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On the South Lawn of the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, WI stands a small building known by observatory staff as the Molleigh Dome. The 10-foot tall structure houses a computer-guided 12” Meade LX200 reflecting telescope. Entering the Molleigh Dome can be perilous; the hobbit-sized entrance leads into a cramped circular room, a full 10 degrees warmer than outside. A dim red LED strip illuminates cluttered shelves and tables holding old computer parts, telescope eyepieces, screwdrivers, lens caps, rolls of tape, penciled notes, flashlights, batteries, calculators, astronomical charts, reference books, etc. — the general miscellany found in the most enticing of places. To open the dome one has to unhook a length of rope strung through 2 tennis balls and use the old improvised pulley to, with a not inconsiderable amount of effort, pull open the dome’s slit, aided by a broomstick placed specially in the dome to help with the process. At this point, the user has probably hit his head on low-hanging appliances 5 or 6 times and is almost definitely breaking a significant sweat.
The dome is rotated manually with a little handle that looks like it came off of a child’s dresser, fixed with a few screws. If the telescope is accidentally unplugged (the exposed power strip is all too frequently victim to errant mis-steps or — in the case of the recent Magic of Astronomy star party — a herd of eager boy scouts) the long and tedious process of manually repointing and recalibrating the ‘scope must take place.
Yet, for some reason, whenever the sign-up sheet is shared with me for some observatory event or one of the live astronomy shows we stream to Japan, I’m always among the first to sign up to man the Molleigh Dome or to operate the 24” reflector ‘scope, 3 stories up in the north-east corner of the building. The long ascent up the iron spiral staircase to the 24” telescope is a timeless wormhole. Tall skinny windows like medieval arrow slits look out onto the lawn, and the tight helix snakes upward for what seems like forever. Sore calves are soothed only by the promise of a cool breeze and a clear night in the dome above.
The dome for the 24” is significantly larger and more advanced than the Molleigh Dome. The roof is controlled via remote (using a barcode scanner and a series of barcode labels a group of interns rigged up during the summer, using materials “borrowed” from the nearby Amazon warehouse) and a few buttons above the computer upon which the telescope is dependent move the telescope’s viewing platform up and down with an impressive ruckus.
Getting up to the platform can be a pain-in-the-neck (and the legs), and there are dozens of things that can go wrong with the scope — I’m reminded of the flashing lights and hideous beeping noise triggered by loose cables tangling underneath the ‘scope’s rotating base.
What comes to mind when I think of the 24” are cool summer nights spent in the dome with Williams Bay’s incredibly clear skies above and the gentle lake breeze rustling my clothes. When the dome is open there’s no border between indoors and out — it’s difficult to describe the wonder of sitting on a spinning platform suspended 35 feet in the air, sipping a drink, chatting about nothing in particular with a friend, and plucking out unimaginably distant nebulae and stars and galaxies like ripe fruit from low-hanging branches.
The observatory’s main attraction is on the opposite end of the narrow building, westward through the long marble hallway, past the great central Rotunda, under the elaborate plasterwork dotted with images of satyrs and astrological signs, and up the same imposing staircase that has been surmounted by the likes of Einstein, Sagan, and Chandrasekhar. At the top of the stairs waits a magnificent dome housing the 60 foot long, 40” inch wide, refracting telescope that Yerkes is known for. It’s an immobile beast; the 2.5 ton telescope’s magnitude gives it the same mystical aura as some ancient Mayan or Egyptian relic. When the humongous observing platform rises to meet the telescope’s eyepiece, it feels as if the entire observatory was built around the telescope’s wide blue base.
On any given weeknight the dome is filled with tourists and visiting scientists, jockeying for a chance to look through the tiny eyepiece on the telescope’s end. My favorite times, however, are those serene moments early in the morning when the observatory is nearly empty and the dome is quiet and warm. I like to ascend the stairs to the second story of the dome and lean against the railing, taking in the aroma of worn wood and oiled machinery and attempting to submerse myself in the decades of rich memories and important discoveries that have been made in the room.
In recent decades the idea of the large refracting telescope has gone out of favor. The lenses are impractical to manufacture and maintain (the telescope at Yerkes is the world’s largest and, as a matter of fact, the largest refractor that can reasonably be manufactured given cost and machinery constraints) and the image quality leaves a lot to be desired — dust in the tube and on the lens can lead to warped images and a rainbow halo around objects. It’s fitting that the most memorable and impactful experience I’ve had at Yerkes was at the behemoth 40”. The first time I was able to observe through it was a few months ago. Several tense minutes were spent trying to manually point the telescope toward Saturn. When I finally stepped forward and peered through the eyepiece, I was paralyzed with astonishment and awe. For some reason I was surprised when the ringed planet was actually visible. The rings shimmered and sparkled, and the blurry dot exploded in myriad colors caused by the lens’ endearing chromatic aberration. The experience was incredibly visceral and was orders of magnitude more engaging than any high-resolution photograph in a book could ever be. The fuzzy edges and awkward angle of the planet imbued it with an impossibly subtle and distinct beauty.
I think that humans share an inherent biological attraction to places like Yerkes. It’s the same Proustian romance that fills one up when reading books from childhood or when eating a familiar meal. Cleanliness and sterility are signs that a place hasn’t been well-loved. As a people, we are attracted to and most inspired by that with which we can identify; whether we like it or not, humans are rife with imperfections and quirks.
Most often, these commonalities manifest as shared fancies, innocent biases, and whimsical notions. When I look through Yerkes’ library’s immense card catalog, I can’t help but imagine some professor from years past thoughtfully thumbing through some of the same old volumes of Leibniz and Riemann that I have. I love anachronisms like the observatory, where one is at liberty to pass freely from bygone era to bygone era. The very principles that founded the observatory haven’t changed in over a century — it remains a temple to a seemingly lost age of intrinsic scientific wonder and progress.
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