronomer Kyle Cudworth, the observatory's director, joined the shadows suspended between Earth and dimming sky.
Full story here: www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0607090191jul09,1,4668892.story?track=rss