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Yesterday, the University of Chicago, in a terse, surprise announcement, said that it intends to permanently cease operations and close historic Yerkes Observatory, which it has owned and operated since 1897. The closure is planned for October this year. It is where black holes were discovered and is one of the world’s original astrophysical laboratories, and home to what is still the world’s largest refracting telescope, the great 40-incher.

The complete news release from the University of Chicago is below.

This news apparently came as a total surprise to the staff and faculty at the observatory, located near Lake Geneva’s north shore in Williams Bay. About 10 years ago, the university sold the observatory and its approximately 80-acre lakeside site to a resort developer. The lake community, which prides itself on the conservation of natural lands and water through the region, and for which the observatory is virtually its trademark to both residents and tourists, rose up, and with the influence of university alumni and the news media, convinced the university to cancel that sale and continue operations, reinvesting in the facility and evolving from a focus on astronomical research to education.

What will become of the famed facility and its staff and faculty? No one yet knows.

Is it possible the university might donate or sell the observatory and its valuable site, which includes that last 550 feet of undeveloped shoreline on Lake Geneva, to some not-for-profit organization to operate as a museum, research or education center? Such candidates might include the observatory’s next door neighbor on the lake, George Williams College (an operation of Aurora University in Illinois), or the University of Wisconsin, or the Wisconsin Historical Society (which owns and operates the Black Point estate across the lake), or the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, or the Village of Williams Bay, or the Geneva Lake Museum?

Whatever course evolves, this grand architectural and scientific institution, which has been maintained in excellent condition for more than a century deserves resurrection and a place in the Lake Geneva area’s future, not just its past. What is needed is big thinking, that is as grand as the observatory and the universe it was built to explore. If developing that vision needs a hand, perhaps the world’s largest refracting telescope can help.

News Release from the University of Chicago:

UChicago activities at Yerkes Observatory to end in 2018

The University of Chicago has announced plans to wind down its activities at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., over the next six months and to formally cease on-site operations by Oct. 1, 2018.

The upcoming summer season will therefore be the final season of University activities at Yerkes. The University is announcing the plans well in advance in order to engage with Yerkes staff and nearby communities, including the village of Williams Bay, in considering long-term plans for the property.

Despite its important history, the Yerkes facility and its instrumentation no longer contribute directly to the research mission of the University of Chicago, which has made major investments in the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile. Yerkes has continued to make important contributions through its education and outreach programs, and that work, which remains important to the University, will now relocate to the Hyde Park campus.

“Science at Yerkes in the 20th century led to key discoveries and advances in the field of astronomy, when the observatory helped build the foundation for modern astrophysics,” said Edward (Rocky) Kolb, dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences and a professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics. “It is an important part of the history of the University, and we hope it will become, in some form, a valuable resource to the surrounding community and visitors to the Lake Geneva area.”

Since the observatory was established by the University in 1897, it has been the home of groundbreaking work by scientists such as George Ellery Hale, Edwin Hubble and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. The facility was the home of UChicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics from the time it opened until it began relocating to Hyde Park in the 1960s. In recent decades, the University’s research in observational astronomy has shifted to using facilities located all over the globe and in space.

The University and staff at Yerkes will honor existing commitments for events at the facility scheduled before Oct. 1, and will accept new bookings on a case-by-case basis.

“Unfortunately, operating Yerkes no longer makes sense for the University from a programmatic or cost standpoint. Drawing to a close our operations there is the first step in a collaborative process to determine the ultimate disposition of the buildings and property,” said David Fithian, executive vice president of the University. “We currently have no specific plans nor have we approached any potential buyers.”

Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement and external affairs, will represent the University in discussing options with the leadership of Williams Bay and its residents starting this month.



Speaking of Monday’s rare eclipse, I quite accidentally ran across the following exchange regarding a similar 1912 phenomenon, between Winston and Clementine Churchill:

Clementine was staying at the Hotel Bristol in Paris, where she had “flitted off with some friends,” after recovering from a miscarriage back in England. In her letter to Winston of April 17th, she commented: “It is so bright and warm, not a breath of wind & a cloudless sky. The (solar) eclipse was weird & it became very dark for a few moments. Everyone out in the street with bits of smoked glass. The light was strange and metallic, like lighting on the stage. Rosie has gone off to see a friend., and I am resting — the horror of the Titanic (which had sunk the night of 14-15 April with the loss of 1,513 lives)  overshadows everything. Goodby my Darling. Your very loving Clem.”


Winston wrote back April 18th from 33 Eccelston Square in London: ” My Darling — Your description of the metallic light of the eclipse is perfectly correct. I noticed it myself. It also got much colder. The Titanic disaster is the prevailing theme here. The story is a good one. The story of the great traditions of the sea towards women & children reflects nothing but honor upon our civilization. Always your loving and devoted husband, W.”


Saturday night saw us climb the historic steps of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin, for an evening of showering meteors, music wafting up from the lake shore, and fireworks over the Bay. Yerkes is the world’s first astrophysical laboratory, and home to the world’s largest conventional telescope. Visiting friends from Chicago prompted us to join Yerkes chief tour guide Richard Dreiser for a late night reverie under the annual Perseid meteor shower.

We began the evening in the darkness outside the observatory, straining our naked eyes and using binoculars to spot the first few meteors racing across the sky. We spotted several man-made satellites too, including the space station, making their slow un-twinkling progress, unlike the high airplanes with their strobing. Gradually we spotted various stars, and then the foamy Milky Way began to appear. Meanwhile soft strains of music drifted up to us from the waterside pavilion that is home to the Music By The Lake summer series at George Williams College.

Then, we walked the long corridor and up a three-story circular staircase to the dome of the 24-inch reflector. As the dome motor cranked away, and the giant curving blades parted, slight flashes reflected the fireworks show beginning a mile away at the Bay, where hundreds of pleasure boats gathered to watch. We then each had a chance to view Saturn and its rings, and M57, the spectacular summer centerpiece of the northern hemisphere night skies, pictured here. It was a magical evening under the stars.



Isn’t it curious that the spacecraft that successfully landed on Mars last night is essentially a car, not unlike those self-powered contraptions pioneered by the likes of Henry Ford? Curiosity, as it is aptly named, will explore Mars as if it were an off-road jaunt off Route 66. Next time you go for a drive in your own car, just imagine!


Fresh from the director of Yerkes Observatory at Williams Bay, Wisconsin…

…….you can watch without a telescope.

First, the Geminid meteor shower will peak on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 13-14, though there should be a reasonable number of meteors visible for a few nights before and after that. Meteors, often called shooting stars, are seen as streaks of light moving rapidly across the sky. They are actually small particles burning up as they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Earth encounters streams of these particles at specific times each year, resulting in predictable meteor showers. The August Perseid meteor shower is probably best known, but the December Geminids are often equally good (though December weather is more often cloudy and temperatures are less pleasant for spending night hours outdoors). To watch these meteors, dress very warmly, find a reasonably dark location, and look up. You should see at least several meteors in a half hour of watching, depending on how clear and dark the sky is. Geminids will appear to streak away from the constellation of Gemini, north of the well-known figure of Orion, but can be seen in any part of the sky, so watch the darkest part of your sky. Gemini will have risen in the eastern sky by 8 pm, though the best meteor viewing will be when it is much higher around and after midnight. The Moon will brighten the western sky somewhat during the first half of the night on Dec. 13-14.

The second event is a total eclipse of the Moon on Monday night and Tuesday morning December 20-21. Lunar eclipses occur when the Moon passes through Earth’s shadow. The partial phase of this eclipse will begin at 12:33 am, though there should be some shadowing visible for perhaps half an hour before that. The Moon will be totally eclipsed from 1:41 to 2:17 am, with another partial phase following totality. The Moon will move from very high in the southeast to moderately high in the west during these hours. During totality the Moon is sometimes so dim as to be almost invisible, but more often is easily visible with a reddish color. Unlike a meteor shower, where one should plan to spend quite awhile outdoors in a reasonably dark location, a lunar eclipse can be viewed by simply going outdoors a few minutes at a time anywhere, and even with a partly cloudy sky. The next total lunar eclipse visible from here will occur in mid-April 2014, an unusually long gap between such eclipses, so try to catch this one if weather permits.

It was on this day in 1969 that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon.

They were part of the Apollo 11 crew. An estimated 600 million people watched live coverage of the moon landing. (I was among them, freshly back from Vietnam, sitting on the floor of our small unfurnished apartment overlooking a parking garage on Chicago’s North Side, gasping in amazement.)

The future of mankind lies out there, in space, and yet man is so myopic, so timid and self-absorbed, that despite that brave step forward, he has since taken two steps back. Once again, the keys to the future lie in understanding the lessons of the past.

March 2018
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